From Sea to Shining Sea
Walking along, defying the wind, hood pulled up, hat pulled down. You’re not working today and the city shines like frozen steam. Leisurely steps follow their path of least resistance, taking you down and down. Everything opens up, and the brilliance of the sun is no longer blocked by buildings, in fact it is magnified, glittering greedily in the river below. Speaking about the Manhattan waterfront, author Herman Melville once observed: “But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land... They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in... Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.” Melville’s observation is as relevant on this day as it was 150 years ago. Couples arm-in-arm, skaters jumping and skidding, dogs who chase each other endlessly... and look, a group of your friends! They’re on their way home from a café, and they just picked up groceries, would you like to join them for a late lunch at their apartment?
Through its status as the primary point of entry into America from the Atlantic, New York City has established its prominence in the world. This deep trans-Atlantic identity has permeated all aspects of life in this City, not least its gastronomic culture. From the earliest time, indigenous peoples from this area relied on the ocean as a crucial source of food. The Lenape indigenous tribe had an extensive history of cultivating oysters in the Harbor, and early NYC quickly gained a worldwide reputation for its cult of oysters. Mark Kurlansky (author of The Big Oyster) says: “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters. This is what New York was to the world—a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor.” Myriad local and global culinary traditions influenced the way that these bivalves were consumed, from raw on the half-shell (popularized at the French-influenced restaurant Delmonico’s) to oyster pie, oyster-stuffed chicken or steak, and even oyster cocktails. It seems probable that the original protein in a shrimp cocktail was actually the oyster — not dipped in a “cocktail sauce,” but simply stirred amongst the other ingredients, like some kind of bizarre Bloody Mary. As per an 1889 New York Sun article, “Put half a dozen to a dozen small oysters into a goblet or beer glass, with enough of the liquor to cover them. Salt, pepper, catsup, a dash of Tobasco [sic] sauce, half a spoonful of Worcestershire, two or three spoonfuls of vinegar, and sometimes a pinch of horseradish. Stir it up with a spoon and drink it down... The oyster cocktail is as much of an institution in San Francisco as the whisky cocktail is here.” While I think it’s a shame that pollution has killed off New York’s once-massive oyster population, I’m not particularly heartbroken to miss out on these oyster aperitifs.
However, the story of the New York City oyster is far from over. The Billion Oyster Project is an exciting effort by the New York Harbor to restore oyster beds to the Hudson estuary. Oysters once covered over 300 square miles of the harbor, and filtered Hudson river water as it ran into the ocean. As described by the Billion Oyster Project, when Henry Hudson first entered the the New York Harbor in 1609 it was “one of the most biologically productive, diverse, and dynamic environments on the planet.” With the restoration of these oyster eco-systems, our city ensures itself cleaner water, storm surge protections, and perhaps one day, a resurgence in the popularity of oysters for the masses (this time, perhaps without turning them into cocktails).
In the vacuum left by the oyster’s disappearance, other street foods have come to the fore, especially pizza. A vast web of history, scholarship, and mythology has contributed to elevate the humble slice to its throne above the five boroughs. Most accounts usually stop at one trip across the Atlantic: the pizza style in New York originated in Naples and was brought over in the early 20th century. Yet if we go back just a few hundred years more, we find that tomatoes were completely unknown not only in Naples, but in the entirety of Europe — it was during the time of the Columbian Exchange that tomatoes were brought from the New World to the Old. Without the ingredients that came from this continent, there would have been no Neapolitan pizza to begin with!
A deep familiarity with the sea can be seen all throughout Neapolitan cuisine. Ingredients like anchovies and colatura featured in many of Naples’ most famous dishes. In New York, the Neapolitan predilection for seafood found new outlets. If you ask a native Italian about scungilli, there’s a good chance you’ll get a blank stare; if you ask an Italian-American from the tri-state area, you might hear some family recipes. What is scungilli? The word itself originates from the Neapolitan sconciglio, the Italian name of a Mediterranean sea snail also known as “murex.” However scungilli refers to Atlantic conch or whelk, native to the Americas, which are then prepared in a number of ways: with pasta and tomato sauce fra diavolo, fried and dipped in a marinara, or prepared cold as part of a seafood salad. While scungilli is not the first example many people think of when they imagine Italian-American food, it is a true testament to the revivifying effects of historical change, the unimaginable recombinations of old and new, which are part and parcel of life in New York.
