When I started looking for literature about eating oysters, I soon realized many authors have written about the topic.
This suggests that there’s something about the experience that motivates writers to capture it in words. Different writers have different perspectives, I can see that, and it will take some time to figure out just what makes oysters a meaningful experience for so many people.
But for now, here’s a small local investigation. I live in a charming seaside village called Emu Park. It’s a quiet place, but in earlier days, it was a popular resort, where people came to escape the rigid demands of everyday life.
In 1871, holiday-makers made the five-hour, 30-mile trip in a horse-drawn buggy from Rockhampton to Emu Park. Well-to-do western Queensland graziers built vacation homes, as did Rockhampton’s upper crust. When the railway line opened in 1888, crowds of ordinary people flooded boarding houses, hotels and camping grounds.
One of the great pleasures of the place was its fresh seafood—fish, crabs, and turtles and especially oysters. In 1903, the Capricornian described Emu Park oysters as “succulent bivalves … toothsome delicacies highly praised of connoisseurs” (May 23 1903, p. 32). The same newspaper on July 4, 1914 was equally full of praise:
Oysters, as usual are showing exquisite flavour, and with a glass of cold Chablis, or a tankard of foaming stout … greatly in demand …
But the train stopped running in 1964. The boarding houses have disappeared and there’s only one hotel here these days—the Pine Beach Hotel, although it has been updated from this earlier version (below).
And the oysters have also disappeared; there is no longer an Emu Park oyster industry. (Indeed, the world-wide oyster craze decimated wild oysters just about everywhere.)
Articles in the Capricornian newspaper track how supply could barely keep up with ravenous demand. Although, on 19 June 1876, one writer describes finding “millions of rock oysters” on the “small rocky islands” just off the coast (p. 2), numbers had already declined by 1898: “Oysters are much in demand, but are becoming accessible only at low tide” (June 25, p. 26). This is no wonder, given that, in 1907, four boats were gathering oysters: “the Rose (Mr Redman), the Creta (Mr Morris), the Viking (Mr Smith), and the Madge (Mr Albertsen)” (November 9, p. 42).
By 1912, the holiday demand was such that “our oystermen were at their wits’ end where to go for supplies”, (February 3, p. 28). “There are very few oysters close at hand. Mr J Morris has had to go as far as Barren Rock lately for them.”
But somehow the fishermen—for a while, anyway—found new sources, and writers stretched their skills praising the bivalves. This, from 1913, shows great familiarity with the famous oysters of Britain and Europe:
An abundant supply of the palate-titillating, delicious native oysters can always be relied upon, and which will compare favourably with the fat Whitstable, the fragrant Colchester, the delicate green Frenchman, the delicious Ostend, or the portly Dutchman. (Capricornian, July 12 1913, p. 32)
James Morrison—already mentioned several times—is considered the “father” of the Emu Park oyster industry. Although born in England, he is sometimes referred to as a native of Crete (hence the name of his boat, the Creta). In Central Queensland, he had spent around 11 years laying railway lines before he and his wife came to live at Emu Park.
Morris came to grief on a 1919 fishing trip. Near South Keppel Island, he lit some dynamite in order to stun bait fish, and paused to light a cigarette. The dynamite exploded while he was still holding it, destroying his hands and causing other injuries. Because they were at sea, getting medical help was difficult. His “hardy constitution”—as the Brisbane Telegraph put it—meant he survived another 16 years, but life must have been difficult for someone who had always done hard physical work.
Even without dynamite, the trade could be dangerous. Fishermen Smithwick and Bolderson, caught in a storm during April 1913, found their anchors dragging and so ran their engine all the wind-tossed night just to stay in place. By morning, they had run out of fuel. Billy Smith and Donald McCall braved the rough conditions to reach them, give them provisions, then complete another round trip to Emu Park to get fuel and deliver it.
For many years, the oystermen sold their catch in “saloons” on the fishermen’s reserve—land set aside just for them. The saloons were fairly rudimentary constructions—see one of them in the left of the image above. The same shed can be seen in this image, tentatively dated 20 years after the first one.
Oyster-eating in the early days reflected both the plenitude of oysters and the informality of the setting—which must have added to holiday makers’ sense of escaping the everyday. One shilling bought customers all-they-could-eat in one sitting, with oystermen opening the shells to order (Morning Bulletin, March 1 1949, p. 8).
Discarded shells sometimes caused a “stench” (Capricornian, February 8 1908, p. 46). But if the earlier saloons were rough and ready, Mr J McDougal’s 1926 saloon signaled a change in standards:
Mr J McDougall has almost got his new oyster saloon completed. When finished it will present a very good appearance, and as all the floors are to be of concrete, and the building is constructed so as to minimize the access of sand and heat, it will prove a most decided advance in this class of construction so far as Emu Park is concerned. (Capricornian, March 6, p. 9)
Another article several months later suggests, however, that the new saloon was missing a beloved characteristic found in the older ones:
it is sometimes asked “How is it that lovely samples of coral, such as used to be seen at the oyster saloons, also other deep-sea novelties, are never seen nowadays?” (Morning Bulletin, June 12 1926, p. 10)
Perhaps the coral was sold as holiday souvenirs, or maybe it was simply decorative. I suspect the “deep-sea novelties” became an attraction, just like Barnum’s “museum” or a cabinet of curiousities. People would look and marvel—another part of the experience that marked the difference to workaday existence.
By 1950, however, the “oyster sheds” were seen as a “disgrace” by the Emu Park Progress Association. At the Association’s request, the Council decided to serve notice “on the fishermen concerned for the repair or removal of the sheds” (Morning Bulletin, March 8, p. 5).
The trade in oysters, however, continued, with advertisements in Rockhampton newspapers promoting Emu Park Oysters for 4/6 a bottle (Morning Bulletin, December 15, 1950, p. 7).
There were still more changes. While the hotels had previously advertised their seafood dinners, by 1952, Notaras’s Café advertised itself as the place to go in Emu Park, “if you want a really good meal of Fillet Steak, Fish, Oysters or Crab” (advertisement Morning Bulletin, June 21, p. 8).
While the saloons served raw oysters, how did the hotels and cafés serve their bivalves? That will have to wait for another time.