I don’t know about you, but I don’t like oysters – they’re slimy, they look weird and they taste like the sea. So perhaps I was affected more than your average person when I recently had the task of analysing an assemblage of artefacts that provided an abundance of similarly decorated stoneware jars. These jars were all the same form, one which I had never come across before. A quick internet search determined that some collectors refer to these as ‘oyster jars’ – this was an unfamiliar term for me, and it piqued my curiosity. Further research revealed that the canning and pickling of oysters was a common enterprise in 19th century Canterbury and around the world!
Now, not being a fan of them, the idea of other people not only eating oysters, but eating old oysters, wasn’t appetising. But I looked at a few recipes online and, actually, the concept didn’t seem so bad – vinegar and cayenne pepper form a part of my regular diet…
Normally, it is difficult to determine the original contents of a vessel without manufacturer labels. In fact, jars and bottles with wide mouths like the ones from my assemblage may have been used to store or pickle any number of food or condiment varieties, or even viscous household items like glue or shoe polish. This being said, the large number of oyster shells that were found in the rubbish pit alongside the jars did suggest that these two items were related in this instance – and it is possible that the 19th century family that lived in the associated Rangiora house pickled their own oysters.
The canning and preserving of oysters has taken place since 1850 (Hunt 2010), and oysters have been a commonly consumed fresh food resource here and around the world since ancient times – their consumption can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, and they are commonly found in early Māori rubbish deposits (referred to by Māori as tio). European industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries made these slippery morsels readily available to everyone and saw them become the great unifier – enjoyed by the wealthy and the poor. It was during this period that New York became the oyster capital of the world and it is said that in any day during this late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the New York harbour waterfront (Happillion 2016). The catch was sold to New Yorkers everywhere from street corners to high class restaurants and in every way imaginable – in the half shell, roasted and in stews.
So ingrained were oysters in 19th century popular culture they can be seen everywhere – we witness the lure of an oyster meal for both the working class and the upper class alike in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 The Walrus and the Carpenter poem, from Through the Looking Glass. In this classic children’s story, we see the overweight and well-dressed walrus swindle the hardworking carpenter out of his oyster meal, while tricking the unlucky and naïve oysters into taking part in a buffet where they’re on the menu. Perhaps not all of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were based on nonsense?
From the 1860s oysters were increasingly popular among European settlers in the colonies, and by the 1880s New Zealand joined the oyster craze with the emergence of the oyster saloon – otherwise known as the ‘oyster bar’, the ‘oyster house’ or the ‘raw bar’. Such establishments sought to offer the freshest and tastiest oysters available – generally claiming to provide fresh stock daily (New Zealand Tablet 7/8/1896: 14). Now this may not always have been the case – oysters were available locally in Christchurch and Lyttelton, but the ever popular Stewart Island beds were also supplying to Canterbury during this period (Star 17/4/1875: 1). It was during this time that Christchurch saw the emergence of several fine dining oyster options – Cashel Street’s Café De Paris provided not only the finest oysters night or day, but also quality beverages, operatic entertainment and a separate section for ladies. The establishment claimed to be ‘the best in the colony’ and its success lasted well into the 20th century.
At the opposite end of the etiquette scale, the more typical oyster saloon quickly became synonymous with drinking – being one of the only places to purchase cheap food late at night, as an accompaniment to beer. The phrase ‘red light’ district’ was derived from New York oyster bars, which put up red balloons to indicate that the oysters had arrived, and in London, the lighthouse building at King’s Cross flashed a beam from its turret (Smith 2015). Unsurprisingly, these establishments also developed a reputation as houses of vice – news reports from this era are frequently linked to crime –anything from publicans supplying liquor without licences (Press 2/11/1901: 7) and the use of obscene language (Star 27/7/1885: 3) to violent encounters between patrons – male and female (Press 15/7/1881: 2). There are even reports of violence between patrons and establishment owners – take this report for example: three individuals named Maloney, Larsen and Creasey (these names reminded us of some sort of gangster pantomime), got into an altercation with an oyster bar proprietor, who stabbed Maloney in the side and wounded his side-kick (Grey River Argus 26/5/1898: 4). Such reports are accompanied by letters from concerned Cantabrians, who write into the paper questioning the appropriateness of such establishments being located “under the shadow of the cathedral spire” (Star 14/3/1882: 2).
