Meet the Oyster King of New York City

By Ana Kinkaid

The enduring values of our country can be found in the history of American cuisine. No story better demonstrates that fact than the life of Thomas Downing, New York’s legendary Oyster King.

Born in 1791 to freed blacks in Virginia, he grew up near the Methodist meeting house where his parents worked as caretakers. Yet his heart belonged not to the church steeple but to the nearby seashore. There from an early age he raked oysters and dug for clams among the chattering seagulls.

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As a young man he fought bravely against the invading British in the War of 1812 before settling in Philadelphia, where he met his wife. In 1819 he and his young bride moved to New York City and purchased a small oyster cart on Staten Island.

New York was an ideal location for his new business venture. At the time, the large majority of men working as registered oystermen were freed blacks. Because racial discrimination seemed to matter less on the nearby stormy waterways, of the 27 oystermen listed in the New York City Labor Directory, at least 16 were freed black Americans.

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The same was true of the City’s many oyster bars. They too were largely owned and operated by freed blacks, who in 1821 were granted with additional restrictions the right to vote and own businesses, a decision sadly reversed in 1857 by the repressive Dred Scott Decision.

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Downing worked hard, very hard. He first bought a boat and would row out in the dead of night to bargain with the returning watermen in order to buy their best oysters before they could be auctioned off to the other oystermen waiting on the City’s docks.

He combined his “sea bought” oysters with premium oysters harvested from the rich shellfish flats on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River to establish a reputation among buyers as a man who provided only “superior oysters”.

Soon his rolling cart business expanded to a full oyster house and then a catering service. To offer both services simultaneously was unique for the time.

His oyster house, strategically located on the corner of Broad and Wall Street, close to the City’s important center of commerce, which included the banks, the Customs House, the Merchants’ Exchange and department stores, was actually a full restaurant, one any chef today could be proud of.

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Its lush décor was opulent and filled with soft Persian carpets, rich damask curtains, gold-leaf carvings, sparkling chandeliers and mirrored hallways. As a result, his was the only oyster house that attracted the powerful and elite of New York’s white society. Tables were regularly filled by the City’s leading politicians, rich businessmen, intellectuals and foreign dignitaries, as well as women in the company of their husbands or suitable chaperons.

Downing’s catering services were equally sought after. Indeed, when the famed English writer Charles Dickens came to New York in 1842, Downing was chosen to cater the grand honorary “Boz Ball” with a guest list boasting of 3,000 guests!

If one was ever to doubt the professionalism of the business he built, consider the list of the items he provided to guests on that memorable night:

50,000 oysters

10,000 sandwiches

40 hams

76 tongues

50 rounds of beef

50 jellied turkeys

50 pairs of chicken

25 ducks

2,000 mutton chops

Yet Downing’s enduring fame does not rest just on his skills as a business man. Instead of hoarding his wealth, he chose to share and to support the urgent social problems of his day including voting rights for all, equal access to education and complete rights for women.

But he did far more than just support these causes financially. For while New York’s elite dined upstairs, he welcomed fleeing slaves into his restaurant’s basement, which was a secret stop on the Underground Railroad. Once rested and fed, he helped hundreds to reach Canada where they would be free from the fear of recapture.

He also employed black musicians, laying the groundwork for the great jazz clubs to come later in Harlem that would electrify the music world. As his catering business flourished he actively worked to see that equal educational opportunities were available to all regardless of race or national origin. As a self-made man, he understood the vital value of education in order to achieve success.

His skill in business and his commitment to community were so esteemed that when he died in 1866 the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed so that they and the other leading members of business, religious and social communities could attend his funeral.

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Truly, Downing was more than just someone who sold shellfish. He was, instead, an outstanding example of what is best in the hospitality industry. He chose to take oysters and clams and used them to change the world into a better, more just environment for others.

Kinkaid, Ana
Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.

The Greatest Soup In The World

By Ana Kinkaid

How does a soup gain such acclaim that the likes of Craig Claiborne declare it to be the most elegant and delicious soup ever created?

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If the soup is France’s beloved Billi Bi Soup, also known as Cream of of Mussel Soup, the tale of its unique creation and enduring fame involves American millionaires, Greek princesses, racing boats and, of course, legendary chefs.

The story of Billi Bi Soup began in ancient Brittany where the residents of coastal towns have for centuries harvested big, beautiful mussels from the sea. They added these mussels to a variety of their regional dishes, all hardy and savory, but certainly not haute cuisine.