If you sit down to dinner on Christmas Eve, for the Feast of Seven Fishes, maybe you’ll find scungilli salad on your plate. Perhaps anchovies will be served in a puttanesca sauce, clams might be baked with breadcrumbs and herbs, calamari could be fried — beyond these uncertainties, it is almost definite that shrimp will make it onto the table, in one form or another. Shrimp are plentiful on both sides of the Atlantic, and the list of preparations alone could fill pages. However, differences in size, flavor, and seasonal availability have led to some uniquely American adaptations. It is hard to trace the exact origin of shrimp scampi; most sources agree that scampi originates in Venice, to refer to the local style of eating Adriatic shrimp. Hedy Giusti-Lanham — Venetian chef and cookbook author — is quoted in a 1964 New York Times article as saying, “‘[Scampi] are usually thrown into heavy boiling water, then deveined and shelled and served lukewarm. Or they may be broiled by basting the shells with oil and putting them under the broiler or over charcoal and basting them while they cook ...You put a little olive oil and a little lemon on them as you take them out of the shells, and a little pepper — but no salt. Garlic? Oh, no, no, no. They have such flavor that anything else would be an insult.’ Asked whether there was a great difference between scampi and American-style shrimp, Mrs. Giusti-Lanhan replied: ‘They are a similar type of person but the accent is very different.” How are they served at your dinner table? With a little cream or breadcrumbs? White wine? No matter your interpretation, the spirit of scampi boils down to a minimalist touch, meant to elevate the subtle taste of the shrimp. Mangia bene!
Walking around Little Italy in Manhattan, you can still find examples of the seafood culture that built New York City. Historically speaking, if you were to take Grand or Hester eastward, a different portrait of New York’s fish-friendliness would start to emerge; in this move towards the Lower East Side, anchovies, lobster, and spaghetti vongole give way to lox, sturgeon, and pickled herring. While there are only a few holdouts of Jewish-American immigrant cuisine left in Manhattan (right now you’d have more luck if you looked in Borough Park, Crown Heights, or Rego Park), it is hard to deny the impact that “appetizing” has had on New York City’s food culture. The appetizing store is profoundly Jewish-American, a storied institution that gathers international seafood, pickles, spreads, and sweets under one roof. Appetizing stores are influenced by the vast range of the Jewish diaspora, as Milton Bradley (probably one of the most iconic New York City figures ever for his “I ♥ NY” design) says in A Gentile’s Guide to Jewish Food, “To be precise, the items in an appetizing store are not necessarily Jewish inventions. The Jews exercise an international gastronomic curatorship by bringing together and developing foods of Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, and Near Eastern origin.” New York City established itself as a center of Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the diaspora which had been spread out over several continents, all converged in one city. While shellfish was common for other New Yorkers, Kosher laws prohibit their consumption. Instead, Jewish émigrés to NYC sought out a wide variety of fish; in a typical appetizing store we find salmon, sturgeon, whitefish, herring and more, variously prepared: smoked, kippered, pickled, dried, salted, marinated, and chopped. Stepping inside, it would seem that the world’s oceans congregate at New York City’s harbors, all-too-eager to be reeled in by the ton, and consumed alongside a skyscraper-sized tower of bagels and rye bread.
Every item in the appetizing store has its own history, its own genealogy. The king of appetizing is undoubtedly lox, and, appropriately, it also has the deepest history. “Lox” Or “laks” means “salmon” in such a wide range of languages — from Russian, German, and Czech to the extinct Tocharian language group of Western China — that linguists speculate that the word’s origin dates to around 8,000 years ago, having travelled through history with minor deviations. Only very recently in this 8,000 year history did this proto-Indo-European word “lox” come to mean specifically “smoked salmon,” a change that took place here in NYC.
Yiddish-American seafood takes many cues (and imports many ingredients) from Scandanavian sources, where salmon has long been cured in brine. While Glaser insists that lox is always smoked, at quintessential NYC appetizing store Russ & Daughters, “belly lox” refers to the kind that has been brined, whereas smoked salmon is specified by specific designations like Gaspe Nova and Scottish. Interestingly, some researchers (like Heather Smith in her article The Natural and Social History of Bagels and Lox) see the smoking that lox undergoes as a process attributable to Native American influence, “The Celio Falls in Wyoming was, archaeologists say, the Wall Street of the West. For 15,000 years, tribes from all across North America converged there during the spawning season, building platforms to spear and net the 20 million salmon that raced up the Columbia river... Today, what we call “lox” is almost always smoked — more like what happened at Celio Falls than in Norway.” Add a little schmear of cream cheese, throw on some capers, stack it on a bagel, and if you like, you can fuhgeddabout the history and just enjoy.
Through charting these histories, we have barely even begun to exhaust the resources of the Atlantic. How many countless shores speak to us from across the ocean? As we circumnavigate New York City, we find evidence of international seafood influences at every step. A day spent following these trade winds would be a day well spent, visiting Caribbean, Greek, Chinese, or Egyptian ports-of-call. In doing so, we not only discover foreign traditions, we also learn more about what is uniquely American, uniquely New York. Adaptation is more than just a means for survival, it is a process of transformation, an act of metamorphosis. In this spirit, I would like to end by encouraging you to use your knowledge of the past and present of the sea, the ebbs and flows of its creatures and its history, towards feeding yourself and your family in new and exciting ways!