Book Review – Oyster: A Global History

Oyster: A Global History
Carolyn Tillie
Reaktion Books, 2017

Consider the oyster. No, I mean really. Having existed for 234 million years and having been consumed by humans in quantity for 164,000 years, they are our oldest food. Oyster shells have been found in excavations of ancient Troy and the first reference to oysters in a cookbook appears in the third century AD.

Carolyn Tillie fills her book about oysters (part of the extensive Edible Series about different foodstuffs) with a monumental quantity of facts about the history of the humble oyster, from cultivation and use, the globalized system of farming, the role oysters have played in cultures around the world, oysters as aphrodisiacs, and even how oyster farming has affected population and culture.

Once considered the food of the poor, as oysters became depleted in certain areas due to over-farming and pollution, the bi-valve rose in popularity as a food of the rich. German-Jewish immigrants to North America also broke kosher laws to enjoy oysters, justifying their indulgence with the theory that oysters were considered treyfe (forbidden) because the oysters in Palestine grew in waters that were extremely polluted.

Tillie has thoroughly researched her subject matter here and this little book is full of awesome facts and anecdotes about everything to do with oysters, often correcting common misconceptions. For instance, the “rule” about only eating oysters in a month with an “r” in it comes not from the theory that the waters might be polluted during the summer (although they might in certain places) but from the fact that oysters spawn in the warmer months and thus are less plump and flavourful. Or the incorrect theory from olde tymes that a squeeze of lemon on an oyster would kill off water-borne diseases such as typhoid or cholera.

The final chapters offer tips on buying, storing, and shucking oysters, as well as a selection of classic recipes if you’re inclined to cook your oysters rather than down them raw. Also, wonderfully, there’s a selected bibliography, a page of websites and blogs, a list of oyster-related apps, a list of oyster bars and farms, and finally an international list of oyster festivals. Phew!

Reading Tillie’s delightful work on oysters has made me feel much more knowledgeable and confident on the subject of the world’s favourite bi-valve. It’s also left me craving oysters, a problem I’ll need to do something about forthwith.

Lucky Dip – Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

In Toronto:

It’s Pi day and Sadie’s Diner (504 Adelaide Street West) is giving out free slices of pie with every meal.

The line-up has been announced for Luminato, Toronto’s annual culture and arts festival. Watch for the 1000 Tastes of Toronto event to take place on June 9th and 10th at The Distillery District.

April is looking to be all about dining out for charity with Stop For Food running at various restaurants from April 1st – 30th ($5 added to your bill will go to The Stop) and A Taste For Life taking place at restaurants all over town (and the country!) on April 25th (25% of the cost of your meal will be donated to Fife House). Best to start planning now.

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Lucky Dip – Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Occupy Toronto squatters get kicked out of the basement of St. Patrick Market, but vow to find another place to squat where they can distribute food to the poor. Oh goody, I’m sure the poor people are looking forward to that. [Toronto Star]

This is a new marketing strategy in the food world that I suspect will become a trend – distract them with an ingredient. As in, talk about the honey in the honey-glazed ham, as opposed to the ham and how it was raised. Just one a of a few scary tactics coming out of Sara Lee. [Mother Jones]

The world’s most influential chefs for the past 15 years. No Canadians, sorry. [Epicurious]

Follow that coffee. Traces of caffeine found in Montreal’s storm drains apparently mean that they city’s sewage system has a leak. Since only humans consume caffeine (and then piss it out), finding it in places where sewage isn’t supposed to be signifies a problem. [National Post]

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The Ruined Oysters

So another Summerlicious event has come and gone. I continue to be underwhelmed. This bi-annual event where Toronto restaurants offer a super-cheap prix fixe meal continues to deserve its bad rap – both in regards to cheapo customers and craptacular service.

I only did two restaurants this year, figuring it was all I could handle. Our experience at Starfish, a local oyster joint, would have gone perfectly had it not been for the service at the table next to us.

Our regular waiter was obviously one of those rare lifelong professionals and the service we received from him was exemplary. Even though we were there for the cheap lunch, he was perfect. Not so the gal who was assisting him when things got busy.

One of the appetizers was a plate of raw oysters – four oysters and two scallops to be specific. It came with lemon, horseradish and some nasty seafood sauce type thing. It was probably made in-house, but it was too reminiscent of the stuff people serve at holiday parties with a defrosted shrimp ring.

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