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Centuries passed. By the beginning of the early 1900s, France had gained fame as the culinary capital of the world and America as a leading industrial power. One nation offered elegance and style; the other offered wealth and an interest in all things new.

It was at this time that the American millionaire William B. Leeds, Sr., journeyed to France. He had risen from a humble florist to the man who cornered the lucrative tin plate market. He sold his metal company to U.S. Steel in 1901. On his death in 1908 his wealth was valued at over $900 million in today’s dollars.

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Obviously such vast wealth enabled him to travel frequently to Europe and especially to Paris, a city he adored. He was known to dine nightly at Maxim’s with his beautiful second wife, Nonnie May Stewart Worthington, who after his death became by marriage a Greek princess.

This is also the period when the famed chef Louis Barthe of Ciro’s in Deauville, Normandy, came to Maxim’s as chef. He brought with him, of course, his favorite recipes including a recipe for Cream of Mussel Soup.

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In Normandy, where mussels were so plentiful they cost nearly nothing, the practice had been to steam the mussels with herbs and use only the resulting broth as the main ingredient to blend later with cream. In other words, a soup that captured the flavor of mussels without the mussel meat actually being in the final dish!

This is the reason that two variations of Billi Bi can often be found in recipe books–one with mussel meats included and one without. In Paris, and later in countless kitchens around the world, chefs added the mussel meat to the dish as it seemed foolish to discard such a flavorful and colorful ingredient.

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Chef Barthe’s Cream of Mussel Soup soon became such a favorite of William B. Leeds, Sr., that it was kept permanently on the menu at Maxim’s. Sadly Billy, as his friends called him, died in 1908 of a stroke at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. He left behind his saddened wife and a son, also named William.

William B. Leeds, Jr., was at that time the richest child in the world. Later, at the age of 18, he would also marry aGreek princess and gain worldwide fame as a hunter and yachtsman. Like his father, he would call both Europe and America home–especially Paris and Maxim’s during the early days of the roaring 1920s.

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Tradition at Maxim’s relates that the soup was named for William B. Leeds, but whether it was named for the father or for the son may never be known. The name fits them both, for each was known as “Billy” to associates and friends who were forever saying “bye” to this pair of international travelers.

Billy Jr. was in fact such a traveler he flew planes trans-Atlantic and raced speed boats so fast he managed to make even the adventurous Ernest Hemingway regret traveling with him. His unending need for speed and action finally came to an end as the Great Depression and World War II collapsed fortunes and changed both America and Europe forever.

It was Craig Claiborne, the food editor of The New York Times, who rediscovered Billi Bi Soup and published a recipe for it in his first 1961 edition of The New York Times Cookbook.  It was an instant success. Over the years he refined the recipe working with his longtime collaborator Pierre Franey.

Today Billi Bi is a classic soup clearly worthy of the holidays–easy to make yet utterly unforgettable once tasted.

Billi Bi Soup

Adapted from the Craig Claiborne’s Classic Billi Bi

Ingredients

2 lbs Taylor Shellfish Mediterranean Mussels, scrubbed

2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 small white onions, peeled and quartered

2 sprigs parsley, plus chopped parsley for garnish

Salt and Pepper, to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 c. dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)

2 T. unsalted butter, cubed

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 c. heavy rich cream

1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

DIRECTIONS

De-beard the mussels just before cooking

Place mussels in Dutch oven that has a cover.

Add shallots, onions, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne, wine, butter, bay leaf and thyme.

Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce heat and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, or until mussels have opened.

Discard any that have not opened.

Strain liquid through a colander lined with cheesecloth and reserve; this is the base for the soup.

When cool enough to handle, remove mussels from shells and reserve.

Discard shells and aromatics.

Bring reserved liquid to a low boil in a small saucepan.

Add cream and return mixture almost to a boil.

Remove from heat.

Cool slightly.

Add egg yolk and stir to combine.

Return saucepan to heat and let thicken slightly. (Do not boil.)

Adjust seasoning to taste.

Arrange mussels in center of large soup dishes and spoon liquid over them.

Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley.

Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.

 

 

 

The History of Food: How Pork Became a Latin Staple

By James Corwell, Certified Master Chef

The sun is high early afternoon in Veracruz, Mexico. Heat stirs as a breeze from the gulf carries the smell of wet chickens, stale cardboard and rose.  Small shanty shops are set back in the shrouding leaves of tropical trees. The clapboard on the shops is painted in pastels of periwinkle, coral, and Azul. Corrugated tin, old wood and dried mud display rural handy work.  The few people who are out seem well adjusted to the heat. They are glazed in their own sweat, yet comfortable in the humidity.

