New York’s Oyster History is Alive at Grand Central
Story & photos by Marian Betancourt
When you look up at the statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt standing atop Grand Central Station, you recognize a railroad tycoon. However, Vanderbilt (1794-1877) began his working life ferrying Staten Island oysters across New York harbor to markets in Manhattan at a time when half the world’s oysters came from this fertile estuary of rivers and bays.
In 1842, approximately $6 million worth of New York oysters were sold to restaurants, vendors and markets. Like today’s hot dog stands, oyster stands proliferated all over the city selling their wares for a penny each. Oyster cellars with sawdust floors flourished throughout the city and by the end of the 19th century, New York’s 2.5 million people were eating a million oysters a day. However, after centuries of the city using the harbor as a dumping ground, New York oysters beds were so contaminated that the business was shut down permanently in 1930. After that New Yorkers had to import their oysters from elsewhere.
Vanderbilt might be pleased to know that just a few steps down in the lower level of the landmark railroad station is today’s oyster capital, the Grand Central Oyster Bar, where the love and tradition of this luscious bivalve has been in full celebration since 1913 and as many as 8,000 oysters a day—mostly farmed—provide gustatory pleasure to New Yorkers.
The annual October Oyster Frenzy, now in its eighth year, matched the finest professional shuckers in three rounds of competition based on speed and efficiency without damaging the oyster shells as Marc Ernay, sport director for WINS radio called the play. The champ for the third year in a row is Jose Francisco Valdez, former shucker turned Uber driver, who defeated the Oyster Bar’s own Antonio Aguilar in the third round.
Oyster shucking was a good job In the 19th century, although shuckers, who were paid by speed, worked 10-hour days, six days a week. Even then there were contests, rivalries between New York and New Jersey or Manhattan and Long Island, which drew large crowds as well as gamblers and newspaper reporters. The 1885 champ opened 2,300 oysters in two hours and 18 minutes without breaking any shells, according to Mark Kurlansky’s 2007 book, The Big Oyster. On a normal day at the Oyster Bar, three or four of the six staff shuckers open thousands of oysters.
A Farm to Table Comeback
Executive Chef Sandy Ingber, also known as the Bishop of Bivalves, a tall man with quick smile, has been in charge of the city’s largest oyster haul for 25 years. In the 1990s when the economy improved and farm to table movement created more interest in eating well, oyster farms began to proliferate. Today they produce 90 percent of the oysters we eat.
A hand-written plaque listing the day’s specialty oysters, usually 36 different types from the northeast and northwest, priced from $1.35 to $3.95 each, is posted above the oyster bar for the 11:30 a.m. opening that brings in commuters, tourists, celebrities, local politicians and nearby business people throughout the day.
Ingber, whose personal favorite is the Belon oyster from Maine, explained his two trains of thought about eating oysters. “If I want to taste the oyster,” he said, “I eat it naked.” (That is, the oyster is naked.) He puts it in his mouth, swirls it around, gets a sense of the texture. “For fun, I eat it with a fancy sauce.” For more ways with oysters, check out The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook by Ingber and Roy Finamore, which also includes a complete list of oyster species with taste descriptions.
Oysters Now Restoring New York Harbor
In past centuries oyster shells were used for road fill. Today, they are used to restore the harbor environment thanks to the Billion Oyster Project, a non-profit partnership of schools, business and individuals. The Oyster Bar is a founding restaurant member of BOP and today more than 70 other restaurants contribute oyster shells. Twice a week, Ingber said, BOP trucks take their collected shells to the Arthur Kill generating station on Staten Island where they are sterilized and cured for a year before being introduced into the harbor to form reefs, which help protect the harbor from storm damage. So far one million pounds of shells have been recycled and 28 million oyster seedlings planted in the reefs. Oysters open and close pumping water, thereby filtering and cleaning 25 gallons of sea water an hour. The BOP goal is to have one billion oysters living in 100 acres of reefs, by 2035.
Marian Betancourt is a contributor to Everett Potter’s Travel Report and the author of Heroes of New York Harbor: Tales from the City’s Port (Globe Pequot Press).