Whence thou, oysters?
November 2, 2012 12:52 PM   Subscribe

How and why did Europeans eat so many oysters during the dark and middle ages?

I've been reading about culinary history, and I keep finding references to people all over Europe eating, it seems, tons and tons of oysters for hundreds of years. I've even seen references to people who liked oysters so much that they ate them even if they were rotten! I seem to recall that one of the Louies was supposed to have eaten something like four dozen oysters for breakfast.

How did they manage this? Was the supply running so quickly that oysters were relatively fresh, even far from the coast, or did they have some way of transporting them alive or what? Or is it that a population of plague survivors living among sewage had hearty enough immune systems that eating rancid oysters was no problem?

I know oysters and shellfish have been food staples for lots of groups of humans, but why the seeming obsession across all of Europe? Why did it die down?
posted by cmoj to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oysters where given all kinds of magical, medical, aphrodisiac properties.

They also used to be much, much more populous.
posted by The Whelk at 1:13 PM on November 2, 2012

Four dozen oysters might seem like a lot, but it's not that much food. An oyster is about 10 calories. If you're eating oysters for food energy, rather than as a little treat, you're going to be eating a lot of them.
posted by ryanrs at 1:33 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It used to be commonplace to pickle oysters so they could be transported far from the coasts without rotting. And yeah, there were a lot of them.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 1:34 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How did they manage this? Was the supply running so quickly that oysters were relatively fresh, even far from the coast, or did they have some way of transporting them alive or what?

Transportation systems for fresh oysters and artificial oyster beds have been in use in Europe since the Roman period. (Old document with illustrations here, brief history of the oyster in Britain here.) One of the Vindolanda tablets (found close to Hadrian's Wall) records a gift of 50 oysters sent to a soldier. While it's not clear from where they were sent, Vindolanda isn't right by the coast, so they were transported some distance.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:45 PM on November 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

In his diaries, Samuel Pepys eats oysters frequently and often gives a barrel of them as a casual gift:

"Thence I by coach home to the office, and there intending a meeting, but nobody being there but myself and Sir J. Minnes, who is worse than nothing, I did not answer any body, but kept to my business in the office till night, and then Sir W. Batten and Sir W. Pen to me, and thence to Sir W. Batten’s, and eat a barrel of oysters I did give them, and so home, and to bed."

I have wondered at exactly how large these barrels were.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 1:45 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have wondered at exactly how large these barrels were.

Not very, alas.

Samuel Pepys ate oysters from 'a barrel', but in reality the barrel was about 12 inches high
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:48 PM on November 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

(Have you read Courtesans and Fishcakes yet? It's mainly about the obsession with seafood in ancient Athens.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:55 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

BTW, you don't need to look at ancient Europe. Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century was completely oyster mad. Everyone eating dozens of them at a time. They were considered poor people's food, and entire districts (especially around Canal Street) were devoted to oyster houses.

I wonder how quality compared. I'm guessing they rocked.

Actually, the above statement isn't quite right. They were poor people's food, for sure....you could load up on them (and a beer) for like a nickel. But Diamond Jim Brady would always start his dinner with a few dozen of them (Here's a great biography with descriptions of his epic meals).
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:00 PM on November 2, 2012

There's a whole part of "Up in the Old Hotel" that talks about the oysters in Manhattan. Here's a bit of it (scroll down past the construction story) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/newyork-oysters/
posted by bink at 2:48 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cheap, available protein.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:31 PM on November 2, 2012

Best answer: Yeah, oysters were cheap just about everywhere until quite recently. My parents even remember them as poor people's food when they were growing up (and ate so many themselves they got sick of them). That would have been in the 1940s.

As for freshness, I'm guessing in medieval times they were generally preserved. Pickled, salted, packed in alcohol or oil maybe? put in pies (a sealed pie crust keeps air (and therefore germs) out quite well, and cooking the pie kills everything already in there. A cooked pie done in the English medieval way can last several weeks without refrigeration even with seafood or chicken in it - I've eaten the results of recreationists' experiments!).

Also a lot of the Europe that we have medieval records from was not THAT far from the coast. Another possibility is that the word "oyster" may have been used for a broader class of shellfish including various freshwater shellfish? (I'm just speculating here.) There certainly are varieties of oyster that grow in freshwater, but I don't know whether they were around or widespread in medieval europe.

And finally, yes, I expect they were more okay with "off" oysters than we would be today. There's a difference between something that is slightly rancid and something that is going to give you fatal food poisoning and people were more used to eating (and disguising) slightly rotten meats and fish back then. I've lived in places without refrigeration on fieldwork trips, and the locals are cool with eating meat and fish that has been sitting around (outside in tropical temperatures!) for a couple of days, both pre- and post-cooking. Surprisingly it often doesn't even taste bad, and I never got food poisoning, nor knew anyone else who did.
posted by lollusc at 5:39 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ecologically, oysters and other shellfish have been an important food source in Coastal Europe essentially since modern humans arrived. They could be gathered even by children (therefore not taking labor away from hunting and/or farming), could not be to be destroyed or stolen by marauders, and would remain plentiful in drought or cold years in a way that, say, rabbits, would not. In terms of overall calories they weren't so important, but in terms of a food source that could make the difference between starving and not starving, more important than you might think.

Culturally, keep in mind that in Medieval and Early Modern Europe the eating of meat was prohibited during Advent and Lent, on Fridays, and on a number of other days throughout the year. Since fish and other aquatic animals were not considered meat, consistent access to seafood was very important to high-status individuals who generally still expected to sit at a lavish table during these times of "fasting". Most all the population of Europe was either on the coast at this time, or else not that far upriver from the coast, as water made up the majority of the continent's transportation network.
posted by psycheslamp at 5:47 PM on November 2, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. I'll be reading all of these, but I best answer'd the ones I felt specifically addressed the wondering about Europe.

I just had a, "wtf how is this what I do?" moment realizing I'm trying to become an expert on medieval European oyster consumption.
posted by cmoj at 9:53 AM on November 3, 2012

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