What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Big Oyster:
History on the Half Shell

by Mark Kurlansky

Field-Tested by Kathie Fries Holsenbeck

in Tulum, Mexico

During a Christmas trip to Tulum, Mexico with my husband’s family, I unwillingly read The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky. Before I opened the pages of this book, I was happily reading John Grisham’s first foray into nonfiction, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. Sadly, because Grisham did such a good job, I finished it by the third day of our trip, with nothing but gossip rags left to read.

Also during those first three days, at every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we all gritted our teeth and listened to yet another oyster antidote from my mother-in-law, Diane. She was reading this “fabulous” book about the history of oysters. Did we know that “in the 1600s New York’s Hudson Bay was filled with sea lions, millions of striped-bass, and oysters that were the size of Frisbees?” It became a joke between my husband, sister-in-law, and me as we walked along the Mayan beaches and toured underwater caves called cenotes. “Hey guys, have you heard that J.P. Morgan ate 100 oysters in one sitting?” Or, “I wonder what an oyster would think of this star-fish?”

As we decompressed and relaxed into the week, and after opening Christmas presents, I made the mistake of exclaiming I had not brought enough books for our 8-day trip. “Not to worry” said Diane, “I just finished my oyster book. You can read that!” Alex, my husband, totally cracked up as he put his nose back in to his latest historical novel.

I absolutely hate doing anything my mother-in-law tells me to do. It’s nothing personal — I also absolutely hate doing anything my own mother tells me to do. But, after a full day of nothing to read at the beach, I succumbed and was entranced by what turned out to be a fascinating ecological and epicurean history of New York City. Did you know that Manhattan was known for its unique sweet smell when the Dutch first settled? And that during the Industrial Revolution they had to ban the eating of oysters because the Hudson had become so polluted that it actually bubbled?

History on the Half Shell made me realize that Tulum, and the rest of the Mayan Riviera, so pristine like New York Harbor must have been, may be at risk of the same fate. Tourism is spreading farther and farther south from Cancun, and waste removal is largely unregulated like the New York of late-1800s. Yet, on a lighter note, I also realized that my mother-in-law has pretty good taste in books. I spent the rest of trip in wonderful conversations with her about oysters and New York — much to the chagrin Alex and his little sister.

Kathie Fries Holsenbeck is a graduate student in Creative Writing at DePaul University in Chicago.

Buy The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell