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I’m sitting amongst a pile of boxes tonight, packing up all those last little items that seem to sit around until the last minute of a move. We leave Boston on Thursday morning and head off on our next adventure: Nashville, Tennessee. It has been an unforgettable past few weeks as we’ve tried to squeeze every last ounce of fun out of our hometown before the big move. But it has also been painful and sad and very, very emotional. Every day brings a new set of people to say goodbye to, a new “top ten reasons why we love Boston list,” and a new reason to sit down and cry. We are so unbelievably sad to let this city go…. but also anxious and excited for what’s about to come.
As for that announcement I promised in my last post, I can finally let you know that I’ve signed a deal for my next book project: A seasonally inspired New England cookbook with Chef Jeremy Sewall. Jeremy and I go way, way back to the days before Island Creek, back when he first moved to Boston to open his then-restaurant Great Bay. He now owns Lineage in Brookline, consults as the chef at Eastern Standard, and is partners with Skip Bennett and Garrett Harker at the Island Creek Oyster Bar (where Great Bay once lived). Jeremy and I joke that we’re now “committed for life” with this project and partnership and celebrated, fittingly, with a magnum of champagne and a toast with his staff at ICOB.
I could not think of a more suitable chef and friend to write my first cookbook with and I am so excited for the day when we can finally show it off. The book will be published by Rizzoli in October 2014.
Most importantly, this project will bring me back to Boston often. We have a lot of work to do and food to cook. Jeremy and I work well together electronically but will have plenty of excuses to put our heads together and eat. Which means I’ll be up here as much as I possibly can — and cramming in as many restaurant meals with good friends as time allows.
As for our last few days in the city, they have been, in a word, epic. This past weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of helping to coordinate another Friends For Haiti event, a fundraiser that supports the work of the Island Creek Oysters Foundation. It was a wild and memorable Duxbury weekend, starting with a feast at Jane and Bob Hale’s house and ending with a post-event, late-night session at the Winnie. The event was the best we’ve ever hosted with an outstanding group of guests and plenty of fantastic food.
Last night, our very dear friend Nicole Kanner of All Heart and Eat Your Heart Out fame organized a going away party at the Oyster Bar for us, followed by a rowdy toast with the Publick House team at Dave’s old bar. All told, we consumed way too many drinks, gave several mediocre to terrible speeches, and hugged and cried our hearts out. For Dave and I, it was the perfect end to world-class run.
And now, we really do say goodbye. Or at least, see you soon. Boston: You have been our home and our haven. You have treated us like family and you have nestled your way into our hearts with undying devotion, enthusiasm and loyalty. We met here, built our careers here, started our family here, and we will take the friendships we’ve fostered here wherever we go. Thank you for everything, Boston… Nashville, here we come!
Despite the slow down of book events, I still managed to lose track of time this spring. Is that a symptom of motherhood or age? We did manage to find a few quiet weekends after all the traveling we did this winter, but many of them were punctuated by really enjoyable book events. A signing at the Somerville Winter Market; a class on merroir at Formaggio; a dinner with the Slow Food Seacoast group; the Nantucket Wine Festival. Every week brought another reason to plug the book and meet a group of fun-loving oyster fans.
There were, of course, plenty of opportunities to eat oysters. And I even managed to visit the farm on two occasions – one educational, one momentous. A few of the highlights, in photos.
The ICOB Farm Tour
It started with a gorgeous morning on a perfect low tide.
The farm crew helped out, giving ICOB servers, chefs, and bartenders a lesson on upwellers…
…as well as a how-to on culling, counting, washing and bagging.
Dana and Chris gave the staff a primer on the ICO brand, but I’m pretty sure the audience was only half paying attention…
… because they were all thinking about the farm’s new hatchery, which Gardner led them through as he educated them on the intricacies of algae and oyster spawning. His analogy of it being “a little bit art, a little bit science,” resonated with everyone.
