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Last night I was talking to my sister Shannon about the cull. As she put it: “You don’t talk about actually harvesting oysters much.” It’s true, I haven’t really gotten into the harvesting part. We were actually be out on the tide yesterday and will go back out today to hand pick oysters. The tide only gets low enough to do it every couple of weeks so on the days in between, Berg or Skip go out dragging.
At the moment, that’s not the point of my job. Instead, I told her about a game we play with each other and with Skip while we’re culling. One of us will pick up an oyster from the TBC crate (tbc = to be culled) and ask, “What would you do with this one?”
Here’s the thing about the cull: We’re hand-inspecting every single oyster that comes out of the water. Each oyster is like a puzzle piece. It can go into three or four different piles depending on it’s size or shape — and there are as many different shapes for an oyster as there are snowflakes. No two are ever exactly alike. So we pick up every oyster and ask ourselves, “Where should I put this one?” Would it go into the 3’s pile (our standard, perfect oyster), the Graybar pile (a rounder, deeper cup oyster named for a restaurant that originally asked for that style), the Per Se pile (also called the Porn Star, this is the oyster specifically ordered by Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant), or the RTG pile (Return To Grant, or the oysters that need to repair themselves or get a little bigger)?
The answer changes with every oyster and I’ve gone from taking full minutes to answer that question to a split second. While it’s a repetitive movement that might seem mundane, we’re tasked with paying very close attention to details. It is the most important part of our job since it’s the whole reason we are able to provide a consistent product to our restaurants. Each pile has to look roughly the same so that when a restaurant gets one of our bags, they can plate a complete dozen or half dozen orders that look alike. It’s our quality control and it’s the reason chefs love our product. It will probably be the topic of many posts so the more I come to understand it, the better I’ll be able to describe it.
But there’s also a lot of other things happening on the farm right now. The big news last week was a shipment of day boat scallops that came in off the Cape. We were trying these out to see what chefs think and I’m guessing the verdict is good. I went to Eastern Standard on Saturday night and chef Jeremy Sewell managed to save us the last two. He grilled them and soaked them in butter, then served them whole on the shell. While this made them tricky to eat (they didn’t release from the shell) the final result was outstanding – really sweet, huge meaty chunks of scallops. I’m hoping they become a fixture for us. I’d never seen a live scallop out of the water and these babies were clackers. They were huge and could probably snap your finger off if you got too close. But they’re gorgeous and hopefully you can find them around Boston and New York in the next few weeks.
We’re also deep into preparations for the Island Creek Oyster Festival 2009. (Save the date: September 12.) Shore and I are working on a stellar lineup of chefs and the committee is in full swing. More on that as we get going.
Other big news that I’m super excited about: the farm is getting chickens. No, no… You won’t be seeing Island Creek chickens on any menus. But Skip did order some chicks which should arrive in a few weeks so that, at the very least, the farm will have fresh eggs every day. Can’t wait for those to get here. Another sure sign of spring, if you ask me.
Today made it clear that we are so, so close to summer. It was about mid 40s by the water and warm enough that by mid afternoon, the whole suits crew (plus Cory and Mark) was eating lunch on the patio at Snug Harbor Fish Co. (Granted, they were bundled up in scarves and blankets.) A2 and I joined them for a bite before heading back to the shop where there was way less wind and plenty of sunshine. We washed and bagged in the driveway – could have stayed out there all afternoon. We’re getting closer. I can feel it.
I have to quickly show appreciation for my favorite comment so far. This one comes to us from A2’s mom. A2: Call your mother!
I am the mother of A2 and am thoroughly enjoying your blog. What a wonderful opportunity you have been given! I know it’s hard work, but it seems very rewarding. From what I’ve been told, everyone has a good time working at ICO. My grandfather used to farm cranberries in South Carver. I think I should try that out and do a “Bog Blog”.
Would you please tell A2 to call his mother as he was supposed to two nights ago?! Also, remind him that he promised to send me some oysters.
I hope to meet you some day.
Honestly, for any other moms reading out there, I work with the most respectful, disarming, and genuine guys a girl could ask for. They’ve been perfect gentlemen. So thanks!
