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Matthew and I got to Chicago on Wednesday morning and after solving various phone issues (we were both getting the shakes after a few hours without our Blackberries) stopped into Shaw’s Crab House. We were there for the Royster with the Oyster, which Shaw’s has been putting on for more than 20 years. We made it there in time for the Oyster Hall of Fame dinner honoring Rodney Clark, the newest inductee.
Personally, I find it fascinating that there is an actual place where the biggest, best-known names in oysters (Hog Island, Jon Rowley, Joan Reardon, Rowan Jacobsen, MFK Fischer, and of course, Island Creek) are honored in an official way (and yes, there is an actual hall in the form of a private dining room filled with photos of all the inductees). They get together this time every year to celebrate oysters, reconnect, and honor those who have kept these fascinating bivalves in the spotlight.
The dinner was a hoot. We slurped back oysters (Rod’s Queens, which I was told were about 12 years old, ShanDaphs, and Sand Dunes) opened by Rodney’s 25-year-old son Eamon (a master shucker – Rodney thanked him for “his stroke on the knife to the calcium”) and then sat down to dinner to hear speeches, the reading of letters from those who couldn’t be there and plenty of oyster conversation. Rodney’s Oyster House is up in Toronto where Clark is considered Mr. Oyster. He was an entertaining speaker who kept it short (it was only as long as the number of words that fit onto an airsickness bag, which is what he wrote it on) and referred to his placement in Chapter 11 of Robb Walsh’s book Sex, Death and Oysters as the only way he ever wanted to be affiliated with Chapter 11.
Hendo and I spent the rest of the weekend running around Chicago visiting restaurants with our oysters in tow. A few highlights were peeking into the Alinea kitchen from a side window during service one night (chef Dave probably would have kicked us off our perch if we’d spent one more minute spying on them; chef Grant hardly looked up from his work), being greeted at Charlie Trotter’s kitchen entrance by Mr. Trotter himself, hearing about the Chicago social scene from chef Bruce Sherman (who then sent us to The Wieners Circle for the best charred hot dogs of my life) and two incredible meals at Publican. Friday, we spent awhile chatting up the crew there and got to know owner Paul Kahan who was incredibly gracious and funny (I love that he visits Avec and Blackbird every night but almost always ends up at Publican to shuck oysters and drink a beer).
After Friday’s first Publican visit (we went back late-night for dinner), we went to Shaw’s where Steve LaHaie showed us his new collection of oyster plates (they were a gift from author Joan Reardon).
Eventually, we made it to the Festival where the annual slurp off ended with a win by Jon Ashby … who just happened to be wearing an Island Creek tshirt (we owe that guy a bag of oysters). And please, if you have a minute, you’ve got to listen to this emcee go on about the requirements for winning this contest. He was a riot.
I woke on Friday morning to find that the weather was doing exactly what it did my first day of work: wet, snowy, slick, and cold. This isn’t typical for mid-October but we are, after all, in New England. The snow came down even harder this afternoon — Dave and I watched from our living room as the Pats slid all over the field tromping the Titans on a snowy Sunday.
Friday ended up being a wash. We got to the harbor and watched the sailboats bob sideways while Berg and Greg bounced out in the bay on Morris’s boat in the rain only to find that they couldn’t land on the float. The waves were too high for us to be out there so we ended up at the shop working on some farm-gear upkeep for most of the morning.
This time of year is tricky for the crew. We’re all anxious to get the seed planted and get our cages out of the water but with the weather last week, we only made it out on the tide once. We did manage to get a solid night of celebration in – we finally had our crew outing in the city. The guys all took a limo up from Duxbury; Catie and Maggie met us after work/school; and Eva took the train up from Brown. We started at Post 390 for a couple beers and oysters and then moved on to Toro where we ate incredibly well: foie gras with pear chutney, roasted bone marrow, garbanzos with chorizo, smoked duck legs, our oysters with a citrus-y foam, kobe burgers, paella, and of course, a perron of cava.
We ended up at Eastern Standard telling stories and laughing uncontrollably. As always, it was a wild night out with the crew – one we definitely needed after all that hard work this summer (thanks, Skip).
We’ve got some work ahead of this week but I’ll be taking a short break from the farm to head to Chicago with Matthew. We’re going out for the Shaw’s Crab House Royster with the Oyster this Wednesday where we’ll check out the ChicaGourmet’s Hall of Fame dinner and spend a few days doing sales calls. The guys at Island Creek are always part of the event (they’re serving our oysters on Thursday night at the Goose Island beer dinner) and we’re looking forward to seeing our bud Rowan Jacobsen along with (hopefully) some other oyster notables.
And now, the really good news. I just got word that on Nov 12, I’ll be heading down to NY to stage at Per Se (talk about burying the lede here). We very kindly asked chef Jonathan Benno if I could come down for an afternoon and watch as Thomas Keller’s famed New York restaurant prepares one of its signature dishes, Oysters and Pearls … which just happens to include Island Creek Oysters. Thankfully, he’s agreed. We had a visit from one of the restaurant’s chefs this summer (it was part of a couple-week long educational program where the chef went around the country stopping at Per Se’s various purveyors to work for a few days); I’m looking forward to retrieving the favor by spending a day with chef Keller’s kitchen staff. I’ll be trailing the fish butcher and at the canape station plus I’ll get to hang out for a bit during service. Skip and Shore will head down with me to do a pre-meal presentation for the staff and later that night, the three of us will sit down for dinner (my first at Per Se).