We wrapped up the day with a panel of oyster growers, like Christian Horne, Joe Grady, and John Brawley from ICO plus Russ and Mary-Kate Sandblom of Sunken Meadow Oysters, Jon Martin of Moon Shoal, and Eric Brochu of Big Rock Oysters. The take away? It’s harder work than you think it’s going to be; family is the biggest support system these guys have; and one of their favorite parts of the job is being out on the water on a gorgeous day from sunrise to sunset.
The Family Farm Tour
When my Uncle Jim Williams (one of the first to teach me how to eat oysters) came to visit in April, he specifically requested a farm tour, which we happily obliged. Will Heward took us out on a nice drainer tide for a look at the lease and a lesson on growing oysters.
Jim took some time to pay respects to the local wild life…
…and got a lesson in how to pick oysters by hand.
Charlie and Dave stayed on the boat, soaking in the sun.
I think it’s safe to say that Charlie and Jim enjoyed their first farm tour…
…but more importantly, what came at the end. Jim’s appreciation for the work that Will, Skip, and the gang put into his afternoon snack was only made richer by who he got to share it with. (P.S. Thanks, Hewie!)
What better time to eat a couple dozen oysters than with friends and family over the holidays? We were down in Hilton Head, South Carolina over Thanksgiving where my parents have officially settled in for the long haul (Thanks, Mimi & Pop Pop, for another unforgettable holiday!) and managed to get several dozen Island Creeks into the mix.
We slurped most of them back on the half shell but also threw a handful on the grill where, after they popped open, we doused them in butter and Mexican hot sauce. It’s one of my favorite no-fail recipes from chef Ken Oringer. We also made an herbed oyster stuffing again this year but for that, we used South Carolina oysters. I stopped at two grocery stores before snagging the last two dozen at the Piggly Wiggly. Apparently, South Carolinians go crazy for oysters on Thanksgiving.
I also got some exciting news over the holiday: Shucked is going into its first reprint! That means there will be plenty of copies for you and your loved ones (hint hint). I’ll be out and about signing books over the next few weeks, starting on Monday night at the Hotel Commonwealth (check out the flyer below) so come on out and get a signed copy.
It’s here! Today is the official release date for my new book, SHUCKED: Life on a New England Oyster Farm. It’s hard to believe that just over three years ago, I came up with the crazy idea to work at Island Creek. The book captures the entire 18-month journey, from my first shaky days out on the flats to the kitchen and dining room at Per Se. For those who have followed along on the blog all these years, first of all, THANK YOU! Secondly, you will find that the book goes a lot deeper than what you’ve seen here, so I hope you’ll give the full version a go. And there are recipes to boot!
Thanks so much for all of your support… and for reading!
There are weeks throughout the summer that just happen. The tides hit. The seed gets graded. Farm work gets done. And this was one of those weeks.
Ages ago (last Sunday), we hit a 6 am tide to do some hand picking and set cages. It was foggy and rainy but the crew was in high spirits. Because, of course, it was Sunday. Despite having to sacrifice a few hours of restorative weekend sleep, we were happy to be out there getting the work done.
Monday, we went out again. The weather turned a little nicer, the tide lasted a little longer, and once again, we got it done. We spent some time walking over and around the seed we planted last fall and those tiny little guys are absolutely cruising in size. Thinking back to all the washing, grading, and planting last summer, it was awesome to see this year’s crop doing so well. After the tide, the seed crew washed some seed, moving in and out around the rowers and trying desperately to keep them from falling in upwellers or tripping over silos.
Tuesday: The tide went out even longer, came low a little later, and officially drained the bay. We had a photographer with us and Gardner and I finished setting cages (the most gratifying feeling in the world is seeing all 300 cages set and the project-finishing fist bump).
Wednesday: It was another long tide but the water came screaming back quickly. Still, we managed to get a ton of crates picked and put on the float for the weekly number.
On Thursday, the crew went out to the back river to get our lines squared away for the river bags. We’ll have seed ready to deploy back there as early as next week so it was a scramble to get the lines set and ready to go. Skip also got one more batch of seed — this time, a group of triploids, which (hopefully?) will be his last… for now anyway.
