O O ysters in New York City are enjoying quite a run, with enthusiasm equaling the love showered upon lobster rolls before them. It’s no coincidence that the dining scene’s bivalve boom comes at a time when Long Island oyster cultivation is experiencing a tremendous resurgence, perhaps not to historic levels -- it’s unlikely New Yorkers will ever again eat oysters at the rates consumed 100 years ago, though it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if they did -- but certainly enough to merit genuine excitement. To bathe your next happy hour seafood tower in the salty brine of knowledge, here’s a basic primer on Long Island oysters, covering history, types, and the current state of affairs.
Long Island’s fertile beds were already prized by Native Americans before the arrival of the first settlers, who immediately recognized their value -- and almost as immediately commenced to overharvesting. No matter what else they might have accomplished in life, Samuel Youngs, James Farley, and Amaziah Wheeler will be forever linked to one of Long Island’s first laws (circa 1784) regulating oystering, passed in response to the three non-residents making off with an overabundance of Oyster Bay’s namesake.
I I n its 33rd year, the Long Island Oyster Festival now draws between 150- and 200,000 people to Oyster Bay annually to slurp half-shells by the tens of thousands. Given that, it’s surprising that Long Island’s oyster industry has only climbed back over the past decade or so. Whereas the old model was built on larger companies harvesting thousands of underwater acres (only one of those companies, the venerable Frank M Flowers and Sons, remains), the resurgence is being led by sophisticated boutique operations.
L L ong Island oystering has historically been a volatile industry, with gold rush-like peaks and devastating valleys. Earlier revivals have petered out thanks to brown tides and hurricanes. But even in the case of the latter, the solution might be more oysters. In New York Harbor today, the Billion Oysters Project seeks to repopulate the waterway with… a billion oysters, give or take. Playing off that effort, another project, The Living Breakwaters, is attempting to build literal walls of shellfish in order to disrupt the energy of incoming waves. The first go of it is happening off Staten Island, which was absolutely devastated by Sandy. If it works there, it could work in, say, Oyster Bay, providing long-term stability for humans and bivalves alike.