A visit to a New York food market in the 1830s

Posted · Add Comment

Christopher Hirst agrees with Frederick Marryat’s critical view of the New York oyster

Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), the novelist best known for Mr Midshipman Easy, wrote his Diary in America after a contentious visit in the late 1830s, when his opinions led to him being threatened by a mob and burned in effigy. Almost 200 years on, I found myself agreeing with his views on American oysters. The famous Bluepoints from the waters around New York tend to be somewhat bland but even these are pleasingly saline compared to the utterly flavour-free oysters of New Orleans and environs. No wonder this region also produced the marvellous Tabasco pepper sauce that enlivens the monster bivalves of the locale. When I made this point to a senior executive of Acme Oysters on Ibreville Street, New Orleans, his reaction was akin to his compatriots’ irritation with Captain Marryat: ‘Why, they’re the best in the world!’ As for oysters from the British Isles tasting strongly of copper, I would have disputed this until I participated in a tasting of oysters from a dozen or so producers at Billingsgate Fish Market a few years ago. After it had been pointed out to me, I had to agreed that many of these have a distinct metallic tang on the palate. Not unpleasant but certainly there. CH

I have been in the game market, at New York, and seen at one time nearly 300 head of deer, with quantities of bear, racoons, wild turkies, geese, ducks and every variety of bird in countless profusion. Bear I abominate, racoon is pretty good. The wild turkey is excellent; but the great delicacies in America are the terrapin and the canvas-back ducks. To the first I consider as rather an acquired taste. I decidedly prefer the turtle, which are to be had in plenty, all the year round; but the canvas-back duck is certainly well worthy of its reputation. Fish is well supplied. They have the sheep’s head [a saltwater fish from the Atlantic], shad, and one or two others, which we have not. Their salmon is not equal to ours, and they have no turbot. Pine-apples, and almost all the tropical fruits, are hawked about in carts in the Eastern cities; but I consider the fruits of the temperate zone such as grapes, peaches, &c., inferior to the English. Oysters are very plentiful, very large, and to an English palate, rather insipid. As the Americans assert that the English and French oysters taste of copper, and therefore they cannot eat them, I presume they do; and that’s the reason why we do not like the American oysters, copper being better than no flavour at all.

From A Diary in America by Frederick Marryat (1839)