What Made Michiganders Crave Oysters from the 1800s-1920s?
It’s true: Michiganders went wacka-wacka for oysters back then. To be fair, it wasn’t just Michigan, but the entire United States...but Michigan had many different brands of oysters, as you'll see in the gallery below. Even though the vast majority of oysters were harvested in (and shipped from) Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, I noticed a number of different brands of oysters that were canned in Michigan. Many in Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, and other locations, as you’ll see.
So why was there such a craving for oysters? And why isn’t there one now?
To be blunt, oysters were cheap…MUCH cheaper than beef or other meats. According to Michigan State University, there were SO many oysters that sometimes ships ran aground on a bed of oysters. This abundance of oysters made them super-cheap for the consumer. Americans were eating them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks…even local saloons served oysters alongside a big ol’ mug of beer. An oyster meal was as popular as a burger and fries are today.
Rich people ate ‘em. Poor people ate ‘em. Just about every town had a place where you could gulp down oysters. There were oyster cellars, oyster clubs, oyster luncheonettes & lunchrooms, oyster parlors, oyster saloons, oyster concession stands…any type of eating place you can think of, there was one especially for oysters, or at least featured oysters as their main specialty. Oysters were also used as filler for meat dishes, such as meat pies, meat loaf, meatballs, etc.
Some of you are probably wondering: what about oysters as sexual aphrodisiacs? That’s the fact, Jack, and it’s been that way for hundreds of years. Oysters contain a good amount of Zinc, a testosterone-producing element. They also boost dopamine, which is said to make males and females particularly frisky. Some say oysters don't really make you amorous - that it's only a 'power of suggestion'. I don't know...I can't comment on that, since I don't eat oysters.
Remember that Three Stooges episode where Curly is making oyster stuffing for a turkey dinner? He cleans the meat out and stuffs the shells in the turkey. That was in the 1930s-1940s when the oyster craze was on a downslide.
A researcher at Michigan State University says oysters were even eaten by the students, who ate “oysters and jelly at commencement, and 18 cans of oysters for students’ supper during the Week of Fires in 1871.”
The answer to the question “what was the big deal about oysters” is because others were eating them, they were cheap, and sometimes free at local bars.
What caused the decline of interest in oysters?
They aren’t as bountiful as they used to be, therefore more expensive.
In 1924, a spread of typhoid was linked to oysters that had been exposed to sewage. Prohibition in the 1920s closed down bars that served oysters.
Thanks to those, snacking on oysters like they were popcorn has now dwindled to eating an average of three a year. I’ve eaten deep-fried oysters and raw oysters dipped in melted butter, but I never slurped a raw one out of its shell…and I probably never will.
Take a look at the gallery below of various Michigan brands of oysters and other hunks of Michigan Oyster Memorabilia!
MORE MICHIGAN FOOD STUFF!