Greenpoint Oysters: An Old Local Tradition Revived
It seems that Greenpoint is in the midst of an oyster invasion. The Bounty (131 Greenpoint Ave.) and other places now offer dollar oysters during happy hours. Northern Territory (12 Franklin St.) hosted an Oysterfest about a week ago. And The Brooklyn Barge (3 Milton St.) and Transmitter Pier is home to the Billion Oyster Project in the East River. But actually oysters are nothing new to New York or Greeenpoint. If you want the best history of this tasty mollusk read Mark Kurlansky’s book The Big Oyster. It seems before we polluted our New York waterways there were massive oyster beds. In 1860, 12 million oysters were sold in New York markets; by 1880, our oyster beds were producing a mind boggling 700 million mollusks a year!
The waters around Greenpoint once were also teeming with shellfish. Oysters, crabs and clams were staples of the local Native Americans, the Mespeatches who descended on our area, an estuary, rich in shellfish. The natives also fashioned oyster shells into wampum, a Native American form of currency. The first European settler in Greenpoint, Dirck Volckertszen, used purple and white wampum to purchase food, furs, and other supplies he needed. Later, during the cold winter when food was scarce, local slave owners fed Greenpoint’s slaves oysters and other shellfish as a cheap source of food. It seems that for a long time the slave owners were oblivious to the delicacy they were feeding their slaves. In the 1850s and 60s local taverns gave away complimentary oysters and local kids delighted in catching and frying oysters.
There were once local fishermen who harvested local oysters. In my book Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past, I describe the sad tale of a local fisherman, Charles Primrose. He was famous for his local clam chowder, but his livelihood was destroyed in the 1870s when the oil industry’s dumping polluted Newtown Creek and its once massive beds of shellfish.
Will oyster beds ever return to Newtown Creek? Not in the near future for certain because shellfish need to live in very clean water and our local waters are still highly polluted. However, even if edible oysters haven’t returned to the creek, they have returned to our local tables.