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Berg staying cool

Berg staying cool

We had a record-breaking hot one yesterday: it hit 91 in Boston and we were in the high 80s on the water all day. My crew was out on the tide by 7 and around 8, the heat picked up and those huge rubber waders felt like lead. But it was a super long tide so we got lots of picking done, despite the dreaded weed that still covers everything. And, despite this friendly little spider crab who I almost picked up since he was disguised as an oyster.

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A2 wasn’t thrilled and now I know why. These things are prehistoric and when you’re inches away from the mud, terrifying to come face to face with. But he didn’t do any harm and eventually scurried away and buried himself back in the mud. Where he belongs.

back into the mud

back into the mud

After the tide, we picked up Joe of Jeeves (who’s helping us out for a few days), along with some iced coffees back on land before heading back to the float to cull. After an hour or so I was broiling and decided to take my chances in the freezing waters with a quick swim. It was absolutely frigid — the kind of cold that takes your breath away — but felt incredible. Later, Shore said I should try to get myself into the 12-month club and hit the water every month of the year. Not sure I can get myself in when the water temp is lower that mid 50s, but we’ll see. I know I’ll be going in a lot once things pick up. Joe was telling A2 and I about the endless summer battle they have tossing people in. Once that cell phone comes out of your pocket, all bets are apparently off.

It was a long day in the heat and sun but I finally had that aha moment. I used to spend days and days behind my desk, staring hopelessly out a window into the summer sunshine wondering what else I would be doing if I only I could go outside. I probably wasted countless hours doing that on someone else’s dime (apologies to any former bosses). If half of this summer is anything like yesterday, I may never go back to an office again.

I took my first break from the farm to trek down to Jazz Fest in New Orleans this weekend. It was a combo trip: music festival with my husband Dave (a work trip for him), surprise birthday visit with my Dad (his big 60th is next weekend). Mom, sis, brother-in-law Brian and our best family friends, Carol & Jim Williams, joined the party, too.

Dave and I got in on Thursday and hit up Lilette where I had my idea of the perfect dish – crispy fried Korabuta pork belly (each little package melted when I bit into it) tossed with pea shoots, melon wedges, cucumber bits, tarragon, mint, and fennel slices in one huge salad. It was that utterly addictive concoction of salty sweet with lots of acid — brilliant since it paired this delicious but extra fatty piece of meat with all this light, spring freshness. We then traipsed over to the Howlin Wolf for some brass band music and Dave’s favorite part of the night, the Lunchbox special (a shot a whiskey and a Miller Hi Life for $7). Two of those and we were good for the night.

Friday, after saying hi to my sis Shannon and her guy Brian, we made our way to the racetrack for the Jazz & Heritage Festival where a few of the bands Dave’s agency represents were playing this weekend. We spent the day wandering between shows and hung out with the guys from the Benjy Davis Project for a bit before I finally dragged Dave over to the Jazz Fest Oyster Bar (it is, after all, a professional obligation).

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We stood in line for a dozen, watching the shuckers rip through burlap bags of oysters. These were from Black Bay, an area where, like most of the Gulf, the oyster farms were almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. They’ve obviously had an incredible recovery and we were psyched to try out the Gulf flavor. A few major differences: they serve the oysters on what we would consider the top, or flat, shell instead of inside the cup. They also had a huge condiment bar with horseradish and hot sauce. All I wanted was a couple squirts of lemon for these bad boys, which were huge and stuffed with meat. My first bite yielded decent results: earthy, almost muddy flavor with some really good chew. But oysters 2 and 3, plus a few that Dave tried were, sadly, frozen almost completely solid.

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Not pleasant…at all. We gave up after those first few, utterly disappointed, and made our way back out into the heat of the festival. I made up for it with a few really tasty fried oysters at Besh Steak later that night (after we surprised Dad and spent a little time on the casino floor).

