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Can you imagine going to your favorite fast food restaurant, and ordering a burger with a side of – oysters? Of course not! After all, oysters are a fancy food served only at expensive restaurants, right?

That may be true today, since oysters are relatively hard to come by. But back in the 1800s, oysters were sold on every other street corner in coastal cities like New York. In fact, they were so plentiful and cheap that they were considered poor folks’ food, and preceded hot dogs as the first fast food sold by street vendors!

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During Colonial times, the east coast had produced enormous amounts of oysters, each region having its own special types. Oyster shells were even used in the foundations of buildings from Boston to New York as well as for paving pathways and roads.

By the middle of the 1800s, New York City had become an “oyster capital” supplying millions of oysters to London and Paris as well as to American cities and towns.  Little restaurants called “oyster cellars” proliferated across the city. And a quick look at any 19th-century cookbook shows entire sections of recipes devoted to oyster dishes. They were served roasted, creamed, broiled, fried, spiced, pickled and scalloped, and in dishes such as oyster pie, oyster patties, oyster macaroni, oyster toast and oyster omelets.  

So why did oysters go from being a cheap source of protein for the masses to a pricey delicacy for the few? What happened? Overharvesting is a term used to describe harvesting of a natural resource that exceeds the ability of that resource to reproduce itself. Oysters require time to mature and reproduce, but shortsighted merchants saw only the quick profits to be made by harvesting as many oysters as they possibly could as quickly as they possibly could.

Click here to see photos of the Union Oyster House through the years.

Click here to see photos of the Union Oyster House through the years.

In addition, the growth of industries along the eastern seaboard led to pollution of the waters where oysters lived. Waste poured into the ocean destroyed natural habitats, and made remaining oysters unfit to eat. Today, there are organizations committed to restoring natural habitats and cultivating oysters. And, if you’d like to experience a taste of the 19th-century oyster craze, you can still visit the oldest continuing restaurant in the country, the Union Oyster House in Boston. 

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