Sunday, August 19, 2012

20. Restaurants of the Storied Past: Downing's Oyster Cellar

Nineteenth-century New Yorkers adored oysters.  They slurped them, they gobbled them, they devoured them.  Available in quantity and cheap, oysters could be had from peddlers' stands on the street and eaten raw, or consumed in dingy black-run cellar restaurants on Canal Street offering all you could eat for six cents, or in fashionable upscale restaurants catering to whites, or in the pinnacle of all such eateries, the plushest, the most renowned, the most sought-after, Downing’s Oyster Cellar at No. 3 Broad Street, just off Wall.  There, amid mirrored arcades, damask curtains, fine carpeting, and chandeliers overhead, the wielders of money and power convened on weekdays between twelve and three to feast on glistening bluepoints on crushed ice with a wedge of lemon, or poached turkey stuffed with oysters (a rare delicacy), or plump steamed saddle rocks plucked from the groin of the sea.  The president of the Harlem Railroad went there, as did the collector of the port, the inspector of tobacco, the district attorney, aldermen and lawyers, bankers, auctioneers, and men-about-town; in those mirrored arcades, schemes were hatched, fortunes conceived.  At lunchtime, Downing’s was the place to be.

          Moving among snowy tabletops, Thomas Downing, a tall man with a neatly trimmed, close-cropped beard, looked after every detail of his restaurant, even the minutiae of table settings.  Born free in Virginia, he had come North in search of opportunity and, having opened his restaurant in 1825 and conducted his business with energy and diligence, was now the richest and most successful black man in the city.  Early every morning he would go to the docks and, oyster knife and lantern in hand, leap aboard the incoming boats to pry open oysters, taste them, and bargain for the best of the lot.  Later, in a frock coat and a black silk tie, he put out a sleek hand of greeting to the Tammany men and the bankers, who slapped him on the back and called him Tom, chatted, left word with him for their friends. 
            The office seekers noticed and followed the politicians to Downing’s, convinced that Thomas Downing’s fingers could tug subtle strings and ply the levers of power.  The speculators likewise took note and followed the brokers to Downing’s, hoping from the deeps of his knowledge to rake up pearls and gold.  They crowded round a bar near the entrance, where a trio of white-smocked blacks knifed open mounds of bivalves that the patrons gulped with relish.  Plucking at the owner’s sleeve, these idlers hailed him as the Prince of Saddle Rock, smoothed him, wooed him.  Whatever he thought of these toadies, Thomas Downing admired the real men of power whose bold stride clicked on pavements and whose talk in his restaurant buzzed over bowls of scalloped oysters, but he hovered on the fringe of power and knew little of its mesh and grindings.  He was, after all, a black man in a white city and only a restaurateur.
            Well aware of the limits of black freedom in a city that did a heavy and very profitable business with the slaveholding South, Thomas Downing signed petitions, joined committees,
gave to charities, helped found a high school for black children, and once even boarded a whites-only horsecar and, with the support of the white passengers, kept the conductor from putting him off.  But he could never serve a black man in his restaurant, since doing so would drive away the whites, and his endorsement of the cause of abolition, however sincere, had to be discreet.     
            So as mayors came and went, and markets boomed and bust, Thomas Downing made money, wore fine broadcloth, and tipped his Irish maid at Christmas.  By clipper ship he sent oysters to Queen Victoria, who thanked him with the gift of a gold chronometer watch.  Word got round quickly that the Prince of Saddle Rock had received a fancy watch from the Queen of England.  When he met his patrons on the street, they stopped and chatted, asked to see the watch.  Heads turned: a black man talking to a white politician!  He would have been only human if he savored those moments, stretched them out a bit.
            Just how precarious the status of black citizens was in New York became evident in the draft riots of July 1863, when Irish mobs roamed the streets for three days, battling the outnumbered police, lynching black men whom they blamed for the war and the draft, and burning any home or building remotely connected with the draft or suspected of harboring wounded policemen or soldiers.  Only the return of National Guard regiments from the battle of Gettysburg brought an end to the disorder.  What Thomas Downing did during those harrowing three days has not been reported, but there is no mention of attacks on him or his restaurant.  Many blacks who had fled the city never returned, and those who did had the sobering awareness that neither they nor the white gentry they served were safe, should the "dangerous classes" rise up again.  But Thomas Downing survived.
            When Downing died in 1866, the Chamber of Commerce closed for a day to honor him.  This, for a black citizen, was unprecedented.  But New York was a hard-nosed business town and its merchants admired, even worshiped, success.