Saturday gave me the chance to show off ICO oysters to the fam. I’d had 3 dozen shipped down to our hotel so we sat by the rooftop pool and Uncle Jim and I shucked them for the crew. Jim was actually the one who introduced me to oysters back in Spartanburg, SC. We met while living there in the 80s and spent the years as a family ever since. Carol reminded me that Spartanburg was where Jim first started shucking oysters at home; now it’s one of his favorite holiday traditions (that, along with watching old classics like Holiday Inn every year). Jim, meanwhile, told endless stories, like trying to explain why he and my Dad once used a vice and a greasy screwdriver to open oysters (“Those suckers just wouldn’t open”) and how his brother Biff once jabbed himself with a shucking knife and passed out on the floor at the sight of blood. And then, almost immediately, he did it to himself. He was using this handy little tool Mom had smuggled over from Houston, but still managed to jab himself twice, drawing blood (and when Jim jabs, boy he does it with gusto).

notice the blood-stained hand (that would be Jim's)

notice the blood-stained hand (that would be Jim's)

After a few more shows and more fantastic food, I made my way back to Boston last night, hoping to get back as soon as humanly possible. If not for the oysters, than most definitely for the cochon, fried pork belly, boudin balls, and po boys. Between that and the company, it was an absolutely priceless trip.

Dad, Jim, and Erin

Dad, Jim, and Erin

Shannon & Mom hard at work

Shannon & Mom hard at work

A2 culling in the rain

A2 culling in the rain

We’re seeing buds on the trees and now we’ve got growth on our oysters. We were stuck up at the shop yesterday due to weather but it gave us a nice break from the water and chance to catch up with all of the folks who wander in and out of the garage all day. The morning started with culling and listening to CJ’s crazy weekend stories while he and Cory loaded up the truck. As Cory would say, “The kid’s on fire.” Shore joined us for a bit (looking every bit as haggard as CJ) and we got to chat with Billy who just got back from vacation. He was telling us about the weather diary he’s kept for the last several years – says the water temps are probably up to about 40 degrees right now. I asked if he’d seen the weather trending one way or the other in general over the last few years and he said no, not really. “There are cycles here and there but for the most part, it’s been the same. But we have had some pretty bad nor’easters at the end of April these past few years.” Fingers crossed this year’s an off one.

oyster growth

oyster growth

Also got to visit with John Brawley who came by and asked if we’d seen any edging on our oysters yet. He picked one up to show us: “See this white rim at the top? Means the water’s warm enough for the shells to start growing back.” Which also means all of those RTG’s (return to grant’s) we’ve been sending back to the water are repairing themselves more quickly. They’ll sit for awhile longer but soon enough, we’ll be able to re-harvest them and send them out to restaurants. A2 said that he’d noticed it while washing (we’ve been pumping up ocean water when we’re on the float where you can really feel the difference in the temp). Brawley responded: “Yeah, the water doesn’t hurt my hands so much anymore.”

And my weather guy tells me we’re looking at an 80-degree weekend. Wha?! Here’s hoping we’re on the upswing…for us and the oysters.

Yesterday was a raw, choppy one where the clouds started thin and slowly worked their way into an impenetrable ceiling. Our float rocked all day long while A2 and I did our best to get ahead for the week. Culling wasn’t a problem – it was keeping warm. But we had the heater on and for an hour or so, passed time singing Bob Marley tunes a cappella (turns out, A2 has quite the voice). Berg, meanwhile, spent the entire day dragging and pulled up around 40-50 crates. We helped him unload his crates onto the float at least three times and at the end of the day, ended up hauling all of the TBC’s (to be culled) back to land and onto the truck. We’ll most likely spend today at the shop since waters are sure to be too rough for us to get out there; we’re expecting rain and a strong south wind for most of it. Plus, at least one of our boats, the Bat (short for Bateau) is going into the shop today.

We weren’t the only ones prepping. As we made our last trip to the float to pick up all of our finished bags, we saw Greg Morris put-putting his way into the marina — the boat was so loaded up, all we could see was an orange wall of crates and two forms covered in yellow and orange shoveling water out of the bottom of the boat.