One of the perks of this job, as Skip reminded me yesterday, is that I get to take home as many oysters as I can eat. I brought home about a dozen and a half for Dave and I to snack on before dinner tonight. Besides a stellar, interactive appetizer, it gave me time to practice my shucking skills.
Over our oysters, we chatted about my total lack of skills.
Me: I think maybe I’ll finish up the year and then go work as a shucker at an oyster bar. It could fulfill that “working in a restaurant” urge that’s been nagging me for awhile.
Dave: Yeah, well, you should probably see how this year goes first. I mean, of all the possible options you have ahead of you, working in an oyster bar has never really come up before.
Me: Yeah. I guess I should learn to shuck oysters well first.
Dave: Or you could just go back to being a writer… you know, like you always wanted to be.
Me: (slurping back my 8th oyster) Riiiggghhhttt.
I’m starting to get the hang of shucking even though I cut myself once. We whipped up the Island Creek mignonette and put the puppies on ice. I was drinking a Harpoon Quad (courtesy of our pal Liz who smuggled a few bottles into Highland Kitchen for us when we met her and Adam for dinner there last week) and really liked the dark, Belgian-y style with our oysters. That heady maltiness really punctuated the the sweetness of Island Creeks. I strongly recommend it. And speaking of strong, the Quad is a killer at 12%. Consume sparingly.
One last note: I’d love some more tips on where to find Island Creeks (or any really truly spectacular and way-above-average oysters out there). I’m going to try and amp up the Eating. Oysters. section so if you’ve got them on your menu or want me to put an idea out to the world, please send them my way: murray.erinb at gmail.com.
The first day of spring on the farm meant 30-degree temps and a bright, clear day. When I got to the shop Friday morning, I met up with A2 and our new comrade, Claudio, and then grabbed a ride down to the water with Skip. Along the way, we chatted about how things were going so far (good but physically grueling) and started to get into his own personal connection to the seasons. He said a friend once told him that he was more in tune with the seasons than anyone else she’d known. And he agreed.
“A few days ago, when we were out on the tide, I thought to myself, ‘I bet the sea worms will be out right now,’ and sure enough we got out there and there they were,” he said. “I guess I’m just used to the way these things work.”
You can feel that connection all over the farm, actually. Everyone seems to be in tune with how fast or slow the thermometer’s moving. Every time a grower pops by the float or backs their truck up to the shop to drop off bags, they talk about the weather. They tell me that March is the worst month because of the fluctuating temperatures. But then last week, Christian Horne tossed out the fact that April can be brutal and rainy. And every day, someone asks us when the float is going back into the water. While we’d love to be out there now, it’s still just a little too early — and cold — to get it out there yet. Every conversation, all day long, goes back to the weather. It controls every part of what we do. And absolutely everyone stresses that it’s only going to get better. Like Berg told me on my first day of work: “In the summertime, this is the best job in the world.”
As for me, I’ve only ever watched the seasons change from the comfort of a desk chair. I’m used to watching buds appear out of nowhere in May and then get miffed when it all ends up on the ground come October. And while I’ve always been aware of when it’s getting warmer or lighter, I’ve never felt more controlled by what the weather is doing than I am these days. From what layers I put on in the morning to whether or not we wash and bag indoors, it’s all I think about during the day. And, much to my surprise, I’m perfectly happy with that. Since I’m guessing the only constant in my life will be the changing weather, I’d better get used to it. And appreciate days like last Wednesday, when I could actually shed a few layers and enjoy that extra little bit of sunlight.
I’m also guessing I’ll get used to the new happy hour. No, not the one that took place at Frankie D’s at 4 p.m. on Friday (though it was a stellar display of suits-boots camaraderie). I’m talking about the one that took place when I got home. After a hot shower, a glass of Kentucky bourbon and one single oyster, I was as relaxed as I think I’ll ever be.
Can’t believe it’s Friday already. This week flew. Wednesday was a perfect day: high 50s, sunny, windy. We finished up our bags yesterday and have a new guy joining our crew today. Berg is out of town so A2, Claudio, and I are on our own today.