A personal note:  I have never tasted, or felt the urge to taste, an oyster.  My first awareness of oysters came in my childhood, when at very special family dinners my father and mother for an appetizer had oysters in tall, thin glasses -- gooey grayish white concoctions stained with red (tomato juice? ketchup?) that my brother and I were glad to forgo.  Which suited our parents, I'm sure, since this was in the Midwest and oysters were a rare delicacy that came from afar and quite expensive.  Since then I've been assured by my partner Bob and others that oysters are absolutely delicious, though they have trouble describing the taste.  So far, I'm still able to forgo them, though I may be missing out on a superlative delight .

A possibly irrelevant aside:  As a followup to the previous remarks, and to prove that I'm not a chauvinist New Yorker, I hereby confess -- no, state proudly -- that I am a son of the Midwest (the "real America," as a friend there likes to put it), born and bred in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago.  So I grew up hearing the legends and lore not of New York but of Chicago, the kind of stories that are passed on from father to son, rather than through the female line, since some of them -- though not all -- are just a mite risqué.  Are there any Chicagoans, or at least any Midwesterners, out there?  If so, see if you can explain the significance of any of these items from Chicago's colorful past:
  1. The barbershop of the Palmer House.
  2. The marriage of the century.
  3. Ganna Walska.
  4. The Everleigh Sisters. 
Brief -- or not so brief -- identifications follow below.

            And now, to get back briefly to oysters:  New Yorkers didn't lose their appetite for bivalves  when Thomas Downing died.  For years to come, the oyster boats went out dredging for oysters in the oyster beds off Staten Island and in Long Island Sound, and eager restaurateurs and chefs met them at the docks to get the pick of the crop, and their patrons continued to dine grandly -- or not so grandly -- in the establishment of their choice.  But that was long ago.  Today those oyster beds are gone and the city is no longer deluged with quantities of cheap, fresh oysters.  What happened?  The answer is simple: pollution.
File:PSM V06 D022 Vessels dredging for oysters.jpg
Oyster boats dredging for oysters.

(The above text is adapted from Book I of Metropolis, my long unpublished novel about nineteenth-century New York.)

Thought for the day:  True believers harbor sticky desires.

Four items of Chicago lore: 
  1. The barbershop of the old Palmer House was famous because silver dollars were embedded in its floor.  A typical brash gesture of the Gilded Age, worthy of the Windy City.
  2. In 1896 Harold McCormick of the reaper family married Edith Rockefeller, the daughter of old John D., thus uniting offspring of two of the greatest fortunes of the Gilded Age.  (Alas, it didn't work out.  She went to Europe to be treated for depression by Carl Jung, and they divorced in 1921.)
  3.  The beautiful Polish-born Mme Walska was an opera singer more renowned for her temperament and flair than for her vocal ability.  At important openings she is said to have arrived in a limousine half a block long.  Harold McCormick, a great patron of Chicago opera, was the fourth of her six wealthy husbands (among the others were a count, a guru, and the inventor of a death ray).  His fervent promotion of her talentless operatic voice (she was pelted with rotten vegetables in Havana) inspired Orson Welles in creating the story of the protagonist's second wife in Citizen Kane.  Ganna was said to have spent not even one night with poor Harold (probably false) and in time obtained a very profitable divorce (definitely true).  A collector of plants as well as men, she spent the last forty-three years of her life in California creating a magnificent botanical garden called Lotusland, which today is open to the public.  They don't make 'em like Ganna any more -- not, at least, since Callas, who had more than looks and flair.
  4. From 1900 to 1911 the Everleigh sisters operated the plushest, most expensive, most exclusive bordello of its time on the near South Side of Chicago.  Patrons were expected to spend at least a hundred dollars a night, back when that amounted to a small fortune.  Young men dreamed of saving up enough to spend just one night there.  Celebrities patronized the establishment, and Marshal Field II was said to have been shot by one of the girls during foreplay, after which, wounded, he returned home and died there a few days later.  (The Everleigh connection may have been pure legend; suicide is suspected.)  In 1911 the mayor finally shut them down, but only after ekeven very profitable years.  Loving theater, the sisters then moved to -- where else? -- New York, changed their name, and lived quietly and respectably for years.  I once thought of doing a book about them, and managed to find their establishment in the 1900 census, but that's another story.
                                                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder