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One of the main reasons I was drawn to Island Creek (aside from the oysters, of course), was the way in which the farm established relationships with chefs. Almost every Boston chef I can name knows of (and favors) Island Creek oysters. But more importantly, they all know Skip and “the guys from Island Creek.” Skip and Shore have clearly worked hard to make theirs a well-known brand. But they’ve also opened the door and welcomed any chef that wants to come down to the water and check things out. While this isn’t a new concept (chefs have probably visited farms and had relationships with their purveyors since restaurants were created), I knew early on that there was a takeaway with ICO that most chefs couldn’t get anywhere else. Being on the water and going out to the lease can make people a little awe struck. There’s a mystery behind growing oysters. Sure, it’s scientific and methodical but oysters themselves aren’t easy creatures to know. On top of which, the farm has an aura to it. The people there happen to love their lives and the place where they live. And sure it involves hard work, but it all takes place in the middle of a breathtaking bay.
To be fair, there’s no easy way to describe to visitors what to expect. You’ll come down to the water, go out to the float and probably get a tour of the nursery and the lease. You’ll be on a boat. In a harbor. It will most likely be beautiful out. The crew will be busy and will likely keep working while you explore. You’ll see what it means to cull and to drag. But we won’t tell you much more than that. We’ll wait for the questions to come. And while we try to tell people what to expect, every time we get them down, we get the same reaction: Wide eyes with a face that’s half smile, half awe. One that says, “How fucking cool is this?”
Will Gilson, chef at Garden at the Cellar came to the farm with a few of his cooks on Tuesday. Talk about cool: he’s cooking a dinner at the James Beard House in New York on Tuesday, Aug. 4th and he’s personally sourcing every ingredient on the menu from New England. He’s raising and slaughtering pigs, catching his own mackerel, harvesting his own produce, and, of course, hand picking the oysters.
He and his guys gallantly suited up in waders and came out on the tide with us. We were there to get some work done, cleaning cages and organizing bags, while they were there to pick. We handed them some buckets, gave them a few guidelines and let them go. Forty five minutes went by before I checked on them. Walking towards them in the water, I could tell they were enjoying it. Their buckets were full of perfect oysters and they were relishing the sunshine and the water. Will was happy with his haul and Brandon was antsy to open some of the jumbos so he could fry them up and stuff them into po boys at the restaurant that night.
It might not sound like much. But I guarantee they’ll always remember Island Creeks because of that visit. And they’ll remember what it felt like to stand in the water and pick the food they would eat later that night. It will stay with all of them no matter where they end up next or who they cook for. And that’s a pretty powerful tool.
Of course, we also grow pigs for our chefs. Gourmet and Midnight are getting nice and fat in time for Oyster Fest. The chefs who will be roasting them, Chris Schlesinger (East Coast Grill) and Jamie Bissonnette (Toro) are in for a treat. We’ve been feeding them about 10 pastries a day and Hendo’s been mixing up a slop (including beer) for them every now and then. If this isn’t enough to make a chef fall in love, I don’t know what is.
Getting to work side by side with our chefs is a pretty big part of it all. We’re not just raising goddamn delicious oysters — we’re doing it in a way that works for the chefs. We create culls for them. We pick them at just the right size. And we spend hours putting together perfect bags. It’s a business but it’s one the growers and their crews are downright obsessed with doing well.
Which is why I’m almost reluctant to leave the farm for a week-long vacation. (I did say “almost.”) We’re headed to Mackinac Island, Michigan for the Murray Family Reunion tomorrow night — we’re road tripping out there and have stops in Cleveland and Chicago on the way to and from. (Dining at Alinea on Thursday night. And yes! They buy our oysters!) While I desperately need a break (my lower back could probably take a month off), leaving the farm and all of the seed is no easy feat. I can still see oysters when I close my eyes at night. Wonder if that goes away after a week? I’m guessing no…
Phew. What a week. I swore I’d be better about posting. But these last few weeks have had me scrambling between life on the farm and everything else. Not that I’m complaining. I can’t decide what I’m more grateful for: the fact that my job keeps me out on the water all day or that it has almost completely removed the computer from my life.
It was another typical, summery weather week. Some sun, a few showers, and one massive storm that hit on Thursday night. Luckily, the beginning of the week was clear. Chef Jeremy Sewell brought his kitchen crews from both Lineage and Eastern Standard, along with some friends, out to the farm for a tour and dinner. They started on the docks with a look at the upwelling system and then made their way out to the tide to check out the nursery. Eventually, they landed on the float where they cracked open some Harpoons and waited for dinner.
