After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise. (The Age of Innocence 63)
Even though Edith Wharton is known as a prominent female writer during the Modernist period, The Age of Innocence depicts high society New York during the Victorian Age. This might have been the reason why this novel was included in the course about Victorian literature – it gives a vivid representation of what it might have been like to be witness Old New York in the 1870s.
The quote describes the various courses at the dinner between Newland Archer, the novel’s protagonist, and Mr. Letterblair, an “accredited legal adviser of three generations of New York gentility” (Wharton 59). The narrator explains that the two men dined “copiously and slowly,” as well as “deliberately and deeply” (Wharton 63), indicating the importance of dinner and being able to savor every flavor and dish.
At least for Mr. Letterblair and others of the upper class who regularly ate formal meals with multiple courses, one can assume that the quality must have been just as essential as quantity, since they mention so many dishes. While they do indicate many important and historical food different items, like corn fritters and canvas-back, I am going to be delving deeper into the significance of the “velvety oyster soup,” since it is the only dish that comes with a gastronomical description.
Because this novel takes place in 1870s New York, it is only fitting to include a reference to oysters. New York today may be the place of bagels and smear, street hot dogs, and cheesecake, but in the 19th century New York was all about the oyster. Oysters were so abundant that Ellis Island and Liberty Island were known as Little Oyster Island and Big Oyster Island; however, “by the early 19th century, the most prolific oyster beds around Manhattan and Staten Island were nearly played out, and for the remainder of the century, New York, like a great, gobbling maw, would eat its way up and down the coast of Long Island, overconsuming and polluting the oyster nigh unto extinction” (Grimes). By the late 1920s, the oysters from New York were too polluted and the last few oyster beds were closed. Oysters from New York are still not edible today (Nigro).
What is interesting is that, unlike what I expected, being able to eat oysters in the late 19th century did not mean you were particularly wealthy. “Unlike the lobster or the canvasback duck, its value was not a function of scarcity” and oysters were not only eaten in high-end restaurants, but were also sold by street vendors (Grimes). Everybody, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, ate oysters!
While Mr. Letterblair’s canvas-back probably displayed his wealth and status in society more than the oyster soup, the fact that this soup is only the first course emphasizes his ability to present more food than the average New Yorker at the time, when some only ate oysters and bread (Nigro).
It is interesting that Wharton would slip in a small detail like oyster soup in her novel. Even though it takes place in the 1870s, Wharton’s personal experiences as someone of high society during the 1920s would have exposed her to the events surrounding the diminishing abundance of oysters in New York. It is amazing how such a seemingly insignificant detail so casually mentioned could hide such rich history of the culture enveloping the novel’s characters, as well as the author herself.
I have probably been the most apprehensive about this post because I had never eaten an oyster before this. While I do like pretty much every other shellfish I have had, I was worried that I would make this oyster stew and end up really not liking the taste.
So, I got a can or two of smoked oysters just to try it out beforehand. And…I really liked it! They reminded me slightly of a mix between clams and sardines. After that hurdle, I knew I was ready to cook the stew.
Upon taking the fresh oysters out of the jar, I was surprised at how big some of them are! (Keep in mind I did not really know much about oysters before this week.)
As I was looking for oyster stew recipes, I wanted to find one that would match the “velvety” description in the novel, and I found the perfect one from Fat of the Land; it was very easy to follow the directions. I only made half of the recipe, though, just in case this oyster stew was not my cup of tea. I think it turned out pretty nicely!
1 cup celery, minced (about 3 ribs)
1 shallot, minced (3 tbsp)
1 large potato, chopped
4 tbsp butter
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 limit large oysters (or 2 12 oz jars)
salt and white pepper
fresh parsley, chopped for garnish
1. In a heavy pot saute shallot in butter over medium heat. Add potatoes and celery, season, and saute for 15 minutes.
2. Add 3 cups milk and cook just below simmer until potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes.
3. Use an immersion blender or food processor to blend milk and vegetables.
4. Add heavy cream, then oysters and their liquor. (I chopped up my big oysters into bite-size pieces.) Oysters are done when edges curl. Serve immediately with hot sauce.
Grimes, William. “Before There Were Bagels, New York Had the Oyster.” New Work Times. March 1, 2006. <http://events.nytimes.com/2006/03/01/books/01grim.html?_r=1&>
Nigro, Carmen. “History on the Half-Shell: The story of New York City and its oysters.” NYC Neighborhoods. New York Public Library. June 2, 2011. <http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/01/history-half-shell-intertwined-story-new-york-city-and-its-oysters>
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Dover, 1997. Print.