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Life on a New England Oyster Farm
By Erin Byers Murray
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Erin Byers Murray
All rights reserved.
March 9, 2009
Most people don't wake up and just decide to be oyster farmers. Not most sane people anyway. Especially on icy, raw, rainy March mornings when it's blowing stink off the coast of Massachusetts.
But essentially, that's what I'd done. And when my alarm went off and I heard a bullet storm of rain pellets chipping away at my windowpane, I immediately wondered what the hell I'd been thinking.
But my fate was sealed ( job quit, mud boots purchased), so I tried to momentarily ignore the elements and get dressed. What on earth was I supposed to wear now that I'd tossed aside a perfectly decent, well-paying job as an online lifestyle editor for an hourly wage to dig shellfish out of the mud? I pulled out an assortment of clothes: long underwear, sturdy jeans, two long-sleeve shirts, two pairs of socks. Wrestling into the layers, I thought back to one of my first conversations with Skip Bennett, Island Creek's forty-three-year-old founder and head oyster farmer.
He'd been vague.
"You'll be out on the water," he said. "A lot," he stressed with a raised eyebrow. "Think you'll be comfortable working outside all day?"
We were having drinks at B & G Oysters, a jewel-box oyster bar in Boston's South End that carried his product religiously, and I couldn't quite read my dark-haired companion's smile. Was that trepidation? Amusement? Incredulity? He was, after all, talking to someone who had a manicure but absolutely no maritime experience, and he'd just hired her to work side by side with his surly, weather-beaten farm crew for a year.
"Yes," I half lied. Well, I mean, I could be comfortable working outside all day. I'd once taught swimming lessons to little kids for an entire summer. Surely some of that experience would come surfacing back. Right?
"You'll be culling," he said. I nodded. I had no idea what culling was.
The oyster farmer looked down into his drink and smiled. "It's okay. We'll figure it out once you get there."
Pulling on a pair of old jeans that morning, I thought of everyone else I knew — my husband, Dave, former colleagues, my dad — who would spend the day yawning away hours at a desk and here I was dressing for summer camp (albeit one that started at an ungodly hour). I kissed my sleeping husband and slipped out into the dark.
The rain came down harder as I made my way onto Route 3 southbound, and it occurred to me that my mud boots weighed heavier on the gas pedal than my everyday stilettos had. In no time flat, I was pulling into Island Creek Oysters World Headquarters. I was early.
Set about four miles away from the actual waterfront of Duxbury Bay, Island Creek's main office is a pretty humble affair. Tucked away at one end of a semicircular oyster-shell driveway is a squat, shingled, one-story house that serves as the wholesale company's office. A barn next door is used as a garage and toolshed, and at the other end, abutting the road, sits a shanty of a seafood shack trimmed with hedges, BENNETT LOBSTER AND SEAFOOD painted on the window. The entire property, I later found out, belonged to Billy Bennett, father of Skip, who had long ago retired from owning a nearby tire-and-gas business to become a lobsterman, which he did commercially for several years before retiring again to become an oyster farmer. A waterman in every sense of the word, Bill Bennett had worked hard, long days his entire life. And at sixty-nine years old, he was enjoying every minute of it.
The one-story house had been converted into an office a few years before I arrived; some of the Island Creek farmers had even lived there, including, a long time ago, a twenty-something Skip and his former wife, Shannon, who gave birth to their oldest daughter, Samantha, in what had become the conference room. With a broad, high-ceilinged great room up front, it was now a workspace, complete with desks and a fax machine.
The morning I arrived, it was relatively quiet. With a rainy gloom settling over the world, the blaze of lights and blasting heat of the office were a welcoming hug.
Lisa Scharoun, a trim, effortlessly fit forty-something with a pixie face and blond hair to match, was the farm's office manager. She greeted me with an up-and-down glance.
"Well, don't you look fashionable?" she said curtly. I looked down. Despite my best efforts to "dress down," I realized that with my jeans tucked into green Hunter Wellies and my hair pulled back neatly, I could have been wandering down Newbury Street for some rainy-day shopping.
It was a punch in the gut.
"Here's your time sheet," she said, handing me a piece of paper.
Looking for a familiar face, I encountered the opposite: a round kid wearing glasses, with a big frown under his goatee.
"You're gonna have to move your car," he said, stone-faced. This was Cory, the shop manager.
We ran out into the rain where he shouted at me: "That's Billy's spot. No one parks there but Billy." He pointed to another open space.
Cory waited for me to move the car, then walked me behind the fish market, where we came to a small, concrete processing room filled with two walk-in refrigerators and a few stainless steel tables: the shop. The lights were bright and cold and the air smelled of Windex. My host, much less surly now that we were back indoors, walked me around the space before introducing me to two twenty-something guys standing in the corner.
The taller, Nordic-looking one was Andy Yberg, who went by Berg and had a surfer's build, lean and occasionally awkward, along with shoulder-length blond hair. When he smiled, his chapped lips revealed a faint underbite.