Friday was the day. The Big Grade. Our first of the summer and a successful one at that. It always happens around Father’s Day, Skip reminded me. We were three weeks in to seed (where did those weeks go?) and the babies were ready for it. We started by grading the biggest stuff, from two different hatcheries. The result was decent – a mostly full tote of quarters (oysters that are a quarter-inch in size) which we can start putting out as early as next week. Eva and I spent the day remembering all of those little tricks and motions that make the grade go easier. Dumping that first silo into a tote takes muscle memory. Then it was figuring out our system with the three-person grade, then remembering what it feels like to stand in front of a tote of water under the glaring sun for 8 hours, and finally, the feeling of immense satisfaction at tightening the last bolts and closing all the upwellers for the night. Getting it all done in one day, feeling like we’ve finally kicked off the summer, and knowing that we’ve got a million days just like that to get through before it all gets planted this fall.
And suddenly, it’s Saturday. I’m up at 5:30 (because to my body, that’s sleeping in), I can feel every little muscle tweak, I’m nursing a half ripped toe nail (stupid upweller doors), and all I can think about is seed. How much we got done yesterday and how much there still is to go. My parents are in town for the weekend so Dave and I are taking them to the farm for a tour today.
Because even at the end of a Big Week like that, all I want to do is go back.
While I have to admit I’ve known about the project for awhile, it didn’t sink in until I heard people talking about it publicly. Finally, the announcements have been made and I can breathe a sigh of relief for not spilling the beans. (For the record, the foodie gossip in me was going bananas trying to keep that one from you guys. Consider me a vault.) Come August, Kenmore Square will have the world’s first Island Creek Oyster Bar complete with a menu by Jeremy Sewall and a staff and dining room overseen by ES proprietor Garrett Harker. Of course, there are plenty of other details about the space that I’d like to share (grumble grumble) but I will hold off until the partners behind the project say it’s time. Please take my word for it: Oyster lovers will be thrilled.
Still, the farm is the farm is the farm and things are chugging right along this spring. We’re seeing more and more growth on the oyster seed from last year and, despite a few headaches with the most recent crop (the 2008 seed hasn’t been as productive as the growers hoped), the oysters are as plentiful as ever.
In fact, with summer on our heels (despite today’s 40 degree temps), it’s time for Island Creek to start selling fish. The past few summers, they’ve expanded their product line, selling locally caught, quota-managed fish directly to their restaurant customers. The guys at the farm are psyched since it means being able to show off all the great fish you can find off the coast of the South Shore. And chefs love it because it’s freshly caught and they know exactly where it’s coming from.
So, on Friday afternoon I picked up a call at the office from fisherman Mike Lundholm (who sells exclusively to Island Creek); he announced that one day into the black fish season, which opened on April 15, he had pulled up about 100 pounds and was delivering to the shop later that night. Were we ready, he wondered? I floundered a little, looked at Lisa and shrugged, asking, are we ready? We’d have to call him back, she said. We called Shore who was on his way out of town for the weekend: Were we ready for 100 pounds of tautog? Yup, he assured us, we’ll be ready. And so, fish season at Island Creek is officially underway. What this means for the wholesale arm is that they’ll be getting Mike’s catch delivered to the shop daily; the guys will then pound the pavement to put it out to restaurants. In fact, I ran into CJ and Chris on Friday night at Erbaluce at the end of a long day of deliveries. They’d been talking tautog with chefs all day. And tautog is just the beginning. Fisherman Mike will be bringing us his black sea bass, fluke, and stripers as soon as those seasons open up too. It’s a pretty sweet program for the farm and it’s been great to see how they put it all together.