“The thing about April,” Christian told me a few weeks back, “is that you get these gorgeous days, these 65, 70 degree days. And then, you get slammed with cold weather.” Clearly he, and T.S. Eliot, know a thing or two about it.

I know what you’re thinking. Just how did we get that thing in the water? Great question. Keep in mind that this is a 40-foot float with a custom-built garage/house on top of it so logistically, getting it into the water was something of a project. I wasn’t there for the move but I hear it was a little dicey. Once the lift picked the float up there was some swaying and everything inside the house slid around a bit… but no major damage.

Mark adding extra flotation minutes before the move

Mark adding extra flotation minutes before the move

preparing to lift

preparing to lift

strapped in

strapped in

on the move

on the move

down it goes

down it goes

moving crew (Skip, Shore, Hendo, Mark, Berg)

moving crew (Skip, Shore, Hendo, Mark, Berg)

the tug boat

the tug boat

my favorite part... pushing it out to the mooring with our tiny shuttle

my favorite part... pushing it out to the mooring with our tiny shuttle

Hopefully that gives you some idea of the process. Personally, I found it fascinating.

So, now, we’re at home on the water. As I mentioned, there are challenges. I arrived on Thursday morning expecting my crew to be hanging around waiting for me. After 20 minutes, I realized I’d literally missed the boat. I called Berg and sure enough, he had to shuttle back over to get me. I either need to get there before they do or be prepared to wait for a ride.

I also need to get used to that swaying feeling that stays with me for hours after reaching land. It never goes away. I’m actually swaying right now while I type this. Do I get seasick? Guess we’ll find out.

And, yes, being a woman has finally caught up with me. Sadly, I can’t (by that, I mean won’t) pee off the side of the float. If I’m going to feel totally comfortable out there all day long, I need to learn how to drive the boat. Good motivator, right? Not a big deal but it’ll probably take some practice.

On the up side, doing all of our work on the float is a breeze. I love being on the water all day, especially on days like yesterday where we were skimming 70 degrees and the wind was nill. I was out there in a tank top catching some sun when Greg Morris, a super-energetic grower and total grinder, and Christian Horne, another grower who’s taught me some valuable tricks for being out on the water (keep your cell phone inside a spare sneaker), cruised past us. Morris jumped on the bow, his arms wide open and shouted, “Where’s your tie-dye??”

Christian Horne and Greg Morris

Christian Horne and Greg Morris

At the moment, things are pretty quiet out there. We’ve got our battery powered, industrial-strength Dewalt radio but other than that, I can’t hear anything but the water lapping against us and the occasional boat cruising past.

just us way out there

just us way out there

I hear the mantra all day long: “Just wait until the summer…Just wait till all the boats arrive…Just wait until it gets busy.” Well, to be honest, I’m pretty content with where we’re at right now. I imagine that once the warm weather starts to stick around, this quiet, empty piece of the harbor is going to get crazy. Between the moored boats and oyster floats, we’ll be in the middle of a summer-long party. So for now, I’ll soak up the silence. And practice driving the boat… without any obstacles.

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Yesterday I arrived at the marina to find our house transplanted. It had been moved onto the water on Wednesday afternoon (with only a few minor hiccups) and attached to a mooring out in the bay. While it was definitely exciting to get out on the water, I was faced with a whole new set of challenges and adjustments.

In the morning, Berg and I loaded up the boat with some crates along with a battery-powered radio and some water pumps. Essentially, everything we’ve been doing (culling at the house, CWB back at the shop) has been streamlined and instead of carting crates from one location to another, everything will happen on the float. That means oysters come right out of the water, onto our culling table, and from there get washed (with sea water which gets pumped up with a tiny, gas-run pump) and bagged on the float. Our only transfer happens at the end of the day when we take the bags back to the shop to put them in the cooler.