"Nice boots," he said, pointing to my feet; he had on the exact same pair, making me feel slightly less bruised by Lisa's jab. He nudged the bearish, bearded guy standing next to him, Andy Seraikas.
"Call me Andy, or A2. I go by whatever," said Andy number two. His sky-blue eyes were framed by long lashes and he spoke softly, giving his defensive linebacker frame something of a teddy bear finish. These were my crewmates.
"Cory already has a nickname for you," A2 said with a grin.
Behind me, an extremely animated Cory was doing a jig. "It's FNG, Fucking New Girl!" he boomed, hopping from one foot to the other. The guys laughed. I shot Cory a look, freezing him mid-hop.
Berg eyed me with brotherly concern.
"You ready for this?" he asked.
Yup, I nodded. It was now or never.
Back out in the rain, Cory waved us off as the Andys and I piled into our rig, a white-cabbed truck with a gated flatbed. A few miles down Duxbury's main road, Route 3A, we made a right onto Harrison Street and passed the manicured greens of the Duxbury Yacht Club golf course. As we crested a small hill, I got a glimpse of Duxbury Bay, shrouded in a soupy fog. We pulled into the town's harbor parking lot, which sat behind a tiny town center, where a row of pickup trucks faced the quiet waterway. As I climbed down from our truck, the saltwater air hit me hard and fast. It was refreshing — and shockingly cold.
At one end of the parking lot, a little hut spewed a plume of fragrant smoke out of its chimney: the harbormaster's central command and the only sign of life.
Inhaling the smoky mist, I followed the guys past the hut through the silence. The Duxbury Bay Maritime School, the largest maritime school on the East Coast, was in the process of constructing a massive new building directly on the waterfront. The half-erected structure dwarfed the school's former digs, an aging shack that looked like it would crumble any minute. Directly in front of the shack sat a giant dirt heap. And directly in front of that sat a forty-by-twelve-foot float perched up on some makeshift pilings: my new office. The guys had a million names for it: the Oyster Plex, the Clubhouse, Our Girl. Because the farm was still in winter mode, we weren't "on the water" quite yet. Our setup, a flat deck with a graying, shingled house on top, would eventually sit in the middle of the bay attached to a mooring. But she'd been out of the water since December, and for now, looked like Dorothy's windblown house plunked in the middle of a parking lot.
The guys climbed up the side of the dirt pile with ease. It took a few tries but I finally got up and followed them into the house.
"Smells like oysters," A2 said, throwing a glance at the FNG. He grinned at me like he could tell what I was thinking: Ew. My nose filled with the pungent dankness of decaying seaweed. Nothing could have prepared me for that first whiff. It was a slap across the face, sharp and sweet all at once. My eyes welled up for a split second, and I breathed in again, this time more deeply, taking in the sweetness. It was layered and complex, like inhaling shaved truffles or a barnyardy Pinot Noir. Each breath added new depth. Marshy wetland. The beach. Raw meat. It was stinky and aromatic, like a cheese cave — intoxicating.
Berg nudged me out of my trance to get around me so he could turn on a spitting, propane-fired space heater, which changed the smell again. Pit-smoked lobsters covered in rock weed. A New England clambake.
I looked around my new home. There were orange plastic crates filled with oysters stacked along the walls. A rack of sturdy shelving was stuffed with rusting metal rakes, fishing line, first-aid kits, and sunscreen. Down the middle of the makeshift garage, two dirt-caked picnic tables were set end to end on top of upside-down crates.
I stood on one side of the table while Berg stood on the other, facing me like a bartender. He was patient while I got my bearings. But it was time to work.
"Throw these on over your clothes," he directed, tossing me a pair of orange waterproof overalls. I wrestled them over my jeans, careful not to knock anything over. He handed me a pair of royal blue astronaut gloves, which my hands found to be clean and snugly lined.
My now-waterproofed, Oompa-Loompa self turned back to the table. Berg had emptied a full crate of muddied, seaweed-strewn oysters onto the surface between us. Another whiff, this time filled with the sour stench of mud. I picked up an oyster to examine it.
My experience with the little buggers, up until this point, had been limited to your typical, on-the-half-shell restaurant presentation: glistening on a bed of ice. Naked and brimming with meat, they weren't nearly as intimidating as the pile before me. But here, caked in fouling and dirt, the closed shells looked more like gnarly rocks and had few if any appetizing qualities.
"Better get used to these," Berg said, reading my gaze. "Now, you wanna learn how to cull?"
Culling means sorting the pile by size. Island Creek grows a standard Eastern oyster, the only oyster species native to the East Coast (it sometimes goes by its Latin name, Crassostrea virginica). Because oysters grow at different speeds, a single harvest might bring in several different size oysters (the ones we were looking at were almost two years old but I saw that some were the size of a silver dollar while others were as massive as my fist). In order to sell a consistent size and shape to its customers, Island Creek sorts the oysters into three standard sizes: "threes," "selects," and "Per Se's." Threes, also called "regulars," are just over three inches in length and have a deep, rounded bottom shell, called the cup. These, Berg explained, could be a little elongated, even spindly looking, just as long as they had a deep cup and were longer than three inches. The other two sizes are a little smaller (three inches exactly) and the difference between them appeared to be next to nothing, except for a specifically rounded shape. The latter two would be a little harder for me to identify, he said.