The shot above is our shop (well, Cory’s shop, really). It’s the garage at Island Creek Headquarters and until we get our float in the water, it’s where we’re doing all of our processing (counting, washing, bagging). Those are the famous orange Grunden’s and orange crates. Our bags are stacked up on the palettes, getting ready to go into the walk-in cooler. We harvested those Tuesday and they were probably in restaurants by Thursday morning.
Last night I met up with friends for dinner at Toro and it was my first experience eating our oysters since I’ve been on the farm. There’s a strong chance that the ones we ate went through my hands at one point during the process (and they were fantastic: marinated, served on the half shell, then sprinkled with grains of paradise and a hit of Tabasco saffron emulsion – really bright and tasty). That’s why this whole thing just keeps getting better.
The International Seafood Show was in town all weekend so Team ICO was in overdrive with buyers’ meetings, working the show, and loading in and out. I went over twice – Sunday for a bit and Monday afternoon for the shucking competition. The place was a zoo; the convention center is as massive as an airplane hangar filled with seafood and industry purveyors and their crazy elaborate booths. One corner featured every possible seafood related processing tool (a vacuum for the sea! it’ll even slice, dice, and shrink wrap!) while ICO was set up with its shucking boat in the shellfish area. I actually saw a motorcycle designed to look like a shrimp. And the crowd was totally unexpected. Lots of suits, some chefs, and a random smattering of super leggy women…though I’m still not sure where they fit into the picture.
Dave got to see some of the action and meet my crew on Sunday. It was also the day of Southie’s St. Patty’s Day parade which once again I managed to avoid (seven years in Boston and I still haven’t been), so there were plenty of green beads and hats lying around. Monday was a little more entertaining; I worked on the farm in the a.m. and got to the show by 3. My pal Rowan Jacobsen was MC’ing the shucking contest — I’ve never actually seen one of these before and apparently there’s a pretty intense shucking circuit. The man to beat? A Wellfleet guy named Chopper. Yes, Chopper. He won the world competition last year (right?!) and as we walked up to the contest we actually caught him stretching.
There were 2 heats: east coast oysters, then west (two very different species, the west coast variety being more difficult in this case). The dozen or so shuckers (including one rock star woman from Virginia) picked out 12 east coast oysters to get started. They had to shuck and present them like they would in a raw bar so speed counted but so did tidiness. Before they started, I heard Chopper tell the woman sitting in the front row to watch out: she was sitting where his shells would fly, down and to the right.
I think the anticipation was more thrilling than the contest. I mean, these guys were quick but I kept waiting for someone to slice off a finger. Chopper shucked in one quick motion: slip the knife in, pop the shell off (and into the audience) slide it around the side, cut and flip the meat. Just like that.
Rowan spoke about the different methods (some go in from the side, others from the back) and called out the contestants’ progress. Pat McCluskey represented Island Creek and held his own but Chopper eventually won both rounds full minutes before anyone else was finished. I didn’t time it but I’d say he went through a dozen in less than three minutes. We didn’t stick around for the awards’ ceremony but I walked away with a new appreciation for their work.
Back at the booth, Mark (Skip’s previous farm manager) taught me how to shuck a few and I swear it took me ten minutes to get one open. (Sorry Uncle Jim. It’s been a long time since our last Christmas lesson.) I jabbed myself a few times but after 3 or 4 oysters it started to get easier. Matthew suggested I start shucking a dozen every day when I’m done with work to practice. I may make my way onto the circuit yet. Better watch yer back, Chopper.
Meanwhile, back at the farm…
Monday and yesterday were a little less action packed but full of culling/counting/washing/bagging. A2 and I did the bagging while Berg went dragging yesterday. I’ve gathered that when the wind blows south, like it will today, the water gets too choppy to go out so Berg takes in as many oysters as he can when he goes out. Me, I’m happy to stay on land and cull and bag for now. Even after 8 hours of sleep, I was exhausted yesterday. Oh, that reminds me.