Skip had been out early that morning pulling up his lobster traps and digging steamers for his guests. The haul was huge and he’d been on the float that afternoon setting up for dinner. Apparently, when Skip hosts a float party, he goes all out.
He and Shore pulled together a great meal with little more than a few steam kettles, some sea water and some rock weed. And, of course, plenty of melted butter. The kitchen crews were clearly impressed… and probably more than happy to let someone else take over dinner for the night.
After dinner, and a few more drinks, the crowd got a little rowdy.
And before we knew it, they were all in the water.
Exactly how it should be, Skip said.
The crew had to catch a bus back to Boston but a few of us hung out on the float for my first sunset from the water.
And, of course, it was followed a few short days later by my first real sunrise on the water. We had a big drainer week and on Thursday, we made it out on a 6 a.m. tide just in time for the sun to come out.
We spent both Wednesday and Thursday on the tide pulling in plenty of hand picked oysters and cleaning up the nursery a bit. The cleaning went quickly since there were so many of us. Looking down the row of cages at our army of a crew made it feel like effortless work. But we still managed to get ourselves caked in mud.
Thursday night’s storm had Skip down at the water at 3:30 a.m. where he said he could hardly stand up due to the wind. The waves were crashing up and over the docks where our upwellers live. One of our boats actually got ripped off the dock but thankfully, he was there to pull it back in. Friday morning there were sailboats up on the rocks by the Maritime School and the harbor looked disheveled in general. We didn’t make it out on the water that day but still managed to get some organizing and work done at the shop.
Yet another busy summer week. But oddly enough, I’m starting to get used to it all.
When you look at oyster seed every day, it’s hard to remember that they’re living, eating, breathing creatures. The little buggers just lie there while you wash and grade them and aside from floating around in the upwelling system, they don’t seem to do much of anything. At least, that’s what I thought. And then Skip reached his hand into an upweller last week and something happened. It was the seed he’d been growing out in the back river (which feeds into Duxbury Bay from the northeast, just past the Powder Point Bridge) in floating trays. He was experimenting with one of his batches of seed and it had done really well, growing quickly to a size that looked good to him. We’d moved it to the upwelling system about a week or two ago.
He pulled a handful out on Tuesday to take a peek and as they were sitting in his hand, the seeds started moving. They were actually opening and closing but it looked like they were about to jump.
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“I’ve probably grown about a hundred million seeds over the years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Skip said a little wide-eyed. All of the other growers came down to take a look and said the same thing: “Never seen that before. (And we hope it’s not a bad thing.)” We watched it happen again a few more times over the course of the week so Skip called his friend Dick Krause from ARC. Dick thought it might have something to do with the difference in salinity between the back river and the upwelling system. Perhaps they were getting used to the higher salinity levels? They eventually stopped doing it and have been growing nicely all week — definitely not a bad thing. I, for one, was tickled to see these fragile little things having some fun with us.
Other than that, our week was a good one. We finally had a string of good weather (and luck) so things on the farm ran smoothly. Berg was back with a leg brace so the team felt whole again. We did some cage cleaning to get all the seed that we’ve put out in the bay nice and neat. Cleaning involves pulling those mesh plastic bags out of the cages, banging them a little with a PVC pipe to keep the oysters from crowding into the corners, giving them a shake and a hand swipe to get some of the gunk off of them, then rotating the bags so they all get equal time on the top or the bottom of the cage. It’s a slow process but we managed to get a number of cages done this week. We also deployed some more seed so our nursery is almost completely full both in the bay and in the back river. My favorite day was Friday: the seed crew (Catie, Eva, and me) graded in the morning and then went out to the float and culled for the rest of the afternoon. We went for a swim, hung out in the sun…Eva taught me how to skip oyster shells (I was a complete hack until she pointed out where my forefinger should rest on the shell; I got a few good ones off but definitely need some practice). We ended the week on a very relaxed note.
This was also a huge week for Island Creek in the press. Tasting Table, an epicurean email newsletter (like a foodie’s DailyCandy), did a sweet write up on our new webstore (thanks Ryan!) and How2Heroes posted some videos they’d shot a few weeks back. Nice way to introduce folks to the farm so pass it along.
I spent this weekend in Charlotte for my sister’s baby shower. She and her husband are in the process of adopting a child so it was a fantastic way to celebrate their new addition… and they’ll be super prepared for whenever the baby gets here! The best part about it is that my sis could eat and drink whatever she wanted yesterday so we had a few drinks, and of course, a few oysters. The farm shipped 5 dozen down for the party and we had a blast shucking in the back yard. Lots of love for Island Creek in the South. We just need to get our oysters into more Charlotte restaurants (hint hint, Hendo).
