Friday, December 22, 2017

Oysters and Barbecue: Joseph Mitchell

“It’s hard to believe nowadays, the water’s so dirty,” he [Mr. Hunter] continued, “but up until about the year 1800 there were tremendous big beds of natural-growth oysters all around Staten Island—in the Lower Bay, in the Arthur Kill, in the Kill van Kull. Some of the richest beds of oysters in the entire country were out in the lower part of the Lower Bay, the part known as Raritan Bay. Most of them were on shoals, under ten to twenty feet of water. They were supposed to be public beds, open to anybody, but they were mainly worked by Staten Islanders, and the Staten Islanders considered they owned them. Between 1800 and 1820, all but the very deepest of these beds gradually petered out. They had been raked and scraped until they weren’t worth working any more. But the Staten Islanders didn’t give up. What they did, they began to bring immature oysters from other localities and put them on the best of the old beds and leave them there until they reached market size, which took from one to four years, all according to how mature the oysters were to begin with. Then they’d rake them up, or tong them up, and load them on boats, and send them up the bay to the wholesalers in New York. They took great pains with these oysters. They cleaned the empty shells and bottom trash off the beds that they put them on, and they spread them out as evenly as possible. Handled this way, oysters grew faster than they did all scrouged together on natural beds. Also, they grew more uniform in size and shape. Also, they had a better flavor. Also, they brought higher prices, premium prices. The center of the business was the little town of Prince’s Bay, over on the outside shore. There’s not much to Prince’s Bay now, but it used to be one of the busiest oyster ports on the Atlantic Coast.

And once a year, to raise money for church upkeep, we’d put on an ox roast, what they call a barbecue nowadays. A Southern man named Steve Davis would do the roasting. There were tricks to it that only he knew. He’d dig a pit in the churchyard, and then a little off to one side he’d burn a pile of hickory logs until he had a big bed of red-hot coals, and then he’d fill the pit about half full of coals, and then he’d set some iron rods across the pit, and then he’d lay a couple of sides of beef on the rods and let them roast. Every now and then, he’d shovel some more coals into the pit, and then he’d turn the sides of beef and baste them with pepper sauce, or whatever it was he had in that bottle of his, and the beef would drip and sputter and sizzle, and the smoke from the hickory coals would flavor it to perfection. People all over the South Shore would set aside that day and come to the African Methodist ox roast. All the big oyster captains in Prince’s Bay would come. Captain Phil De Waters would come, and Captain Abraham Manee and Captain William Haughwout and Captain Peter Polworth and good old Captain George Newbury, and a dozen others. And we’d eat and laugh and joke with each other over who could hold the most.

“All through the eighties, and all through the nineties, and right on up to around 1910, that’s the way it was in Sandy Ground. Then the water went bad. The oystermen had known for a long time that the water in the Lower Bay was getting dirty, and they used to talk about it, and worry about it, but they didn’t have any idea how bad it was until around 1910, when reports began to circulate that cases of typhoid fever had been traced to the eating of Staten Island oysters. The oyster wholesalers in New York were the unseen powers in the Staten Island oyster business; they advanced the money to build boats and buy Southern seed stock. When the typhoid talk got started, most of them decided they didn’t want to risk their money any more, and the business went into a decline, and then, in 1916, the Department of Health stepped in and condemned the beds, and that was that. The men in Sandy Ground had to scratch around and look for something else to do, and it wasn’t easy. Mr. George Ed Henman got a job working on a garbage wagon for the city, and Mr. James McCoy became the janitor of a public school, and Mr. Jacob Finney went to work as a porter on Ellis Island, and one did this and one did that. A lot of the life went out of the settlement, and a kind of don’t-care attitude set in. The church was especially hard hit. Many of the young men and women moved away, and several whole families, and the membership went down. The men who owned oyster sloops had been the main support of the church, and they began to give dimes where they used to give dollars. Steve Davis died, and it turned out nobody else knew how to roast an ox, so we had to give up the ox roasts. For some years, we put on clambakes instead, and then clams got too expensive, and we had to give up the clambakes.

From: Mr Hunter's Grave, Joseph Mitchell

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