oyster trivia roundup

Did you know Dolly Madison’s favorite flavor of ice cream was oyster? The trivia roundup is going to go from oysters to 19th-century public health movements in four steps.

restaurants :: oyster wars :: graham :: public health

• • •

1. Ye Olde Oyster House opened in 1826 and is one of America’s oldest restaurants. It was a favorite of both JFK and Daniel Webster (though not at the same time; Webster routinely ate six plates of oysters with six brandies at a sitting). It also claims to be the first establishment to offer toothpicks, and the first to have employed a waitress (in the 1920s? That seems fishy.)

Antoine’s, in New Orleans, is the oldest family-run restaurant in the US, having opened in 1840. It has fourteen dining rooms, each with thematic decorations (the culturally sensitive Japanese Room was closed after Pearl Harbor; the Mystery Room surreptitiously offered alcohol during Prohibition). They are famous for having a 2+ year apprenticeship program for servers and for having invented Oysters Rockefeller. The dish was named for John Rockefeller because—get this—the sauce was rich. The recipe, like the Colonel’s blend of 13 herbs and spices, is an oft-imitated but supposedly never matched family secret employing butter, herbs, bread crumbs, and absinthe.

Oysters Rockefeller
Oysters Rockefeller

2. Speaking of oysters: the Oyster Wars of the 1880s. Wait, let me back up. The Chesapeake Bay’s abundant oyster beds supplied almost half the world’s oysters in the second half of the 1800s. Naturally, rights to to fish those oysterful waters were a hot commodity, and Maryland and Virginia had been tussling over them for decades. Meanwhile, by the 1860s, New England oyster pirates (that’s actually what they were called) begin moving southward, having depleted local oyster reserves.

The oyster battle started with legislation: permits, limits, and only allowing state citizens to farm oysters, thus keeping the outsiders at bay. Enforcement was a problem, though, so in 1868 the Maryland Oyster Navy was formed—a precursor to the modern DNR and with a much better name. They were outgunned, as were Virginia authorities, who gave up and sold their police boats. The “foreigners” had taken to nighttime dredging, which was a non-sustainable oystering method that involved dragging a huge steel net behind the boat. Dredgers—mostly pirates—were at odds with tongers, who used reaaaaaally big tongs, like more than twenty feet long, to collect oysters. If a dredger saw a tonger, they were apt to fire a few potshots at them, and vice versa, like West Side Story but with oystering. The violence grew increasingly intense, as did the dredging. By 1879, Virginia gave up and outright banned oyster dredging.

aforementioned giant tongs
aforementioned giant tongs

The heavily armed and well-organized dredgers continued on their merry way, flouting the ban. In a straight-up Air Force One move, Virginia governor William Cameron decided to haul in the oyster dredgers himself. He collected a “fleet” of two ships, approached the dredgers by pretending his ship was in disrepair, then springing his trap. He managed to arrest and convict more than 40 pirates while seizing seven boats.

File photo: VA gov fights oyster pirates
File photo: VA gov fights oyster pirates

Unfortunately for Cameron, six of those seven boats were from Virginia, as were most of those arrested: locals! (Worse still, they were from the Eastern Shore, one of Cameron’s political strongholds). Trying to save face, he pardoned the workers and commuted the sentences of the fleet’s captains. Most went right back to dredging. The state’s high court also ordered remuneration for the captains, whose vessels had been auctioned off.

Seemingly unafraid to dig himself an even deeper hole, Cameron went back to the well. This time he made sure to allow the press on board his boat (first mistake), and this time nearly all of the oyster pirates escaped (second mistake). The press took particular delight in needling Cameron over the escape of the Dancing Molly. That ship’s crew had chivalrously abandoned ship, leaving only the captain’s wife and two daughters aboard. Cameron’s fleet either ignored or did not hear their cries for clemency, and when they approached the Molly, the women unfurled the sail and took off. Cameron’s shame was memorialized in the comic opera Driven from the Seas: or, The Pirate Dredger’s Doom. To my knowledge no copies survive, but man, if they did.

Was this the end of the Oyster Wars? NOPE. Actually, there’s a huge gap in the history. All I know is that a pirate dredger was shot by a fisheries officer in 1959, at which time the officers were officially disarmed, which is considered to be the “official” end to the “unofficial” “war.” See here for more.


3. So why is an oyster cracker called an oyster cracker? Possibly because they look like an oyster, possibly because they are frequently served with oyster stew, and possibly because they were invented by Rev. Octavius Oyster. No one knows. Graham crackers, on the other hand, are named for Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister and health guru.