Berg sorted while he talked, holding up specimens as examples. He came to one that looked perfectly good to me (a three, perhaps?) but tossed it into a crate by his feet.
"What's wrong with that one?" I asked.
He picked it up and pointed out a tiny crack in the shell, where inside I could see a sliver of cream-colored meat.
"By the time this gets to a restaurant, it'll be dead," he said. "Instead, we'll put it back in the water and within a few months, it'll repair itself and we can drag it back up and sell it later."
Hold the phone. These things repair themselves? I'd slurped back hundreds of oysters in my day but knew next to nothing about the animals themselves. They could physically regrow their shells and fix their own imperfections, thereby turning themselves into sellable oysters? I had a lot to learn.
After watching Berg sort a few more, I picked up an oyster to consider it carefully. I examined the shell. No cracks. I smelled it, inhaling its musky dankness. Sweet dirt. Seaweed. Ocean air. Oyster.
Berg handed me a measuring tool, a wide, flat, three-inch metal ring. I tried to slide the oyster through the ring lengthwise, but it wouldn't fit. Bigger than three inches. I followed Berg's lead and tossed it into the "threes" crate. Berg watched my hands closely.
"See how this one's a little smaller, with a deep cup?" he said, taking another oyster from me and holding it at eye level, showing a full inch of cup between his forefinger and thumb. I nodded.
"See how it's rounded like this? You can see how it would sit well on a plate."
"That's a perfect select," he said, dropping it into the crate.
I was utterly confused, hoping desperately that something would soak in. The cull, I would learn, was not a cut-and-dried process. Technically, it was the very deliberate act of sorting oysters by size and shape. But in actuality, it was about acting and reacting, about decisiveness, and about feel.
A fellow crewmate would tell me later that culling taught her how to exist in the moment. "You have to act fast, you have to stay focused," she said. "It's not about what's in the crates to come or what you've already finished. It's about what's right in front of you."
The tools required are a well-trained eye and, in the state of Massachusetts, a three-inch ring used to measure the length of the shell. The state does not allow the sale of native sub-three-inch oysters, and similar to lobster or fishing regulations, it's a rule that is meant to encourage shellfish harvesters to throw back the little ones, which should then grow larger and potentially procreate, adding more of the species to the environment. It is, in the opinion of the farmers, an outdated law that may have made sense when the Massachusetts coastline brimmed with wild oysters (well before Island Creek's time) when anything sub-three-inch was likely too young to harvest. But for the modern oyster farmer who repopulates the waterway with a new oyster crop every year, ensuring an unending supply, the law can be a headache.
Still, it was the law that day, so Island Creek worked around it by selling their plum-sized, deep-cupped precisely three-inch oysters, their "selects," out of state. In fact, they'd made quite a business selling those near-perfect specimens, which chefs loved, to the top restaurants in the country like Le Bernardin, Masa, Alinea, Craft, and a popular little spot called Per Se.
Chef Thomas Keller had been buying Island Creeks since opening his legendary New York restaurant Per Se in 2004. Actually, the introduction came just before the acclaimed restaurant's opening, thanks to a serendipitous kitchen fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and stalled the operation for several months. Keller's kitchen staff, left out of work temporarily, traveled to various locations doing research. Rory Hermann, a sous chef at the time, ended up in Duxbury in the dead of winter and stumbled upon the growers at Island Creek. After spending a few frigid days on the farm, he hand-selected several of Skip's deep-bellied oysters and brought them down to the now-ready-to-open Per Se to try them out with Keller's signature dish, Oysters and Pearls, a silky combination of tapioca pudding infused, and topped, with oysters and finished with a dollop of caviar. It turned out that Island Creeks were a perfect fit. Today, Skip culls out that specific size and shape, calls it a "Per Se," and ships thousands a week to Per Se and Keller's other hot-spot restaurant in Napa Valley, the French Laundry.
But Keller and his legendary dish were the last things on my mind as I stood holding the three-inch ring in one hand and sifting through a pile of unwashed oysters with the other. All I could think about were my feet, which were frozen solid. And the fact that I'd only been at it for an hour. I watched A2 out of the corner of my eye. He'd been culling quietly alongside us, giving advice here and there, but had gone through several crates by himself already. I looked down at the pile between Berg and me, which was dwindling slowly. My frozen feet and I would have to pick up the pace and push through.
"What about this one?" I asked, holding up a particularly mangled oddity.
Berg took it from me, flipped it around in his glove to feel its heft, and held it up to the ring.
Excerpted from Shucked by Erin Byers Murray. Copyright © 2011 Erin Byers Murray. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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