Editor’s note: For this installment of Laura Bien’s bi-weekly local history column she takes the Gulf oil spill as an opportunity to drill down into the local area history of oysters.
The nation-wide restaurant chain Red Lobster is pulling oysters from its menu. So are other seafood restaurants around the country.
The nation’s oldest continually-operating oyster-shucking company, New Orleans’s P&J’s, has shut down. Nearby is French Quarter neighbor Antoine’s, New Orleans’ oldest restaurant that allegedly invented the sumptuous dish Oysters Rockefeller. The restaurant has kept the recipe secret to this day.
Less occult is that restaurants around the country who rely on Gulf oysters are in trouble. According to NOAA, the Gulf supplied around 67% percent of the nation’s oysters.
Closer to home and over 150 years ago, oysters came from a different coast. Packed in barrels and whisked from New York and Chesapeake Bay to Washtenaw on trains, oysters were a popular area food.
Some were unloaded from the Ypsi train depot in 1845 and hauled to George Collins’ Oyster Saloon. Collins’ ad in the May 26, 1846 Ypsilanti Sentinel says “his stock of Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Molasses, Confectionaries, &c. &c. far surpasses any thing in the market. He has also fitted up a convenient Oyster Saloon adjoining his store, where he is prepared to serve the lovers of this luxury to the utmost of their wishes.”
Oyster saloons in general ranged from opulent dining palaces to less elaborate eateries and even dives associated with gambling and prostitution. The menu usually included raw, stewed, broiled, and fried oysters.
Ypsilanti’s James Forsyth expanded this model with his 1859 “Oyster and Billiard Saloon” on Huron between Pearl Street and Michigan Avenue. Local papers ran ads for Detroit oyster packer D. D. Mallory and the “Oyster Ocean” restaurant at Woodward and Jefferson avenues, which presumably served the bivalve. In the ’60s, Depot Town grocer W. K. Horner stocked mackerel, salmon, lobster, and live oysters.
Customers who wished to cook them at home were given their purchase in a paper oyster-pail. Numerous inventors filed patents for such paper containers for oysters in the late 19th and early 20th century. When oyster stocks declined and takeout food became more popular after World War II, it’s said the unused stocks of paper oyster pails were adopted for takeout. Today’s standard Chinese takeout comes in an oyster-pail.
Outside of home, oyster suppers were for years a popular local form of social supper. Often held in a church and combined with entertainment, the suppers were frequently fundraisers. Diners could usually choose from a variety of oyster dishes but oyster stew was a mainstay.
“The Wesleyan Guild of the Methodist church gives a novel entertainment in the church parlors next Monday evening,” wrote the January 18, 1889 Ann Arbor Argus. “It is to be a “Conversazione” where, to the music of the Chequamegons [local orchestra] five minute conversations will be enjoyed, on topics assigned by the program. An oyster supper is promised. Admission fee of 10 cents [$2.40 today].”
Everyone liked oysters, it seemed. However, one well-known Michigan man stood up against the mollusk.
Former EMU and UM student J. Harvey Kellogg took a dim view of oysters. In a talk he gave to the state horticultural society in 1907, Kellogg brought the gavel down.
He described a banquet he’d attended. “The first thing on the bill of fare was oysters. I did not want any. Why?
“In the first place, the oyster is a scavenger; his business is to lick off the slime at the bottom of the sea; you catch the oyster down there; he has got his broad lips open and licking off the slime; he likes that slime because it is full of germs . . .
He continued, “Lemon juice will kill not only oyster germs, but typhoid fever germs. Oyster germs are typhoid fever germs. That is why people get typhoid fever sometimes by eating raw oysters. If you are fond of typhoid fever germs, oysters on the half shell will be a good way to get them. The oyster lives largely on typhoid fever germs. He likes them. You can almost always find typhoid fever germs in oyster stomachs.”
At the time, Kellogg was hosting the state horticultural society at his Battle Creek San for the meeting, which included a dinner. The menu at the San banquet – or rather, the San meal – included roasted Protose, a meat substitute made of beans blended with peanut butter. Other delectables included “Nut and Rice Croquettes,” and “Wafers,” all washed down with “NoKo.”
A 1909 advertisement in the Ypsilanti Daily Press shows a gentleman who apparently did not ascribe to the austere Kellogg diet. The ad touts the “Sealshipt” method of packing oyster meats in a sanitary can. The company even offered a book about its method, should the reader be intrigued. The ad lists three Ypsilanti grocers who carried the trademark white china crock from which the oyster meats were dipped into a take-home container. The ad also shows the item of cutlery designed just for oysters: the dainty bident oyster fork.
The age of oysters, however, was slowly coming to a close.
Over the course of the 1900s, oyster stocks dwindled and the food became more expensive. In November of 1931, Ypsilanti’s elegant Huron Hotel included them in one of its weekly Sunday dinners. However, the oyster was no longer the main dish as at past oyster suppers. The entrees included grilled Mackinac trout, fried veal porterhouse, baked chicken, and filet mignon. Oysters appeared merely as an “oyster cocktail” appetizer.
Today, live oysters can be purchased from the aquaria within Hua Xing Asian Market on Washtenaw. About a dozen lay in the tank when I visited recently. They seemed like just a tiny remnant of the hundreds of thousands of oysters over the decades that once delighted diners all over Washtenaw County.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
In the last column cmadler demonstrated an almost preternatural ability to guess the weirdest of artifacts, though there were a lot of quite imaginative and reasonable ideas.
It was a revolution in stilts, invented by Ypsilantian Thomas J. Sheears [sic?] in 1873. I have not been able to find this gentleman in the old city directories. However, in the 1860 census there is a “Thomas Shears,” listed as a white Kentucky-born 25-year-old cabinetmaker living with some other unrelated possible apprentices in the home of Ypsilanti cabinetmaker and undertaker David Coon and his wife Eliza.
This week’s Mystery Artifact is an elegant item that’s sadly vanished from most modern china cabinets – come to think of it, there aren’t many of those around anymore, either. See if you can figure it out and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.