By Ana Kinkaid
The enduring values of our country can be found in the history of American cuisine. No story better demonstrates that fact than the life of Thomas Downing, New York’s legendary Oyster King.
Born in 1791 to freed blacks in Virginia, he grew up near the Methodist meeting house where his parents worked as caretakers. Yet his heart belonged not to the church steeple but to the nearby seashore. There from an early age he raked oysters and dug for clams among the chattering seagulls.
As a young man he fought bravely against the invading British in the War of 1812 before settling in Philadelphia, where he met his wife. In 1819 he and his young bride moved to New York City and purchased a small oyster cart on Staten Island.
New York was an ideal location for his new business venture. At the time, the large majority of men working as registered oystermen were freed blacks. Because racial discrimination seemed to matter less on the nearby stormy waterways, of the 27 oystermen listed in the New York City Labor Directory, at least 16 were freed black Americans.
The same was true of the City’s many oyster bars. They too were largely owned and operated by freed blacks, who in 1821 were granted with additional restrictions the right to vote and own businesses, a decision sadly reversed in 1857 by the repressive Dred Scott Decision.
Downing worked hard, very hard. He first bought a boat and would row out in the dead of night to bargain with the returning watermen in order to buy their best oysters before they could be auctioned off to the other oystermen waiting on the City’s docks.
He combined his “sea bought” oysters with premium oysters harvested from the rich shellfish flats on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River to establish a reputation among buyers as a man who provided only “superior oysters”.
Soon his rolling cart business expanded to a full oyster house and then a catering service. To offer both services simultaneously was unique for the time.
His oyster house, strategically located on the corner of Broad and Wall Street, close to the City’s important center of commerce, which included the banks, the Customs House, the Merchants’ Exchange and department stores, was actually a full restaurant, one any chef today could be proud of.
Its lush décor was opulent and filled with soft Persian carpets, rich damask curtains, gold-leaf carvings, sparkling chandeliers and mirrored hallways. As a result, his was the only oyster house that attracted the powerful and elite of New York’s white society. Tables were regularly filled by the City’s leading politicians, rich businessmen, intellectuals and foreign dignitaries, as well as women in the company of their husbands or suitable chaperons.
Downing’s catering services were equally sought after. Indeed, when the famed English writer Charles Dickens came to New York in 1842, Downing was chosen to cater the grand honorary “Boz Ball” with a guest list boasting of 3,000 guests!
If one was ever to doubt the professionalism of the business he built, consider the list of the items he provided to guests on that memorable night:
50 rounds of beef
50 jellied turkeys
50 pairs of chicken
2,000 mutton chops
Yet Downing’s enduring fame does not rest just on his skills as a business man. Instead of hoarding his wealth, he chose to share and to support the urgent social problems of his day including voting rights for all, equal access to education and complete rights for women.
But he did far more than just support these causes financially. For while New York’s elite dined upstairs, he welcomed fleeing slaves into his restaurant’s basement, which was a secret stop on the Underground Railroad. Once rested and fed, he helped hundreds to reach Canada where they would be free from the fear of recapture.
He also employed black musicians, laying the groundwork for the great jazz clubs to come later in Harlem that would electrify the music world. As his catering business flourished he actively worked to see that equal educational opportunities were available to all regardless of race or national origin. As a self-made man, he understood the vital value of education in order to achieve success.
His skill in business and his commitment to community were so esteemed that when he died in 1866 the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed so that they and the other leading members of business, religious and social communities could attend his funeral.
Truly, Downing was more than just someone who sold shellfish. He was, instead, an outstanding example of what is best in the hospitality industry. He chose to take oysters and clams and used them to change the world into a better, more just environment for others.