Current list of aches and pains:
2 sore wrists/forearms (I’m guessing early onset arthritis)
2 swollen hands
5 nicks on hands from shucking
About a dozen bruises across my thighs (from hoisting the crates up)
1 tight back (but it’s better than last week)
2 tight hamstrings (but those are from my Saturday run, which I was completely winded by unfortunately)
I’ll continue to keep track since it’ll probably get worse. I should also link my Twitter account to this blog somewhere. Lots of funny moments throughout the day. Yesterday, A2 and I were inspired to start a new band called The Cullers – we’ve got two songs that sound an awful lot like the Killers (“I’ve got shells but I’m not an oyster”; “Count like you mean it”). A2 is on vocals and harmonica; I’ll be on tambo. We’re still working on Berg.
Supposed to get up near 60 today. Looking forward to a sunny afternoon. If you’re stuck indoors, just think of me and my guys, dressed like Oompa Loompas, hoses and crates in hand, belting out oldies at the top of our lungs.
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday we put in some solid work to get our bag numbers filled. As a team, the Andys & I get a specific bag count each week (each bag has 100 oysters) which we’ll usually get done by Thursday.
Essentially, when we cull, we weed out any oysters that have chips in the shells or aren’t fully grown. We also separate them by size and return any that are too small — or too big. Though sometimes we keep the good jumbos and bag them, too (some restaurants prefer them big). To cull, we stand inside the Plex (ie: garage, house, float) at two long tables that are propped on orange crates so they’re about rib level. We dump a crate out onto the table and just start sorting, tossing out any clunkers (open shells) and other junk and separating the good oysters into empty crates. Sometimes we get little crabs or hermit crabs in the mix; sometimes clam shells or barnacle covered rocks. Most of the crates we culled this week were dragged from the bottom so the oysters were covered in dirt which is why we wear orange rubber coveralls and thick, lined gloves.
After getting our bags done for the week on Thursday, we went out on the tide early yesterday morning to collect a bunch of netted bags from the lease (the leased area that Skip farms). These bags are about a quarter full of oysters that had been returned from a cull a few weeks back. They’re put back so they can repair themselves from any nicks or dings on the shell (oysters can heal themselves in a few days when the temperature’s right). It was frigid yesterday but once we got out on the mud, I was fine. Covered head to toe in waterproof gear (most of which is lined) and wearing those thick gloves, I could have sat out there all day. It was coming back in going into the wind that was brutal. And if you get even a drop of water into your gloves when it’s that cold out, you’re pretty much screwed (which I was at the end when I dunked my hand in the tide by accident – lesson learned).
So, a little about my crew. The two Andys (Berg and A2) are essentially my two pals for the day. Berg is the farm manager and keeps us in shape. A2 and Berg know each other from their days at the University of Rhode Island (I think they graduated last May. Needless to say, I am ancient in their eyes.) Because we spend a lot of the day standing, sorting, washing, bagging, the banter between these two can range from epic quoting sprees from the Office or some Seth Rogan movie to educational dialogues about how oysters retain carbon. It’s fascinating, actually. And really fun. Yesterday, one went something like this.
Berg: You’re like a roaming water buffalo. Only, you just stand there.
A2: No, you are. You’re like a… a…
A2: I don’t know. I couldn’t come up with anything. So, Berg. Tsang’s for lunch? She wants to go. [They've started calling me She or Her]
Me: I’m starving.
Berg: Alright, I know you want to go to Tsang’s. Let’s get done with these bags first.
A2: (under his breath) Yes.
And on and on we go. Probably not the greatest example of their work but it all sort of blends together into one comical day-long conversation.
We did make it to Tsang’s for lunch and because I’ve been Twittering from the farm, I got my first taste of the Suits v. Boots controversy. The guys in the office: Suits. Us: Boots. I twittered something about hitting up Tsang’s for lunch and immediately got messages from Matthew and Shore (Suits) wondering why they weren’t invited. One week in and I’m already causing trouble! I had no explanation – but Berg did. It’s a two-way street, guys. Invite us out for lunch now and then and we’ll do the same. Ok?
I’m kidding, sort of. The Andys love to joke about it but at the end of the day, we went over to the office, called a truce and opened a couple Harpoons. Fitting way to end the week.
Low tide was around 5:30 tonight so after a full day of culling and bagging (amongst other things), we went out on the tide to hand pick some oysters. This shot is from photog Dave Grossman who came out to chat while we were picking. By the time he got out there, the light was going and it was getting cloudy (rainy day coming up tomorrow) but he managed to get one in.
