Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oyster Cellars

New York Oyster Cellars of the 1800’s

From Mark Kurlansky’s “When the Oyster was Their World”, New York Times, ‘City Lore’, June 24, 2001.

The favorite way of eating oysters in New York and the Northeast was ‘raw’. In 19th century New York, oysters were opened and served raw with nothing but pepper, salt, lemon or vinegar. They were offered in bars, at street markets, in hotels and street side stands.

The oyster cellar became in New York an institution as the papaya bar, the earliest record of one is 1783 when one opened on Broad Street. These cellars were usually a few steps below street level and advertised with an oyster balloon by the stairwell. These balloons, red muslin globes, were lighted at night, usually until very late.

In 1842 when Charles Dickens, author of the phrase “solitary as an oyster” , visited New York he seemed unimpressed by the food, including a dozen-course feast in his honor at ‘Delmonico’s ‘ that began with oysters. But in spite of his assertion that Americans ate “piles of indigestible matter” ( strong language from a man whose wife made ‘suet dumplings’), he was taken with New York’s oyster cellars.

Most of the cellars were known for their rough clientele, though there were exceptions, like ‘Downing’s’ on Broad Street, which catered bankers. Dickens went to the five Points, the infamous slum near Worth and Baxter Streets, where the cellars were interspersed with sleazy dance halls.

George C Foster, a reporter for the New York Tribune w described oyster cellars in his 150 book, “New York by Gaslight” wrote, “the women of course, are all of the same kind, but among the men you would find , if you looked curiously, reverend judges and juvenile delinquents, pious and devout hypocrites and undisguised libertines and debauches”.

Down a small set of stairs from the street would be a swinging saloon door leading to a room with a bar at one end and booths at the other. Sometimes private rooms were available in the back. After mid-century the décor started to become gaudier, with ornate light fixtures and red velour curtains, sometimes, vaguely erotic paintings on the walls.

In the Mid 19th century, Canal Street was a center for oyster cellars and a widely adopted Canal Street Plan was ‘all you can eat for 6 cents’. It was rumored that cellars proprietors preserved profits by slipping a ‘bad’ oyster to customers who were eating too many. Still, customers usually ate several dozen at a 6 cent sitting, making the millions od dollars worth of oysters, $6 million in 1850 alone, according to Michael & Arian Batterberrys “On the Town in New York”, all the more impressive.

Diamond Jim Brady, the legendary New York gourmand, famously began his pretheater dinner with three dozen oysters. New York oysters were not big enough for him and he had huge ‘Lynnhaven’ oysters specially ordered from Maryland.

In the mid 19th century, floating oyster markets were built that would tie up along the Hudson and East Rivers. By the 1880’s these barges had become two stories high with elaborate ornaments.

Oyster cellers vanished late in the century when New York beds were vanishing from overuse and pollution. In 1920’s, outbreaks of typhoid fever were linked to New York oysters and in 1927 New York Harbor and the waters around Staten Island were closed to oystering.

The August 21, 1819 issue of the Dover, Delaware, American Watchman newspaper has this article; Deposits at the Savings Bank in New York City, on Saturday evening amounted to $4076 and the number of depositors were 121. The largest deposit of $1800 was made by a ‘free black’ woman who keeps an oyster cellar in downtown.

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