This also means that we are out on the water all. day. long. Except for a few shuttles back and forth for lunch and our bag drop (read: bathroom stops), I spent the whole day out there. The views are so much better — instead of staring at a falling down building, we’ve got 360 degree views of the Duxbury Bay and the beaches. The moored end of the house faces the wind, which for now is coming from the northeast, while the opposite end is protected and faces the south and looks directly at the Oyster Dude’s summer house.

south-facing side

south-facing side

We’ve still got some wind to deal with out there so it’s not all sunny skies just yet. I was freezing for the better part of the morning but we’ve got a heater and the hardest part, as promised by Skip, is the boat ride out in the morning. By afternoon, it was nice to be washing out in the sun.

Cory & Berg shuttling to the float

Cory & Berg shuttling to the float

Cory came out to help since A2 had the day off yesterday so we got our bags done by about 4. What better way to celebrate our first day on the water? A case of Buds and a party on the float. After we loaded our bags onto the truck, the suits came out to join us for a beer, as did some of the growers, like Graham and Don Merry plus a few of our friends from the Maritime School. It was a great way to kick off the summer… which suddenly feels like it’s right around the corner.

Berg & Shore

Berg & Shore

Cory & Skip

Cory & Skip

Leaving the party

Leaving the party

Parking

Parking

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Before I left the farm on Friday afternoon, Skip asked if any of us wanted steamers. Well, obviously, yes we did. We waited for him to come back from the water and pull a huge basket of steamer clams out of the back of his truck. The Andy’s and I loaded up bags of the freshly dug clams before heading to the garage where Skip was pulling scallops out of the cooler. “Help yourselves,” he said. pointing his thumb to a 20-pound bag of shucked scallops. These were the dayboats Island Creek has just started selling and they were so fresh, we were eating them raw out of the bag (the fisherman who sold them to us shucks them while he’s dragging – all in a one-man operation). Each one was sweet and meaty with the perfect amount of soft, chewy bite.

Berg's scallops

Berg's scallops

Berg gave me his tips on how to do bacon-wrapped scallops: 450 degree oven, make sure it’s completely pre-heated, wrap up the scallops and secure them with a toothpick. Pull them out when the bacon’s brown and crispy.

My scallops

My scallops

He was right – they were perfection. Dave and I spent the afternoon flipping between the Masters and the Indians game, enjoying a progressive dinner of steamers (we used Greg Morris’s recipe which I’ll post later), bacon-wrapped scallops, and then steaks and twice-baked potatoes. Our new favorite way to dine.

“This day better go in your blog,” Berg shouted to me as I was about to drive off today. “Why?” I yelled back. He was smiling. “Because it was spectacular!”

It’s true. Today was one of those days where everything just came together… despite the fact that it was sort of a sh*tshow.

I got to the farm around 8 and met up with A2 and Claudio. A2 announced that we needed to get bags in before the truck left for its daily deliveries. That meant we’d cull as many crates as we could for an hour or so, then head to the shop and wash and bag before 10 a.m. Up at the shop, we ran into CJ, the Island Creek driver (otherwise known as the Oyster Dude). He was waiting for our bags before he took off for his daily adventure, er, deliveries. By 1 p.m., we’d already put 50 bags into the cooler. Heck of a lot to get done before lunch. After a quick stop at Frenchie’s for a bite, A2, Claudio and I got busy culling and spent the better part of the afternoon working on crates for tomorrow while Berg and Skip went dragging. At the end of the day, we had 43 crates hauled up and a pile of oysters waiting to be bagged tomorrow. Definitely a kick-ass day (despite the fact that it actually snowed for about ten seconds).

A few years ago, Dave left his job in publishing to become a bartender. It was a decision he didn’t make on his own but we respected it and eventually he found his way to the Publick House where he still bartends on Thursdays and Sundays (he’s since taken on a pretty killer day job at a music booking agency, too). At one point, when I was doing the daily grind behind a desk, I told him (somewhat jealously) that he and his “band of merry misfits” were just hanging out, wasting time. He’d found a group of buddies to tide him over until the next serious point in his life. The fun they had at the bar (and outside of it) actually helped him get through a lot and most of those guys have since stuck around to become good friends. Last week, as I was telling Dave about some shenanigan involving Berg, Don, and A2, he just laughed and shook his head. “Looks like you’ve found your own band of merry misfits.