Quite a day for Skip’s crew. Berg was out dragging most of the day while A2 and I culled and bagged. We were interrupted when Rob, director of the Maritime School, came by to tell us he was moving our float. This is the Oysterplex, a huge house that sits on a float. Usually it’s in the water but it came out in November and will probably go back in some time in April. Today, they needed to move it about ten feet over to allow room for them to move their own floats out to the water. So A2 and I hung back and watched as this giant contraption picked up the float and, after getting stuck in the mud, moved it over. Apparently little things like this can totally disrupt the day.
Beautiful day for the most part. I think it reached the 50s for a bit. Nice to be outside when it’s like that so I’m hoping we get lots more in our near future. Also got a chance to try a few oysters fresh out of the water with Skip. Really plump, briny, and delicious. I think I’m going to love this job.
Am hoping to have time to fill everyone in this weekend. For now, know that my back aches and I’m slightly sunburned… but happy as a clam.
Survived it! It was a little touch and go this morning – awful, awful weather. Probably the worst weather day we’ve had in months. Started off with sleeting rain and during my 45-minute drive down to the farm, it turned from ice to snow to whipping rain. Awesome first-day weather. Really. Just perfect.
For a minute, I thought someone was trying to tell me something.
But … then I got to the farm. It was 8 a.m. (they have me on a totally reasonable schedule from 8-4), and I was bundled up in my hooded coat, jeans, long underwear and Hunter boots. Immediately, I parked in the wrong spot. Billy Bennett, Skip’s dad and one of the growers, is God at the farm (so I was told by Andy… I mean Berg). Billy owns and runs everything. And the exact spot where I parked my car is where he backs his truck up to the side door of the shop. Thankfully Cory (Corydon, the shop manager/man-in-charge) showed me where it was safe to park and then brought me to the shop where I met the legendary Bill and quickly understood why everyone loves him. Huge smile, great handshake, soft, friendly eyes. Just like Skip.
My two colleagues, Berg and A2 (Andy & Andy) were in the shop as well. We caught up briefly and then I hopped in the truck with Berg. Thankfully, it was one of those days where you just. don’t. go out on the water – really choppy, very high tide, and totally unpassable. Phew. Instead, we went into the Oysterplex (that sorting house I showed you before) and got to work.
Now, to be honest, it’s taken me a few hours to relax and process everything (I’ve also had a few glasses wine – to warm up, ya know?) so I won’t go into it all. But the basics involve this: we spent about 4 hours culling (sorting oysters by size, weight, etc) then we went over to the shop (it houses a table saw and we were tasked with cutting 68 24X24 inch plywood boards into 19×24 inch boards in order to make upwellers… which I’ll explain later). A2 managed to keep all of his fingers intact and I didn’t take anyone to the hospital (win, win). After that, we headed back to the shop (a barn next to ICO headquarters) and proceeded to CWB (count, wash, bag). Honestly, it’s as simple as it sounds. We wash the oysters, count them out, and bag them.
I can explain in further detail tomorrow. For now, check out my semi-ragged boots. Fashionably mud-covered, right? The problem was, I couldn’t feel my feet for most of the morning… and by mid afternoon, I lost feeling in my fingers. So… you know… those are things to work on. Oh, right: I also had to cut my fingernails (mud+long nails=disgusting mess).
The plus side? I had the best hot shower of my life tonight.
More tomorrow, I promise.
The very last Friday of my all-too-short two weeks off is quickly waning. I’ll be giving up this view until further notice, sadly. One last sunset from the comfy throne of my palatial home office. Well, palatial compared to the former bedroom nook that I used to work from. (My ever-thoughtful father-in-law once gave me one of those lamps that simulates sunlight just so I wouldn’t suffer from seasonal depression. Now I have 8 windows. Soon I won’t need any.)
Haven’t had this kind of Friday in awhile. The kind where you’re not quite sure what Monday might bring. It feels heavy for a Friday but I’m actually crawling out of my skin with anticipation. Still not sure I have a clue what to expect. Hopefully it’ll include an even better view.