Tuesday, April 7, 2009
So a couple of you asked about Brigham and oysters. As with any Brigham querry, we might need to issue the opening caveat that many Brigham food items are likely to turn out to be exotic and not necessarily representative of what was common for everyday Joes. With oysters however, it appears that they were more common than you might have imagined.
As early as 1850 Salt Lake City grocers such as Halladay and Warner offered oysters and sardines for sale. In early newspaper advertisements, oysters seem to have been offered alongside other canned and tinned goods. Later, other fish products in tins are also offered, including lobster. An 1860s news story described a train stuck in a snowstorm for several days, and the passengers forced to subsist on tinned oysters.
In his book Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, Sam Arnold asserts that during these covered wagon days, freighters would pack live oysters in salt water, using wooden barrels to transport them. He says the oysters were fed cornmeal as they crossed the plains. This does NOT appear to have been the case in Utah. An 1853 editorial opinion in the Deseret News advocated enterprising men to begin culturing oysters in the Great Salt Lake, but bemoaned the impossibility of getting the oysters to Utah alive. Such editorial advocations continued throughout the 1860s. A pisciculture committee continued its search for viable oyster beds in the Great Salt Lake, but to no avail.
Some evidence seems to suggest that occasional fresh live oysters did make it to Utah however. In 1861, the editors of the Deseret News wrote, "We are under obligations to Theo. F. Tracy for a box of fresh oysters by rail and stage from the east. These delicious bivalves in a fresh condition, will become less rare here, as the distance between the ocean coast and this city is lessened, and if "oysters on the half shell" should not become so popular as they are in some places, "fresh from their native element" may become so." Apparently the railroad was the key to shipping live oysters. After the railroad was completed in 1869, the DesNews announced that J.M. Simmons had commenced a business as a dealer in fresh oysters (12-22-69).
I haven't yet found any direct source for Brigham having an uncommon fondness for oysters. The Globe Saloon (restaurant in SLC backed by Brigham's investment) offered oysters on the menu in 1859, but likely these were from tins. Perhaps the association with Brigham comes from the aphrodesiac qualities attributed to oysters. In my research so far, the most common trend we can identify for Brigham's dietary indulgence is feasting on fruit. Certainly, notions about oysters are more intriguing, but perhaps not representative.
As with any good piece of research, this one raised a few questions. For example, what about "Rocky Mountain oysters"? If anyone finds a citation on that one, I'd be indebted.