It turns out, almost everything. We’ve had something of a black cloud following us these last few weeks. It’s nothing serious but there’s been a string of bad luck and I’m hoping the streak is almost over.
It started a week and half ago when a lightning storm hit way too close to home. Our crew had been on the float wrapping up an epic bag count last Thursday morning and came in to shore to drop the bags off. The rain hit right as we got back to land so we took a quick break and waited for the heavy stuff to pass. An hour or so later, we were back on the dock where Catie and I were pulling out silos getting prepped to grade some seed. The sky got dark again and Berg made the call: Head indoors. Now.
I ran over to the rowing dock to help Catie get some stuff situated and passed Christian who was trying to get his silos in a safe place. He stayed on the dock but Catie and I made it up to the woodshed with Maggie, Eva, Will, and Berg. Berg ran back out for something and while he was gone, the rain picked up. A few minutes later, a huge clap of thunder crashed over our heads. At the same time, I looked towards the wood shed door and saw a pink flash. Lightning strike. And it was close. We all hit the deck waiting for another boom but instead, the door opened and in came Christian and Berg, looking scared shitless. The lightning had hit a sailboat mast that was moored about 20 yards from the rowing dock. Christian had seen the sky turn pink and did a belly flop onto the plastic part of the dock. He said he could smell the electricity from where he was. Steve of Jeeves was in the process of rowing from Billy’s float back to land and was within a few feet of the sailboat that got struck. Very close call but thankfully, no one was hurt (not so sure about the sailboat, though).
The next day, Berg got hit by a car. (He’s still on crutches but we’re hoping to see him back on the farm this week.)
The 4th, from what I hear, was pretty spectacular. Some of the crew plus a few growers along with friends got some fireworks lit from the float (Dave got a great shot of it).
And then this past week, we had another round of bad luck. Skip came down with a stomach bug (after chipping his tooth on a bagel). We couldn’t manage to shake the bad weather until Thursday this week. And our white boat, the Carolina, decided to die while I was about to drive it from the float back to shore. The motor turned twice and then just cut out. I was already untied and couldn’t do anything but stand there, fussing with the throttle, watching folks on the float watch me drift away. Thankfully, the current carried me over to a nearby moored sailboat so I tied myself up and waited for Mark to get out there to rescue me (he called me a good mariner; “at least you got yourself tied up to something”). I was also pretty thankful that the problem wasn’t something I had caused. I think it ended up being a fuse or faulty wire, but either way, the Carolina is out of commission until next week. As Greg Morris said, “If you’re going to work on the water, better know a thing or two about how to fix a boat.”
Skip was still pretty out of it on Friday but we managed to do a double deploy: we got about 600 bags out to both the river and the middle of the bay during low tide. One team went to the river, the other went to the cages and we all had a pretty successful morning. Finally: the babies are in the water! We still have more to get out there but I think we’re officially over the hump.
We’re on a roll now, moving seed out from under ourselves daily. The weather and the tides have kept us from deploying a ton this week but between tomorrow and Friday, we’ll have a huge chunk of seed out in the river and in our cages in the middle of the bay. We have to wait until low tide to get most of it out and the tides aren’t cooperating like they should. They come in and out at varying speeds and this week, it’s just been fickle. But at least Catie and I are past the hump of grading daily. Now we’re giving our sub quarters a few days to pick up speed and grow.
Plus, Skip actually sells a lot of the seed he grows to other growers and this is the week they’re all getting it (and deploying it on their own leases). We’re doing seed counts daily which takes some time and keeps my head filled with crazy numbers. I’m getting very good at determining a liter count on a tote by eyeballing it, thanks to Skip.
But I’ve also started counting everything, all day long. How many shakes it takes to grade a scoop of seed. How many scoops it takes to empty a tote when grading. How many boards on our upwellers are driving me crazy. Adding up all these little things gets my head focused, in a very weird way. My dad and high school math teacher would be proud.
Everyone on the farm is grinding these days. The farmers are deploying seed all at once. The crews are helping them along with culling and bagging a huge amount of oysters every day. The delivery guys are out there pounding the pavement. On the wholesale side, we’ve been selling scallops both in the shell and shucked; we’ve been hand delivering our products to NY (which requires a twice weekly round trip in one of our trucks in less than 24 hours – Hendo’s been leading the charge); we’re about to start selling striped bass (next week!); and finally – finally! – the Island Creek Oyster Fest tickets are on sale. GO BUY ONE. They will sell out before the festival takes place on September 12. We’ve been busy putting together a pretty killer lineup of chefs and bands plus we’ll have thousands and thousands of oysters and beers by Harpoon. Our pigs, Gourmet and Midnight are getting fat and happy in time for the pig roast and we’ve been watching our chickens turn into lovely little hens (don’t worry: we’re not eating them). Skip even cobbled together a makeshift pen for them out of seed cages.