I’m trying hard to contain the nerves that comes with something like this. For any chef, spending the day in Per Se’s kitchen is a treat. For a non-chef, oyster farming writer (that would be me) it’s just plain unexpected. Since learning about Island Creek’s relationship with Thomas Keller’s restaurants, I’ve been salivating over the idea of getting into the kitchen to see what they do with our oysters. After all, the whole point of spending this year on the farm was to watch an ingredient go from seed to table. Finally, after months of nurturing, planting, harvesting, and handling our tasty oysters, I get to see what happens to them in the hands of one of the country’s most revered chefs. And then, more incredibly, to taste them while sitting alongside the guy who grows them.
Not bad for a girl on an oyster farm. Right?
What happens on an oyster farm when things slow down? We find more to do.
It’s not that we’re at a loss. We planted some more on Tuesday during an early morning tide and more today during a mid-morning tide. If all goes well, we’ll have all of our seed planted/distributed by the end of next week (fingers crossed for good weather).
This week, though, the wind blew like mad. Tuesday was a brutal day — we rushed out to tide after a 5:30 a.m. arrival, got out to the cages in the dark and the tide just. wouldn’t. move.
We had some water to play with so we got our seed bags out of the cages (something A2 likens to pushing and pulling a crinkly dollar bill out of a vending machine only, you know, 100x the size) and loaded onto the boat. Then we waited for the sun to rise and the water to keep going out. Only, it never really did.
Skip, somewhat frustrated, explained that we were under a high pressure system (as evidenced by the crystal-clear sky — we could still see Orion’s Belt) and that, usually, the tide moves the right way with those conditions. But what we were experiencing felt almost like a low pressure system. No movement (the air, pushed down by that low pressure, keeps the water from moving anywhere quickly) which meant no time to shake and plant. Regardless, our bags were loaded up so we went back to the float to start emptying seed into one of the boats. Skip and Berg would plant with the shovel after all. It wasn’t a total loss. We got to watch the night fade away, the full moon lower and then, finally, the arrival of the sun right on time at 6:46 a.m. For Skip, it was the 4th moon rise/sun rise in a row.
There’s a rhythm to our days on the float now. We wash and bag in the morning and then cull in the afternoons. The crew has little projects to work on here and there and we’re usually in the zone. But I have the feeling all of that will shift, at least for me, in the next few weeks.
We’ve been hatching some travel plans for the fall since that’s pretty much the only down time we have on the farm. Collectively, in the next month, we’re headed to Chicago, New York, France and… Africa (and that’s just for work). Matthew, Lisa and I will hit Chicago for the Shaw’s Oyster Fest; Skip, Shore, and Berg are off to Zanzibar for some research for the Island Creek Oysters Foundation project (which involves starting a hatchery in Zanzibar); Matthew is heading to France; and Skip, Shore and I are working on a trip to NYC to visit Per Se.
It’s not going to be easy leaving the float here and there. But, as Shore puts it: this is the way things go in Oyster Land.
As I got to my car one pitch-black morning earlier this week morning, I stopped in my tracks. There was frost on the windshield. Ok, I thought. I’m right back where I started.
Luckily, fall seems to be shuffling in just as slowly as summer did. We’ve had some warm days mixed in with cool ones, rain mixed in with some sun. But these frosty mornings are bringing me right back to the beginning when my body was still getting used to spending hours and hours in the cold. Not that I’m complaining. I love bundling up for the chilly mornings and then picking off layers by 10 a.m. Afternoons can be dicey since the wind usually picks up after lunch time. Christian says its due to the drop in water temps over the last few weeks. From now until May whenever we have a warm day the wind will blow like crazy — which makes our time on the float a little rocky. We’ve been watching white caps toss us around while we try to keep our balance out there.
And, once again, it’s just me and the guys. Greg, the Andys, and Will are doing their best to keep me amused and comfortable each day. There’s plenty of time to get the job done so things are relaxed but we can still wipe ourselves out with a hard day of work. We just laugh a little bit more while we’re doing it. We had a visit from Jeeves last week — Joe and Steve are officially splitting up (Joe will be working part-time with a couple different farmers from now on) so they gave us something to remember them by.
Fortunately, I wasn’t there for their first gift: they tossed a couple of old dead fish onto the float (Will and Berg had a swell time cleaning it up).
Fun and games aside, we’re still planting away. We got another good chunk of our river seed planted this week — just a little more and we’ll be done with the river for the season. Once we pull all of the bags and get the gear out of the water back there, I’ll feel like we’ve made some progress. The seed that we’ve had back there is enormous – the shells are sturdy and each oyster looks nice and healthy.
To get the seed from the river to the boat, we have to unhook each bag from a couple of system lines (long ropes that are moored down into the river bed) and then haul the bags out of the water and onto the boat (feels great on the back). Once we’ve filled two boats with bags (which are stuffed with our fragile seed plus a piece of styrofoam), we get them back to the float and disassemble them so that we can dump the now enormous seed into a big pile into the boat.
From there, Skip goes out at low tide with his snow shovel and carefully shovels it all out onto the bay floor. Getting him set up to plant is a messy endeavor. The seed’s been back there for months so the bags are not only covered in poop but also mud and the occasional bird feather. Even when I’m covered head to toe in waterproof gear, I get mud everywhere.
Once the seed is in the boat, we then have to get the nasty, dirty bags from the float up to the shop, which requires loading them onto the boat, then onto the truck, and finally off the truck into tidy piles behind the shop. Again, a messy, smelly endeavor but I love watching the piles build. The more bags we put away, the closer we get to the seed being planted. Like Skip said the other day: “You guys spent so much time taking care of the seed, the least we can do is get it out there and keep it growing.”
As for our cull, the oysters we’re pulling up right now are damn near perfect. Each one is strong, sturdy and absolutely delicious. We’ve been shucking around town a little more, too. Last week’s FB party was fun (afterwards at ES was even more so) and the guys were set up at the Post 390 openings this weekend. Everyone seems happy to be out and about around town again. Feels like we can finally enjoy the finish line we’ve all worked so hard to reach.