How the food of the poor became a delicacy

Liusia Movsesian

Charles Dickens wrote that 'poverty and oysters always seem to go together.' But in the 20th century, the situation changed dramatically.

If it weren’t for Catherine de’ Medici, a native of Florence, the French might not have become the main oyster lovers. It is believed that it was the 14-year-old princess who taught local courtiers to eat these mollusks. Popularity played a malicious trick on them.

The food of foreign princesses

Oysters have been eaten for over 2000 years. Ancient Romans were the first to taste them, at least in Europe. They learned how to transport these mollusks in aquariums to preserve their freshness. From there on, oysters found their way into Italian cuisine, and later into French one.

Popular version says that oysters appeared at the French court thanks to Catherine de’ Medici, a native of Florence. In 1533, she married the future King of France, Henry II, and brought skilled Italian chefs with her. And with them, new recipes and products. Parsley, artichokes, lettuce, broccoli, turkey, tomato, oysters, and also the main stars of Italian cuisine, pasta and parmesan, appeared on French tables.

At the wedding of Catherine and Henry, the French also tasted a strange Italian dessert made of fruit and ice, named ice cream. Catherine has also allegedly taught the French, who ate with their hands, how to use cutlery, particularly a fork.

The Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, published in 1751 by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, stated that various pretentious innovations entered French cuisine with ‘Italian crowds’ serving at the Medici’s court. However, many culinary historians believe that borrowings from Italian cuisine began even before Catherine. After all, she came to France as a 14-year-old girl and had no influence at the royal court for a long time.

The Oyster Dinner, by Jean-François de Troy, 1734. Source: Musée Condé /
The Oyster-eater by Jan Steen
The Oyster Eater, by Jan Steen, circa 1658. Source: Mauritshuis /

The least prestigious meal

Oysters, as well as mussels and snails, are deeply rooted in French cuisine. Until the 19th century, oysters remained the most popular food available to all segments of the population. In wealthy households, they were used to prepare a variety of dishes: baked in pies, stuffed in poultry, or simply eaten by the dozen.

For the poor, oysters were a substitute for meat. It was similar in the UK, where the streets in poor London neighbourhoods were littered with oyster shells. This can be seen at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, in a dialog between the characters:

‘It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, Sir,’ said Sam, ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.’

‘I don’t understand you, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘What I mean, sir,’ said Sam, ‘is, that the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Look here, sir; here’s a oyster-stall to every half-dozen houses. The street’s lined vith ‘em. Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings, and eats oysters in reg’lar desperation.’

Dickens’s character told the truth. In Victorian England, a dozen oysters cost 4 pence, half the price of a loaf of bread.

The first day of oysters: a London street scene. Engraving by Mason Jackson, 1861. Source: Old Book Illustrations /
Oyster Stands In Fulton Market
Oyster Stands in Fulton Market (New York City), 1870, by Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph) / THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS
Midsummer in the Five Points
Oyster sellers in the streets of New York City. Midsummer in the Five Points, 1870, by Keetels, C. A. / THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

The end of abundance

But in the 19th century, oysters have suddenly ‘run out’. They have disappeared because of year-round fishing. The French authorities imposed restrictions, forbidding to fish oysters from April to October. But this did not save the situation. By the 20th century, oysters have finally ceased to be cheap food and turned into a delicacy. The fact that in the 19th century the French carried out the first successful experiments in oyster breeding, and the mollusks are now bred in many countries, did not help either.

Unloading the oysters in New Orlean, circa 1910. Photo: Russell Lee / THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS
Child labor at an oyster cannery in Maryland, circa 1910. Photo: Hine, Lewis Wickes / THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

Nowadays, Pacific oysters cost at least $8-10 per dozen. That’s if you buy them in a store, not in a restaurant. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the main places of oyster harvesting (and later breeding) in Europe. Just like in the times of the Roman Empire, that’s the west coast of modern France and the waters off the British Isles.