Further connections were made between the oyster’s aphrodisiac qualities and Victorian vice in the popular 19th century erotic magazine The Oyster, which was printed and distributed privately in London from 1883. This publication and its predecessor, The Pearl, were banned, and its author was prosecuted for the risqué content – which you can see for yourself did not consist of mere pictures of ladies’ ankles (reproductions of the issues are still available on Amazon. This is interesting stuff from before the times when science made the link between oysters being a food source high in zinc (which raises testosterone levels), as well as a source of rare amino acids that increase levels of sex hormones in men and women. Such nutritional values were also possibly known to 18th century Casanova – who reputedly consumed 50 oysters for breakfast daily, and claimed to have seduced 122 women. Or perhaps he was part of the tradition that saw oysters as an aphrodisiac due to their visual similarities with their form and that of the female anatomy…? (Schulman 2008).
Looking back further – Aphrodite (goddess of love and sex) was born from a mollusc shell and the ancient Roman physician, Galen of Pergamon, described oysters as aphrodisiacs because they were a food that was moist and warm… This being said, Galen said the same for all ‘windy’ foods (those which produce gas – if that’s what you’re into), and going even further back, Babylonians looking to increase sexual appetites bit the heads off partridges, ate their hearts and drank their blood, while the ancient Greeks dined on sparrow brains to produce a similar effect (Thring 2011; Camphausen 1999; Hoppe 2015). But I digress…
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the reign of the humble yet hazardous oyster saloon was not to last. One can still frequent bars that specialise exclusively in oyster delicacies in cities larger than Christchurch, but over-consumption and the subsequent depletion of our local marine resources saw the end of the oyster as an abundant, ‘cheap and cheerful’ food source. Our government began to intervene as early as 1866, with the Oyster Fisheries Act, which introduced licencing, a fishing season and the creation of artificial beds (New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18/8/1865).
As a result, oysters eventually claimed their modern status as a luxury item, to be afforded and consumed by the wealthy, or saved for special occasions. The basic idea of the oyster saloon itself evolved into what we now think of as the fish and chip shop, where we are provided with a bevy of convenient and inexpensive (and fried) seafood options. So the tradition isn’t completely dead… But maybe don’t start a bar fight on your next visit your local fish n’ chippy.
Anonymous 2016. The Oyster Vol. 1: The Victorian Underground Magazine of Erotica (online) Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Oyster-Vol-Victorian-Underground-Magazine-ebook/dp/B000MAH5H4.
Camphausen, R. C. 1999. The Encyclopaedia of Sacred Sexuality. Inner Traditions International, Rochester.
Grey River Argus. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016].
Happillion, C. 2016. The History of Oysters. [online] available at: http://theoystergourmet.com/the-story-of-oysters.
Hoppe, D. Aphrodisiacs in History. Diana Hope, M.D., INCS. [online] Available at: http://www.drdianahoppe.com/aphrodisiacs-in-history-part-1/
Hunt A., L. 2010. Fruits and Vegetables, Fish, and Oysters, Canning and Preserving. Nabu Press, Charleston.
Lincoln, M., J., B. 1884. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Roberts Brothers. [online] Available at: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/books/mrslincoln/linc.pdf
New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18 August 1865 P326
New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]
New Zealand Tablet. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]
Shulman M., 2008. The Science of Aphrodisiacs In U.S News & World Report 19/05/2008. [online] available at: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/sexual-and-reproductive-health/articles/2008/08/19/the-science-of-aphrodisiacs [Accessed May 2016]
Smith, D. 2015. Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes). Abrams, New York.
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016]
Thring, O., 2011. Aphrodisiacs: the food of love? In The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/feb/11/aphrodisiacs-food-of-love. [Accessed May 2016]