Cory and Berg

Cory and Berg

He’s right. We’re already infested with inside jokes and I find myself doubled over in laughter at least twice a day. It’s a blast. And I have them to thank for it.

Erin on the Snug Harbor patio

Erin on the Snug Harbor patio

Which is why I can’t help but sum them up in some totally pointless but entertaining way.

Berg

Berg

Andy Yberg (Berg, A1, Steak Sauce)
Likes: Surfing, soccer, the earth, Billy Joel, U2, mayo on his sandwiches, Frenchie’s cubanos, Jack Johnson, Planet Earth, his roommate Gelly (whose name I probably misspelled), red bandannas, lobstering, grinding.
Dislikes: Disorganization, laziness, phone calls.

Erin & A2 culling

Erin & A2 culling

Andy Seraikas (A2)
Likes: Lost, Lost blogs, Hootie and the Blowfish, Akon, Kanye, karaoke, grilling, Polish horseshoes (usually together), that college song by that Asher guy, the Sports Guy, cooking, making up new lyrics to old songs, golf, his roommate Gelly, ghost stories, peanut butter and jelly, going to the gym,
Dislikes: Country music, being serious,

Cory and A2

Cory and A2

Corydon Wyman (Cory, Don, the Don, shop manager, part-time massage therapist)
On Tuesday, Cory gave me an in-your-face reminder that I work with a bunch of guys. It went like this:

A2 and I are standing in our waterproof Grunden’s washing oysters. Some loud, snappy dance tune is playing. A2 turns the hose on me and sprays me with water in tune with the beat.

Don: Erin, one day, you’re going to feel something like that on your leg and you’re going to look over and it’ll be me, urinating on you.
Me: (doubled over laughing) Don, why would you do that to me?
Don: What? It’s not like it matters. They’re waterproof.

Likes: Phish, Umphree’s Magee, Boomtown, getting excited, cleanliness in the shop and everywhere else in his life, long walks on the beach, seals, being organized, extracurricular activities, “hate, hate, hate.”
Dislikes: Attitudes, tanning salons, church.

Here’s to a spectacular day.

I swear I won’t make every post about the weather… but this is getting to be ridiculous. As Dave put it the other day: “Typically, it rains every weekend and we get nice weather when we’re stuck indoors.” Right. Well, the minute I start working outside, the opposite rings true. Sigh.

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I will take a short break from our regularly scheduled oyster programming to talk about pigs. Dave and I were at Cochon 555 on Sunday night – it’s a traveling cooking event where 5 chefs are each given one of 5 heritage breed pigs and cook with as many parts of the pig as they can; they’re then judged by a panel as well as the public on what I consider the only criteria worth noting: the most mind-blowing taste experience of the night.

Dave and I were part of the public tasting/judging so we only got to try a handful of dishes from each chef (and watch this really intense pig butchering session from the sidelines) but the consensus on the floor and in the judge’s room were pretty spot on: Matt Jennings from Farmstead restaurant in Providence won the prize. We had his stellar pork carnitas tacos which were nicely balanced with pickled onions. So good for a small bite. Another bonus was the VIP reception upstairs. We found a lot of our foodie friends up there who were judging (Tim & Nancy Cushman from O Ya, Ken Oringer, Barbara Lynch, Amy Traverso from Boston Magazine) plus the competitors (Jamie Bissonnette, Tony Maws who was toting around his kid Charlie, Joseph Margate of Clink, Matt Jennings of Farmstead, and Jason Bond of the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro) as well as a pork tasting where each heritage breed was lined up side by side so you could compare and contrast. This was the best takeaway: getting to taste the flavor profiles and differences between the Berkshire (familiar, nutty, creamy, firm), the Tamworth (leaner but still considered a good “bacon hog”), the Red Wattle (darker, tender meat), the Yorkshire (sweet and salty), and the Yorkshire-Duroc cross (good marbling, really rich). They were supplied by farms from around the country, including the Adams Family Farm in Athol. We also got info about the Endangered Hog Foundation; they’re helping to preserve 9 endangered hog breeds and probably came up with Dave’s favorite quote of the night: “We have to eat these pigs to save them.”

