A Legacy of Summer Oyster Eating

By Hanna Raskin, Epicurious.com

I'm a faithful fan of Gulf coast oysters, but it's foolhardy to eat them in the hot summer months, when their flavor is dulled by spawning and Vibrio rates spike. While Pacific Northwest oysters aren't at their tastiest in August, the region's cold climate means it's possible to eat oysters year-round up here.

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So when my father recently visited me here in Seattle, I invited him to oyster happy hour at Elliott's, a venerable oyster house that shares the waterfront with T-shirt shops and pleasure-boat ticket counters. On weekdays at 3 p.m., Elliott's begins serving chef's choice oysters for 75 cents.

Facing a tray of gleaming Pacific oysters, my father reminisced about eating oysters with his great-uncle Izzy. Though I never knew it, my great-great uncle Isaac Benjoya ran an oyster concession on Coney Island.

Oysters were once synonymous with Coney Island. "The raw oyster business flourished like a Bowery peanut stand," the New York Times reported in 1877. Although the finer classes wouldn't deign to eat an oyster before Sept. 1, thousands of beachgoers stormed the park's oyster stands and harvested their own bivalves from the Coney Island Canal. In the late 19th century, a trip to Coney Island wasn't complete without a cup of chowder, a pint of beer, and a platter of oysters on the half shell.

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I haven't been able to find any record of my relative's oyster business. He apparently didn't advertise in the major papers, which isn't surprising: With so many similar oyster shacks on the beach, vendors probably relied on foot traffic and word-of-mouth for sales.

As best as my father can remember, Izzy--a Sephardic Jew who emigrated from Izmir, Turkey--traded his oyster concession for a newsstand in the late 1950s. That jibes with what a frustrated seafood seller told the Times in 1958.

"People don't go for seafood like they used to," the Clam Bar's Thomas Bevilacque told a reporter. "Shrimps they like, yes, but not clams and lobsters so much."

And certainly not locally grown oysters, which had been spoiled by centuries of New Yorkers dumping raw sewage in the harbor. The city's last oyster bed closed in 1927, and beachgoers apparently lost their summer appetite for oysters soon thereafter. Few of Coney Island's seafood palaces survived Prohibition.

"But there is no danger of going hungry," the Times assured readers, touting the new fried frog legs at Nathan's. "Roasted ears of corn, caramel popcorn, apples on sticks, Italian ices, frozen custard, and roasted peanuts are just a few more possibilities."

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