Your community matters

A loose history of oysters

Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.


It was a brave man, or woman, who first ate an oyster. He must have been very adventurous, or very hungry, or both. I’ve tried to imagine how it went.

I picture an early man (or woman) squatting at the edge of the water, holding a scrungy, sharp-edged, shelled creature, or what is probably assumed to be a creature since that is what shells hold. I would imagine that early man might try prying it open but after a cut or two from the sharp shell, would resort to smashing it with a stone.

After picking away the shards of the shell, he would be looking at a wet grey blob. If he poked at it with his finger, it would move a bit, but would still be attached to the shell.

Of course his immediate reaction would be, “Oh my, doesn’t that look yummy. I think I’ll eat it.” Right? I don’t think so. That certainly wouldn’t be my reaction.

He might pull it loose from the shell, and being hungry, touch it with the tip of his tongue. It would be salty. He might try biting off a tiny bit which would turn out to be spongy and, I would think, basically unpleasant, but not totally unpalatable. Still being hungry, perhaps he swallows it whole.

He doesn’t die, so he might swallow another one, and another, and a new food source is found. Whoever he was, he lived a long time ago. Middens in New South Wales containing oyster shells date back 10,000 years, and oysters have been cultivated in Japan from at least 2,000 B.C. and used in the United Kingdom since Roman times.

As wild oyster beds became scarce, oysters became more expensive and by the 20th century were considered a delicacy, which they still are. And that, boys and girls, is why they are so expensive today.

Jean McCamy is a Wake Forest artist.