Here’s one of those complete 180s in cultural norms that’ll make you chuckle: in the early 1800s, white bread was seen as a sign of the high-class: the chemical additives and bleaching made it cost more and, theoretically, made it better for you. In contrast, darker whole-grain breads were for hicks, yokels, and uncultured farmers. Graham—who had no medical training, by the by—thought these white-bread chemical additives were unhealthy. So he created graham flour, which is essentially a combination of unbleached flour and coarsely-ground wheat germ. From this he made graham bread and graham crackers, offering them up as a health food. He was also a proponent of vegetarianism, which he thought would cure alcoholism. It wasn’t just physical health he was after, but moral health: a better diet, he said, would control lustful thoughts and prevent kids from touching themselves at night. Sometimes, a sausage is not just a sausage.

where is your god now?
S’mores, a lustful abomination before Graham

The “Graham Diet”, which excluded meat, spices, and severely limited dairy, caught on enough to be mandated at Oberlin College, where a Grahamist was president. One professor was summarily dismissed for continuing to bring in contraband pepper with which to season his lunch (“this is why we need teacher tenure”). Graham made powerful enemies: many of his speaking gigs were besieged by protesting bakers and butchers.

Graham was a spiritual forefather to John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake, progenitor of Kellogg’s, and someone for whom the Google autocomplete includes “John Harvey Kellogg circumcision” and “John Harvey Kellogg crazy.” Like Graham, Kellog married diet to spirituality, like Graham he had a ton of weird sexual hangups that were projected onto foodstuffs, and like Graham he thought vegetarianism would reduce carnal desires. He was a big fan of sunbaths and intestinal flora; to manage the latter he frequently “prescribed” a pint of yogurt, one half to be consumed and the other half to be “introduced” via enema. He would go on to become a eugenicist, because apparently yogurt enemas weren’t doing enough damage. Interestingly, though, one of his patients was CW Post, who went on to found his own breakfast cereal empire.

Kellogg’s cereals (existing or discontinued): Crunchy Loggs, Pop-Tarts Crunch, Chocolate Mud & Bugs, Cocoa Hoots, Concentrate, OKs (O and K-shaped pieces, notable because the mascot was Big Otis, a “burly Scotsman”),  Product 19, Country Store, Yeast Bites with Honey. Post cereals (existing or discontinued): Bran & Prune Flakes, Crispy Critters, Cupcake Pebbles, Marshmallow Pebbles, Poppin’ Pebbles, Fruity Pebbles Xtreme, Pink Panther Flakes


4. Sylvester Graham was a key figure in the Popular Health Movement of the first half of the 19th century. Early 1800s medicine was a laughable, grotesque charade, with treatments nearly as likely to hurt as help. Noted duellist Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828 and brought with him a decidedly “anti-elitist” stance—one that wouldn’t be too out of place today. The popular health movement was anti-conventional-medicine, but it was not a unified coalition: there were people who (rightly) argued that medical licensing was fraudulent and collusory, egalitarians who decried the treatment of medicine as a “special knowledge” not to be discussed with the uncredentialed (i.e., “trust me, I’m a doctor”), hucksters, bamboozlers, and “alternative” thinkers (like Graham) who thought conventional medicine was worthless, and feminists who’d watched the masculine “culture of expertise” remove women from their traditional role as “lay” doctors (e.g., midwives), while preventing them from getting medical licenses.

At the root of the movement was Samuel Thomson, an herbalist who liked to prescribe emetics, laxatives, steam baths, and spicy foods and railed against the gatekeepers of medical knowledge. He was popular, renowned, and antagonized the hell out of standard doctors, who took him to court after one of his patients died. Thereafter, states began passing “black laws” to restrict the practice of alternative medicine (so-called by their detractors, who compared them to laws preventing people of color from practicing medicine). Most of these laws were ineffective and repealed by the 1820s, but the Thomsonian view of conventional medicine lived on.

The legislative “success” of the movement was in getting nearly all US states to stop licensing doctors by the 1840s. At first blush, this sounds a little like the quacks and anti-vaxxers won—and, true, it granted a certain legitimacy to con-men, kooks, and 19th-century Jenny McCarthys. But on the other hand, it was like pushing a reset button on the structure of “conventional” medicine—which hardly differed from quackery at the time anyways. Licensing came back not long after, but in a more meaningful and less fraudulent way; in a sense, it was a “retreat to move forward.”


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