Friday, 23 May 2008

The language of oysters

The history of the oyster intersects human civilisation at many key points. The connections are intimate and fundamental. The oyster was an early article of trade going right back to Phoenician times and earlier into the megalithic period. It was an early token to attract taxes, levies, rents and other impositions, not just in Europe but by the natives of the South Sea Islands too. More recently, in Long Island, Chesapeake and before that in London, Amsterdam and Rome, the cut and thrust of hiring men, pricing a catch, getting it to market, wholesaling and retailing would have been a commerce that informed the trading cultures in pure city capitalism.

The oystermen developed their own necessary lingua franca of bushels, pecks, gallons and quarts, not to mention barrels and baskets to determine (or usually in the oyster’s case not to determine) weights and measures. In New York in 1858 it was laid down that a cart man could charge 31 cents for a load of oysters as against 25 cents for bricks but 75 cents for furniture

The oyster seems to infuse the very language we use with new energy. In English alone, the word for an estuary has its own regional declensions around the globe so we have a rich panoply from bayou to creek to sound to inlet to lagoon to bay, a firth or a fal, depending where you are.

The boats built for oystering are not boats at all but arks, scows, smacks, yarls, bisquines, bugeyes, borleys, catboats, sharpies, shallops, sloops, skiffs and skipjacks.

In French we have phonetic masterpieces like détroquage, (moving oysters for the first time) ambulance (cages), vagabondage (the period when the spat are swimming) words as redolent and understandable as if they were in English and barely in need explanation, and show how the closeness of oyster communities in different countries might have transformed each others language and lifestyle.

In the Thames, oystering even had its own glorious rich onomatopoeic jargon. The talk was of whitesick (spawning); hockley (shell open); curdley (full of eggs); grandmother, clod or dumpy (unwell): clock (an empty shell). Predators were called tingles (whelks); squalders and gurleys (jellyfish); bungalows (clumps of limpets); chitters and nuns (barnacles); blubber and pissers (sea squirts). Sea urchins were barrs, burrs, waterchestnuts or sea eggs. New York oystermen talked of an oyster spitting, as in releasing its seed, hence spat.

First generation politics was born on the waterfront and proliferated its own raft of edicts, laws and pronouncements from kings, councillors, captains and anyone who deemed they had an authority to challenge for ownership of the bounty of the sea beds. Some of this was petty, parochial or pious but nevertheless defined the relationship between state and county; county and port; enfranchised and disenfranchised, land owner and boat man all of which was a rich school of learning for the would-be lawyer and litigator. Disputes between barons, councils, corporations, fishermen in Essex, England date back to Magna Carter and were still (possibly still are) being fought over in the courts in the 1960s, and were just a dress rehearsal for litigants in the Chesapeake and Hudson rivers.

A comparison of how the English have maintained (or not) their beds as compared to how the French have looked after theirs is a challenging case study in politics, law and bureaucracy and the very role of government in society.

Armies and navies have been created to defend oyster interests. Columbus was originally commissioned to sail for the Americas, or what he thought would be Asia, specifically not just to find gold but also to find pearls and the mother-of-pearl in oyster shells, which he did in Venezuela. It was here at Cubagua Island that slavery was first institutionalised and flourished and would inform centuries of exploitation of native peoples across three continents.

In science, the oyster has defied analysis. The French were able to save their industry from collapse in the mid 1850s by borrowing on techniques developed by the Romans in the Bay of Naples, but they and the rest of us have since too often been helpless when faced with pollution, new diseases, and storms that have brought the oysters to the edge of extinction in some parts of the globe. The new science of aquaculture promises much, but is still largely in its infancy, the sheer minuteness of the plankton on which the oyster is so expert, defying our imagination. And, as with mankind, the migration of different species around the globe has brought with it attendant conflicts.

In gastronomy the oyster is pre-eminent. There are as many recipes for cooking an oyster as there are for preparing eggs. The purest form of eating an oyster is freshly shucked on the shell – chew, savour and swallow. Larger oysters, those deemed to be less good quality, or those raised in warmer waters and any glut always went to the kitchen. Few foods can claim to have been lavished with such invention and culinary guile unusually, even uniquely, in surprisingly different ways around the world.

The imagery of oysters is entrenched in national consciousnesses. In England the smacks lined up beside Billingsgate fish market and the costermongers treading the streets selling to rich and poor, the oyster became a postage stamp of Victorian London; in France the oyster has for centuries been a source of pride, proof of Gallic defiance against the Romans, and against the dangers of the sea; for the Romans it was associated with both lasciviousness and omnipotence; in America it became an icon of the American dream and the way it was traded forged the ideals of the American Way. In Japan there is supreme elegance in the way it is prepared, as if the oyster was the highest of social mores.

In the old world it was the pearl from the Persian oyster that was prized more than gold. Wherever you go in history, where there are oysters there seems to be, by association, tales and legends, the guts and bones of our own history.