We’ve also got a trip to Virginia coming up — Skip has known the guys behind the Cherrystone Aqua Farm for years and starting about two years ago, those guys tried their hand at growing oysters. We tasted the results last week and despite my loyalty (ok, obsession) with New England-grown oysters, even I was impressed. I’m partial to cold-water oysters from the northeast because the salinity alone gives them a flavor profile that’s tough to match. But the Misty Points (from VA) had a lot of salinity and even a little sweetness at the end, similar to Island Creeks. They’re a different looking oyster of course, more elongated and spindly but they’re full of meat.
I spoke to their production manager, Tim Rapine, about how they’ve been growing them out and he explained that their oysters only take about 10-14 months to get up to 3 inches. The warmer waters make the oysters grow a little quicker and by the time they reach 14 months, they’re about the same size as ours are at 18 months. Island Creek has started selling the oysters up here so Skip, Shore, Chris and I are traveling down to see their farm in early May — I’m looking forward to reporting back after we see the operation.
This would be an incredible weekend to be an oyster farmer. Gorgeous weather, incredibly long tides, a million excuses to be on the water (for work, of course).
And yet, it’s been a struggle. We’ve had one of the rainiest months in the history of Massachusetts — we picked up 13 inches of rain in March alone. It’s unheard of. Skip was interviewed about it in the Boston Globe this week:
Shellfish beds were ordered to close earlier in March, but were reopened after testing found no contaminants.
“Generally, we might see one rain closure a year, but this is crazy, back to back,’’ said Skip Bennet of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury. The closure could not have come at a worse time, he said: The full moon has created ideal tides for harvesting the shellfish.
“It’s a little frustrating because we wait for these great tides, but we’ll be closed right through them,’’ Bennet said.
We were closed last Tuesday and aren’t expecting to be open until early this week. But we can still take advantage of the tides. Shore and I (just a couple of suits) went out with Skip’s crew on Thursday morning — my first time out since December — to walk the lease and check on the seed. It felt incredible to get back out there and hear nothing but the quiet and the wind.
Of course, Shore and I got shit for only coming out on the tide when the weather turned nice. Shore got even more for arriving to work in a brand new, sparkling clean set of waders. But he quickly got them muddied up after a few hours out there.
Kidding aside, we were put to good use and helped Skip’s crew as much as we could. Of course, it doesn’t really help since we can’t harvest oysters until next week. But even a few hours out on the water reminded me that my time to rejoin the farm is coming up quick.
Until then, I’ve got my hands full with the farm’s next big announcement. Stay tuned… details are on the way tomorrow.
And just like that, we’re planning Oyster Fest again.
Shore and I sat down with this year’s committee two weeks ago which means the process is underway –we’ve got just over 5 months to pull the 3,000 person beach party together. I’m not losing sleep over it yet. But talk to me in August.
Thankfully, we’re using a similar set up to last year (tent size, footprint, general schedule and set up) with a few new tweaks (new headlining band, updated list of chefs, a little more control).
But right now, I’m thinking about the pigs.
Last night, CJ and I shucked oysters for the VIP room at Cochon 555 (I went to as a guest last year). We had the good fortune of meeting a potential pig farmer as well as a number of cool Johnson & Wales culinary students who very kindly donated their time. CJ repaid them by giving them a valuable shucking demo – we even put a few behind the raw bar.
It was good to get back there and shuck for a crowd again. Sometimes I get weighed down by all that we have going on but once you’re standing back there, it’s nothing but you and your crew, shucking as quick as you can (and looking up now and then to see some smiling faces). We’ve got loads of raw bars coming up: Save the Harbor this Wednesday, CentralBottle’s $1 Oyster Night this Thursday, the Nantucket Wine Fest in May. My job is to coordinate the logistics of all of our events. Well, at least that’s one of them. I seem to be wearing all kinds of hats these days.
