Historically, African-American neighborhoods were tucked away from the waterfront, so if you want to look for traces of Downings life on Chincoteague, you can head further inland to higher ground where the Union Baptist and Christ United Methodist churches are. A local podcast series called The Bivalve Trail chronicles Thomas Downing’s story of Chincoteague, who follows his journey all the way to New York.
Years after Downing learned to tongue oysters on the east coast of Virginia, the wider Chesapeake region became one of the largest producers of oysters in North America. That changed in the 1970s and 1980s when annual crops plummeted from the more than 25 million pounds Virginia and Maryland had produced just a decade or so earlier. A combination of overfishing and an increase in waterborne diseases has led to the depletion of the region’s oyster reefs, which, despite ongoing efforts to revive them, are still far from their prime. Both Maryland and Virginia, once the titans of wild oyster production, now yield less than 250,000 pounds a year.
So it’s not surprising that the region has switched to aquaculture. Oyster farmers have largely replaced oyster tongs, and while oyster farming doesn’t replace the wonder that comes with digging up shells from a wild reef, the practice allows farmers to protect oyster seed from predators, disease, and even the simple threat of soft mud. , which, given the absence of a hardened reef, could bury and suffocate an oyster.
In New York, a legendary 19th century oyster cellar
When Downing moved to New York City in 1819, he was soon introduced to the Hudson River, where he was fixated on finding the best of the best on the New Jersey side of the river. Downing knew that oysters were in demand in New York, and he quickly made friends and customers faster. Finally, in 1825, he opened his own cellar, Downing’s Oyster House, on Broad Street, where he would serve Charles Dickens and a whole world of white elites. Even Queen Victoria ate oysters sent to her by Downing.
The culture surrounding oysters began to change in the 19th century. There were the working-class oyster men that Downing left behind on the east coast of Virginia, but New York City had its own oyster men who would turn their homes into dining cellars for those who wanted a simple meal fresh from the sea.
When Downing arrived in New York, oyster cellars—many operated and stocked by Black oyster men—were already popular, but they weren’t considered respectable places for serious dining. Downing thought he could distinguish himself by calling on the businessmen in the financial district. With savings from years of working as an oyster man in Philadelphia and New York, he decorated his restaurant with damask curtains, a chandelier and fine carpeting. In the evenings, businessmen even brought their wives to Downing’s, which was important because oyster houses were not typically considered “real.”
His restaurant flourished. The new food haven marked a shift in the way people perceived oysters, both as a food and a social experience. It is this complexity in the cultural interpretation of oysters and the way they have been rendered over time that fascinates me.