To define nature as the wild things apart from cities is one of the great fantastic American stories. ~Jenny Price
When I pulled up a barstool at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City on a recent Monday I was famished. The lunch hour was long past and I wanted something quick and local. I selected the Lazy Mermaid oysters from Long Island to go with my Mermaid pilsner, brewed in Brooklyn. But my mermaid-themed lunch was not to be—that particular oyster was sold out. My second choice, Bathsheba (misspelled on the menu as Bathseba), another local oyster, was available.
It took me a good long time, but once I learned to appreciate oysters they reminded me—in a way that no other fish or shellfish does—of the ocean. The best ones, like the Bathsheba, taste fresh and clean and briny.
Back at a home, a few days after savoring those oysters, I reread Jenny Price’s essay Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A. and thought about my stop at the oyster bar. Grand Central Station sits in the heart of Manhattan and seems about as far removed from the natural world as one can get, but Price challenges us to consider nature in a new way—as a part of life no matter where we are.
So, I wondered, where exactly did those oysters come from. After all, Long Island is just a short train ride away from midtown Manhattan.
A Google search turned up a 2008 map of Long Island and some of its oysters, but a lot has changed since then. This 2014 New York Times story describes the resurgence in more recent years of oyster farming on the island. Overfishing, pollution, and Hurricane Sandy (2012) had all taken their toll, but Crassotrea virginica, the eastern oyster, was, and still is, making a comeback.
It was Friday afternoon and not thinking I would reach anyone I called and left a message at the Long Island Oyster Company. Steve, the proprietor and ‘oyster guy’, called me right back, but was also stumped by the Bathsheba. He promised to see what he could find out and by Monday I had my answer. The Bathsheba comes from the Great South Bay, a long narrow body of water bordered on the north by Long Island and the south by Fire Island, the original home of the famous Blue Point oyster, known for its mild, but salty flavor.
So now I know a little bit more about my lunch, but find I have a lot more questions. What role does the oyster play in the health of the bay? How much risk is there of another hurricane destroying the new oyster beds? How exactly does a Bathsheba oyster make the journey from the floor of the bay to the ice-filled trays at the Grand Central Oyster Bar?
Those questions will have to wait for another day, another afternoon at the oyster bar, maybe even a trip out to the Great South Bay of Long Island.