But Billy’s in charge of corralling them into their coop at night. Not an easy feat but I think he has a way with these chickens.
The only thing we’re missing on the farm is Berg. Poor guy got hit by a car last week. He’s doing fine – just a hairline fracture – but the crew is definitely feeling a little lost without him. Hopefully he’ll be on his feet in no time. (And if you’re reading this Berg, the girls say ‘get better soon!’)
We are smack in the middle of the busy season. Last week was the first of it with the long drainers but this week, we’re putting seed out daily which means our crew is in overdrive.
Catie and I have been grading seed every day and every time we do, we are left with a batch of quarter-inch seed (the sub-quarters, or subs, are put back into the upwellers to grow for another day or two). The quarters, as we call them, are ready to be put out in the water in mesh bags where they’ll stay until the oysters are about the size of a half dollar (about 6-8 weeks). This week has been hectic because not only are we grading every day but we have to rely on the tides to get our bags into the water at the right time.
Every time we grade, Skip comes over, sees the tote full of quarters and says something along the lines of: “Holy cow! What are we going to do with it all?” To which Catie and I reply: “Get it out of here!” Our primary goal is to keep the seed density on the upwellers from getting out of control so the youngest seed has room to grow. That means constantly moving the bigger seed out into the water. It’s like a living puzzle where the pieces find new homes every day. And it’s just the kind of scramble my organized mind loves to tackle.
Yesterday, we had a ton of seed to get into the water so we deployed (put out into the water) about 300 bags in the back river at low tide, right around noon. The set up for putting seed in the river takes a team of people: someone to put the seed in the bag (about 1200 seeds per bag; we scoop them into bags with a measuring cup) and pipe the bag closed, someone to toss the bags into the water, and a team in the water to arrange the bags on the system lines (a set of parallel lines hooked up to buoys — we attach the bags to the lines with metal clasped rings).
Our team yesterday included myself, Maggie, and our newest member Andy Popplo (because he’s Andy 3, we call him Pops) on the boat getting bags ready. In the water, Will was the middle man (once the bags are tossed in, the tide carries them down to the rest of the team — Will was keeping them organized) and Quinn and Catie were the bag attachers. Skip was out there organizing lines. Dave Grossman came out with us for a bit and got a quick tutorial on bag tossing.
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So since we’re dealing with a finite amount of time and have a certain number of very small seeds to deploy, how do we prep for our trips to the water? Part of it is knowing exactly how many bags will go out. That all depends on how much seed we have. The bags are kept up at the shop (we spent all spring power washing and organizing them). Once we know how many seeds will go out, someone runs up to shop, grabs a certain number of bags, brings them down the water in the farm truck, and puts them on the boat.
As for how many seeds are going out, since Skip’s been doing this for awhile, he can get a pretty good sense just by looking at how many quarters we have. The quarters go into totes, or black plastic boxes that hold about 60-70 liters of quarter-inch oysters. While Skip can eyeball a tote pretty accurately, he still makes sure by counting the oysters: we count out how many seeds fill up 100 ml and then multiply that by how many liters of oysters there are total (I call it oyster math). Counting full grown oysters is one thing, but baby oysters are a whole ‘nother challenge. They’re tiny and tend to stick together when they’re wet so it takes the precision of a pharmacist (you could also use the word “dealer”) to get the number just right.
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As you can see, we’re trying hard not to distract Skip while he counts (but Maggie and I manage to make each other laugh no matter what we’re doing… which is probably a distraction to everyone). After his count we deployed a little bit more seed before coming in for the day. We celebrated our huge day with a late lunch at Tsang’s.
Even after sending millions of seeds out into the water, we still have plenty more to deploy and lots more grading to do. We’ll be deploying more tomorrow and hopefully some on Friday as well. Skip’s goal is to get 1,000 bags into the water by the 4th. If the weather cooperates, he may just reach his goal.
In the meantime, we got rained off the dock this afternoon. Grading in the rain is fine. But holding a metal grader while your arms are submerged in water during a lightning storm is probably a bad idea… so we quit around 4 today which means we’ll get an early start tomorrow.
For another peek at our big drainer tides last week (and for a nice little love story about Twitter), check out this blog post by the folks at How2Heroes. They’ll be posting more on their visit soon so stay tuned.