The Awesome Oyster


NEW LONDON, Conn. (The Times) — There’s more to oysters than slurping them off a shell with a drop or two of cocktail sauce.

The incredible, edible oyster has ties to the region that go back to American Indians who harvested oysters by hand with rakes made of branches. Today, inventive oyster farmers are tending to new hatcheries in Noank.

All things oyster are on view in an exhibit at the Custom House Maritime Museum called “The Awesome Oyster.”

“People were so crazy about oysters,” said Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the Custom House, who put the oyster exhibit together.

Oysters were so abundant in the region that the first Europeans plucked them out of the water like berries, according to explanatory text in the show. But by the mid-1700s, the oyster supply was nearly depleted and, in 1750, the state legislature gave shoreline towns the authority to regulate oystering.

Oysters were packed in metal cans and shipped by wagon, steamboat, and rail. Chicago celebrated its first shipment of oysters in 1848. The peak of the oyster industry was late in the 19th century, but misguided fears of catching typhoid fever or malaria from oysters nearly killed the industry. After 1902, oyster consumption fell off dramatically.

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The oyster eventually made a comeback and slick advertising in the 1930s and 1940s helped. Today, it’s a localized thriving industry.

“People don’t realize the best oysters you can get at any oyster bar are from here,” Tamulevich said.

The exhibit on the second floor of the Bank Street museum includes displays of the life cycle of the oyster, the historical significance of oyster harvesting in the region, and the re-emergence of the oyster farming industry locally.

“We want visitors to know people are still working on the waterfront,” Tamulevich said.

The exhibit includes items from the Whitney Library of the New Haven Museum & Historical Society, Mystic Seaport, and Pine Point School. But it is also an amalgamation of artifacts from the community.

Don Bell of Trumbull offered up his collection of tin oyster cans. Custom House volunteer Archie Chester brought in a “spotter,” which is a wooden box with a glass bottom for locating oysters underwater.

People: Oysters, Seafood

Tamulevich contributed an oyster-shaped teacup and saucer and a rake and basket that her dad used when he went oystering in Branford, where she grew up.

Others have contributed more than just artifacts. Stephen Jones of Noank gave a talk about his book, “Working Thin Waters,” which is a series of stories about Capt. Lawrence H. Malloy Jr., who made his living off the New London shore. Jones also brought in a set of 18-foot-tall oyster tongs, among other items.

A teaching guide called The Awesome Oyster, written by Penny Parsekian, executive director of New London Main Street is also on display. She is also the inspiration for the show.

Tamulevich said she and Parsekian were having lunch and she learned of Parsekian’s former job at Mystic Seaport and her book.

The exhibit on the oyster, which is the state’s official shellfish, runs through the end of January.

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