erin-warm

As for the oysters, they’re still going strong. Yesterday, I started to ask Skip about the origin of our oysters. He told me they come from two different broodstocks (the parents) and that they start as tiny eggs which are then fertilized and actually have the same qualities of fish at this point. They then go into a larval phase and through a metamorphoses that changes their whole digestive system and that’s when they become oysters, officially. This is a really simple, dumbed down explanation for what I imagine is a much more scientific process that I’ll have to study up on. The seeds are coming in a few weeks and once that happens, the farm will be a zoo. Looking forward to it … but enjoying the peace and quiet while it lasts.

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My fourth week on the farm was a rough one. Not sure why, exactly. Could have been the crappy weather, or it might have been our new friend the Brown Frown: seaweed. It gets bad this time of year and makes dragging really rough. Berg went out on Monday afternoon and had a hard time getting crates up since the drag just got filled with the stuff. We were pulling it out of the cull all week.

We did get out on the tide twice and had a killer day on Tuesday (meaning, we hand-picked more than 20 crates of oysters before the tide came up). But then Wednesday, A2 went home sick; Thursday was frigid plus I was exhausted and at one point tripped with a crate in my hands and landed face down in the crate. Not fun. I can add 8 more bruises and a sore neck to my list of injuries thanks to that one. Yesterday was better for morale but we still dealt with crappy weather. A trip to Tsang’s (Duxbury’s only Chinese restaurant where lunch portions are heaping and cheap) for lunch and a few cold Buds at the end of the day helped make up for it all.

Cory after a long Friday (don't worry, he's not actually driving the truck).

Cory after a long Friday (don't worry, he's not actually driving the truck).

I think Thursday was officially my worst day on the farm. Being comfortable and warm is by far my biggest challenge. If I can get warm, the day flies and we have a blast. But Thursday’s weather was impossible to feel good in. It was that perfect New England combo of cold, rainy, windy spring weather that goes right through you. Paired with my exhaustion, it made for a miserable day. As Billy keeps saying, it’ll get better. He swears.

On top of it all, I’m staring at oysters all day! Do you know how many oysters we look at daily? I might count one day. It’s enough to drive any sane person bananas. I’m starting to go ‘ster crazy… ba-dum-bump. Seriously, though, all we do is come up with ways to make each other laugh. We’ve got “I’m on a Boat” by the SNL guys on repeat throughout the week and A2 and I have been finding new ways to annoy each other. He’s become like the little brother I never asked for. But in a good way.

Thursday night, I had dinner with Greg Reeves, the chef at Green Street Grill. We ate at Sportello (for my Improper column) and afterwards, went down to Drink for a cocktail. Greg, I found out, majored in environmental science and minored in oceanography at UNH so we had a really cool chat about the weather. He was teaching me a little bit about the wind and pressure systems and this really great discussion came down to how closely the weather is tied to our food. In fact, so many of my conversations these days come back to where our food comes from. From the potatoes that went into my gnocchi last night to the coffee beans we brewed this morning, every ingredient passes through the hands of a laborer at some point. Every ingredient has a Brown Frown. Everything is harvested, then sorted, cleaned up, processed, and neatly packaged to be sent out into the world. Hours upon hours, days upon days; it takes so much time and energy to get one simple ingredient from the farm to your table. It’s more work than I ever imagined until I did it myself. And I’m dealing with a high-end product. Imagine trying to do this project with something as everyday as potatoes? I’m finally understanding how far removed I’ve been from the food that I eat. Just four weeks in and I’ve developed a whole new appreciation and fascination for how this country is fed.

But I’m still at the beginning and settling in. I’m sure the year will be full of discussions like these. And probably full of crappy days, too. One day in four weeks? All in all, that ain’t so bad.

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