I retreat close to the buildings into what little shade remains and approach a rusted chrome barstool. The leather seat is cracked, which exposes the worn foam cushion.  I squeeze into the bar to get my back out of the sun, and I notice that the walls are decorated with Diaz de la Muerte (Day of the Dead) memorabilia and streamers even though it is not the season. A painted Virgin Mary on the wall watches over us all framed by Pepsi, Marlboro and Corona signs to keep her company.

The hand-painted crimson wall menu reads pork and more pork, so I order the house specialty pozole (pork stew).  And I wondered if people realize how pork came to be such a staunch symbol of Latin cuisine.

Amaranth vs. swine

In the beginning, amaranth was one of America’s staple super grains. The high-protein grain was a vital food source for the Aztecs and, not only did they eat it, they worshiped it. They would fill in the areas below the pyramids and gaze upward to watch the high priest drain the blood of the sacrificed animal, readying the blood for its divine provenance with amaranth. Small idols were shaped from the congealed mass of amaranth seed, honey and blood and revered for the promise of another bountiful harvest, then broken apart and eaten. What must Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who colonized Mexico for Spain, felt when he first saw Aztecs worship this grain when he landed in Mexico in the 16th century? Cortez and his missionaries sought to save the savages from their beliefs and outlawed what they considered “heathen” rituals.

It was during one of these rituals, Cortez, beset in his anger of amaranth worship, ordered his conquistadors to kill the high priests and then burn the vast fields of blood-red amaranth plants, robbing the people of their main food source.  Before the ash-filled air settled, amaranth was wiped out and history began a new chapter. Cortes had overthrown the Aztec empire.

Initially pigs had been brought in to feed the soldiers and missionaries who crossed the ocean in search of gold and glory with Cortes. So, when the sickening sweet smoke cleared from the burned amaranth fields crops of sugar cane, wheat and swine rose in its place. The prized meat of Spain was now the appointed staple of the Aztecs.

The Spanish colonization of the Americas is often portrayed with heroes and villains.  However, some believe the latter is most prevalent, but no one can ignore Spain’s influence on the Caribbean and lower Americas’ culture. Seeds from the amaranth plant spread around the world and different types can be found in Africa, India and Nepal as it survives well in low-water countries. In the 1970s, Amaranth experienced renewed interest in the U.S. and now is grown in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota and Long Island, New York.

The benefits of amaranth

The health benefits are vast. It contains 13-14 percent protein, which is higher than most grains, as well as three times the average amount of calcium, and it is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. This is also the only grain known to have vitamin C. It is often referred to as a complete grain because it contains an important  amino acid, lysine.

It is prepared like rice or is popped similar to popcorn mixed with sugar or honey to make a candy. It is a part of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, where amaranth seed skulls are made and eaten. The flavor of the grain is nutty and can lean towards peppery.

Mexico now

My stew arrives, a red chili broth with chunks of meat and hominy breaking the surface, complete with a thick oil slick.  A separate plate of shaved cabbage, radish, cilantro, onion, lime and Serrano peppers are served to flavor the hot broth.  The stew is good once I dab it with a tortilla and stir the oil and salt into the broth. The chilies are so hot I can feel my face warm with a sensation so intense.  All is good.

The stool squeaks as I swivel around to leave. I swat a fly from my neck, and go slowly against the sun with a heavy stomach.  Having relished the easy pace of satisfying food, I wonder if I would not be better off if the pork stew was made with amaranth? Amaranth helped the Aztec build a civilization of millions in a land that had very little meat protein. Amaranth was made into breads, salads and stews with potatoes and chili and could have been the gold and fountain of youth Cortez was looking for, but instead he destroyed it.  Today it is making a comeback most often found in health food stores or popped as a garnish on delicate salads in fancy restaurants.

But, I suppose the pigs here are well-fed with the usual leftovers and trimmings, and perhaps even amaranth.

James Corwell is the creator of Tomato Sushi, a sustainable, vegan alternative to bluefin tuna. An Atlanta native, Corwell carries the professional designation of ACF-Certified Master Chef. He was previously the chef at Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, Napa Valley; Le Foret, New Orleans; and Haddingtons, Austin. In 2010, Corwell was voted best new chef by New Orleans Magazine. Tomato Sushi has been featured in Bon Appetit, NPR, Fast Company and Civil Eats.