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.