Was It a Bold Man Who First Ate an Oyster?

If you are on our BigLittleMeals email list for friends and family you already have been tipped off about about who gets credit (or maybe blame) for being the first to eat an oyster. In today’s Andy’s Corner I will fill in the details about how and why this person became our pioneering oyster connoisseur.

I decided to write about oysters partly because my previous two Andy’s Corners have focused on foods that may seem revolting to some folks – it’s hard to imagine anything that looks more disgusting than a raw oyster – and partly because I’ve been reading MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster – which is a truly remarkable tribute to this humble shellfish. I’ll definitely return to MFK Fisher’s masterpiece in a future blog. But for today’s Andy’s Corner I want to explore a question that I have asked myself many times, who in the world would be the first person to eat a raw oyster?

Such a question would would not have been on my mind while growing up. I had never even seen a raw or cooked oyster, let alone eaten one, until after Ann and I were married. Of course, our move to Baton Rouge in 1975 made encountering oysters inevitable. My first foray into shucking oysters (for a dinner party we were throwing) ended with my first visit to a hospital emergency room. The doctor took one look at the gash between my thumb and forefinger and simply said, “Looks like you’ve been shucking some oysters.”

Shucking oysters can be hazardous to your health.

Beyond my short-lived shucking career, I had the opportunity to do some sociological research at LSU that involved oysters. Actually it was more about the oyster harvesters along the Louisiana coast than about the mollusks themselves, but one of the side benefits of the research was the opportunity to consume large quantities of very fresh Louisiana oysters. Unfortunately, the findings from this research, published in a 74 page (mostly boring) paper entitled Louisiana Oystermen… Surviving in a Troubled Fishery, revealed nothing regarding my nagging question about who ate the first oyster. (Editor’s note: I came across this LSU research report on Louisiana oyster fishery that is quite interesting and much more up-to-date than my research from 20 years ago).

Louisiana Gulf coast oyster boat

Until I began to do some web surfing for today’s blog it had never really occurred to me that others had been asking this same question. One of the first items I came across was a 2007 NPR broadcast entitled: Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer. The discovery of shucked oyster shells by scientists in a South African cave led scientists to learn that humans were eating oysters some 164,000 years ago. The broadcast included a quote from the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift who evidently been wondering about who would eat an oyster back in the early 1700’s and famously penned, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”

But was it a bold man who first slurped down that oyster? Cody Cassidy, author of the appropriately entitled book Who Ate the First Oyster?, devotes a chapter to this question and suggests that the bold person was most likely a woman, whom he dubbed “Oyster Gal.” He argues that those ancient oyster shells would not have been brought to the cave by men because of the “gender divide for obtaining food.”

Regardless of whether the bulk of the work falls to the hunter or the gatherer, the division is remarkably strict: Women usually gather the staples that are more reliably obtained—such as nuts, berries, roots, and shellfish—while men typically pursue the food that runs, flies, or swims away.

He even speculates that she was probably in her early twenties. This is largely because about two thirds of H. sapiens from this era who lived beyond childhood died in their twenties and very few made it past thirty-five.

He also provides a mental picture of what she may have looked like:

… if she were to sit on the bus next to you today, you would not be immediately alarmed. Her stature, body, face, and hair would look familiar. She had the same size cranium, jaws, teeth, pelvis, feet, and hands as we do. She would be shorter than modern standards, but her posture and gait would be entirely modern. Her skin would be hairless and dark, evolved to better shield against the intensity of the African sun. The hair on her head would be dark, short, and curly.

But the most impressive thing about this hypothetical oyster harvester is that she very likely was an accomplished astronomer. Because oysters are exposed only when there are very low tides, to be successful at gathering these prize morsels she had to figure out a way to predict tidal patterns.

She was a stargazer. This link between the movement of the ocean and the various shapes of a mysteriously large white object in the night sky is so incredibly nonobvious that many people today still don’t see it.  Oyster Gal, however, did, and in doing so may well have become the world’s first practical astronomer. Once she could predict the tides, Oyster Gal could confidently schedule trips to the ocean, and the evidence from the caves suggests oysters became a reliable staple of her diet. 

Oyster beds at low tide, Tomales Bay, California

So, now that my question about who ate the first oyster has been answered (in a way) it’s time for me to begin stewing about how to write about oysters themselves. Stay tuned for my R-Rated account of life, sex, and death amongst oysters appearing in Andy’s Corner sometime during the oyster stew season.

Note: technically there is no “season” for oyster stew, but I like to think of it as a cold weather treat, especially around the holidays.

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