As I shape and reshape this experience, my role is constantly shifting. My time in the office has been eye-opening. Being so closely connected to the nerve center of this tiny machine and directly involved in big discussions, I’ve gotten full exposure to every part of Island Creek. We’re having in-depth conversations about who we are, where we’re going and how we stick to our core. This winter, Shore and Skip have been crafting Island Creek’s purpose and core values. We’ve initiated a rebranding campaign (hiring the very cool and talented Oat Creative, who are a pleasure to work with) and we’re pulling together a structured sales and marketing program. Though the company, Island Creek Inc. has been operating for a few years, they’ve been so busy getting the job done that they haven’t had time to do things like put a mission statement on paper or take a closer look at their logo (the first one was scribbled on a napkin). This year, I’ve been lucky enough to catch them while they slow down, take a breath and figure out where to go next.
Of course, everyone pitches in wherever they can. So in between setting up events, I’m visiting restaurants for sales, ordering new tshirts and raw bars, doing quality control in the shop, and yes, sometimes taking out the trash. But so is everyone else in the office (even CJ who provides levity when he’s not making deliveries).
But that’s what makes it fun. It might be a small business but there’s a lot of heart and soul. And plenty of work to be done.
For those keeping track (hi, Mom), this week marked my one-year anniversary with the farm. My supposed end-date, in fact. I meant to give this whole project a single year. But, as with many of my big ideas, plans have changed.
Turns out, I found a place that I like going to every day, where my work and contributions are appreciated and where the people I work with genuinely love what they do. It’s everything I thought I would find and so much more. So I’ve committed to at least another summer and maybe a little fall. Strategically, this works out well since it’ll lengthen my stay to about 18 months — and that just happens to be the typical life cycle of our oysters. Fitting, no?
So many things that started out feeling foreign to me are now natural parts of my day: commuting 45 minutes to work; driving down to the harbor just to make sure it’s still there; understanding what makes a perfect three-inch oyster; hearing the chickens squawk just outside our windows; that unmistakable briny sweetness of every Island Creek.
It feels good to have these consistencies now, to know a place and a product so well that they’re rooted inside me. I wouldn’t still be here if it hadn’t resonated so deeply. More importantly, I’m thankful I took the risk. Not once have I looked back.
And here we are, back at the International Seafood Show, getting ready for spring. Pretty soon the water will warm up and the seed we planted last fall will start showing signs of growth. I’m looking forward to hitting the tide and seeing how all our babies have handled the winter. What’s better is that I’ll be around in September to see the first of it come out of the water.
Whether or not that will signal some sort of exit strategy is still up for debate. But that’s a long ways off. Until then, I’ve got seed to watch over.
Up until a few weeks ago I’d never eaten a freshly laid hen egg.
I’ve bought plenty of eggs directly from farms at farmer’s markets. And I’ve ordered dozens of dishes with farm-fresh eggs at locally focused menus (Craigie on Main, TW Food, Straight Wharf Restaurant). But fresh, right-from-the-coop eggs? Never.
And now, I’m flush. Or I should we. Our office and the crew at Island Creek are literally swimming in extra eggs. We have six lovely chickens (lead by the large black-feathered mistress, Rachelle) who have been laying like fiends. Billy Bennett checks their pen a few times a day (as do Cory, CJ, and Skip whenever they pass by) and step into the the office carefully cradling 2, 3, sometimes 4 eggs gingerly in their palms. Defying all chicken myth (I’m hearing more and more these days) that hens only lay when there are 14 hours of sunlight or with the help of a heat lamp, our girls are on a speedy daily rotation.
Perhaps its their diet. Billy feeds them razor clams, which they love. They also peck away at the oyster shell driveway picking up whatever meaty bits they find along the way. The result has been really durable shells that are actually tough to crack. And the yolks are a deep, marigold yellow – unlike anything I’ve ever seen out of a grocery store. As the color promises, they taste richer too. Dense and earthy. Almost meaty when cooked. Even raw, they’re thick and don’t ooze easily, more like a lava than a watery trickle.
The other day, Cory confessed that he picked up a faint “fishy” flavor to the eggs. Not sure I’d agree with him but I love that there’s that possibility. What I love even more is that I’ve gotten so close to my food that I can literally pick an egg out of a coop (or an oyster off the flats) and eat it for breakfast. Can’t wait to get started on the ICO garden.