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Skip’s crew might be dwindling but we’ve still got plenty of work ahead of us. We’ve got an acre or so of open lease to plant; like any other farm or crop rotation, after a crop has been harvested, the land has to be cleared before you can plant again. We’ve spent the summer picking it clean and now we’re filling every last corner of it with new seed. (And to answer a Mom question, there are other sections of the lease that are packed with full-grown oysters which were planted last year.)
Skip is taking a break from “shovel” planting to try a hand at hand planting. We’re planting onto a part of the lease that’s just north of the cages (nursery) where the seed is being stored so for the next few days, we’re carrying bags from the cages straight over to the lease, opening them, and emptying them out by hand into a small square area. This is a pretty cool set up since we can shake the seed right onto the ground when the tide is out and see what kind of density we have in that spot. Shaking the bags feels a little like operating a fertilizing machine. You hold the bag horizontally and shake it carefully from side to side while walking backwards so that you can cover a small line of area with a consistent number of oysters. Between Monday and Tuesday we put down thousands of oysters into a fairly small window of space. The seeds are still only about 3/4 to 1 inch long and they’re all set pretty close together. Imagine that same space in about a year when the land is covered in three-inch oysters. Pretty incredible that we can get so many of them into a condensed area. But, as I keep saying, there’s still a ton of seed.
Speaking of which, we may be at the tail end of our upwelling season…finally! Having watched and been very much a part of the process from the beginning, I can say that it’s a fascinating system. Force feeding the oysters in a controlled environment produces an incredible yield. (But it’s not without its headaches: at the very whisper of nearby Hurricane Bill this weekend, the Maritime School almost pulled all of their docks — and our upwellers — out of the water. Thankfully, the storm went far enough east so we we able to keep everything intact but the idea of getting the seed moved and possibly disassembling the upwellers was a major hassle. The only good thing that storm produced was some huge swells for Berg and Greg to ride on Sunday afternoon.) We’ll probably do our last grade tomorrow and get that seed into the nursery. (It will be the last seed we plant later this season.)
Besides completing my tasks as Mama Seeda for the season, I’ve been able to spend more time on the float with the crew. Sadly, we’re getting down to bare bones: today is Maggie’s last day for the summer and Catie is out after Friday (she’s taking a job as an eco-consultant in Burlington). But I have the feeling both will still be around quite a bit over the winter — at least they better be. On Monday, it’ll be back to me and a crew of guys: A2, Berg, Will & Greg. It’s a good number for the fall so I think we’ll have plenty of hands to get work done. It’s just so hard to believe that summer might be coming to an end. Didn’t it just get started??
We’re halfway through our last month of the summer season and I have no idea where it went. Last week flew. Our new routine of pulling river bags, dumping the seed into the boat and Skip planting keeps our days flowing smoothly from one project to the next but 10 hours goes by in a second. We got a good amount of seed planted on the grant this week thanks to good weather but there’s still a ways to go.
The seed in our upwellers has finally reached a point where every silo is evenly filled and the levels are low. We’ll keep grading (onto 1/2 inch screen now) and sending more seed out into the river (to replace the seed that’s being planted) and we continue to wash, wash, wash our oysters and the bags they sit in. It never seems to end but now that I can see the progress, it’s easy to understand why we take such good care of the seed.These 1/2″ oysters are now going out to the river on a daily basis. The oysters we’re planting are about twice this size. The color on the shells has faded from wine/amber/purple to the gray-ish green you find on full grown oysters. Still, they’re beautiful to look at when they’re this size. Imperfectly shaped but with the smoothness and curve of a fingernail. And they’re sharp as hell. I’ve got a hand full of slivers from handling them this week.
This was Eva’s last week on the farm, sadly. One by one they go. We sent her off with a mini float party on Friday afternoon which ended with us creating crate city to keep the seagulls away. They’ve recently discovered that the roof on our house and the float itself are excellent spots to hang out — they toss clams down onto the deck to crack them open and then crap all over the place. Not a pleasant sight first thing in the morning. But Skip installed a tiny device that simulates a seagull distress signal and keeps other gulls away. Apparently it works because the guys got to the float yesterday and found it free of poop. (Side note: If I’d known how much poop is involved in the world of oyster farming, I may not have asked for this job. At least I’ve gotten used to it.)
We hosted a serious float party last night for a the Hale family and a slew of their friends. Skip put on a show with striped bass ceviche, razor clam chowder, steamers, oysters, lobsters, and steak (with help from Meggie O’Neill, a former Creeker who now works in restaurants and did most of the catering). Catie, Shore and I lent a hand with service and clean up, but really, we were there to enjoy a perfect Duxbury evening on the water.
The guests absolutely made the night for us. They belted out tunes by Journey, Jimmy Buffet and the Beach Boys while feasting their way through the night. Once the sun went down, we lit the gas lanterns and snacked on ice cream sandwiches and blueberry tarts. To cap it off, we were treated to a fantastic display of stars (with a few meteors thrown in) and polished it all off with a stop at the Winsor House for last call. The whole night was a delicious display of how these guys are living the good life — and not a bad way for me to spend a Saturday.
I felt incredible driving to work yesterday morning. Refreshed, renewed, strong… at least until about 10:30 when we started pulling out silos to grade the seed. Our babies exploded while I was away! Not only was I huffing and puffing trying to pull the massive seed out, but my arms were completely out of shape. After a week. So pathetic.
Yesterday we hit the tide early to change over some of the nursery bags to a larger size — the seed we put out there a few weeks ago is massive but some of it may be out there for another 4-6 weeks so we want to make sure it has plenty of room to breathe. I love seeing the difference in size — it seems so dramatic in such a short period of time.
As for the upwellers, I was happy to see that Eva and Catie (the other seed mamas) kept things under control. It’s insane how heavy our silos have gotten. But, the fantastic news is: We’ve started planting. Just today in fact. For those who don’t know, once Island Creek Oysters have reached a certain size in the nursery (about the size of a half dollar), they’re planted on the bottom of the bay floor where they’re grown “free range” as we like to call them. They won’t attach to anything; they simply grow loose on the bottom. Over the next several months, they’ll grow pretty big until the water temperature drops in November when they’ll go dormant. Once the water warms back up in the spring, they’ll continue growing until they reach full size (about three inches) around harvest time. We’ll be harvesting this batch sometime in Fall 2010.
To get started with planting, we pulled about 75 bags of seed out of the river and spent the morning dumping it into the bottom of our boat. Skip then took the boat out to the now empty lease (we spent the last few weeks cleaning all of the oysters off the bottom) and with a snow shovel, carefully flung loads of seed out onto the bay floor (he did it at low tide so he could watch the way the seed distributes).
While planting is a good sign, we still have a ways to go with the seed. Skip is planting the first batch of seed we received this past May and he’ll leave the newest seed in the nursery and upwelling system until they’re as big as what he planted today. Berg broke it down for me yesterday: we keep the seed growing in the bags for as long as we possibly can because once we plant it, the growth that occurs on the bottom of the bay floor is out of our control. By keeping it in the bags, we’re keeping them safe from predators and giving them a little breathing room to grow.
Essentially, my job as Mama-Seeda is winding down but we still have a long way to go to get it all planted.
In the meantime, summer is definitely winding down. Quinn headed back to Indiana University last weekend. Eva is here just one more week (which is devastating since she’s been an enormous help on the seed); Pops is off to college in a few weeks and Maggie’s headed back to grad school at the end of August. “In the fall,” Maggie said yesterday, “you guys will feel like it went by in a blink.” She’s right. Summer is just way too short. But don’t worry about us. We’re soaking up every second. We wind down the day with a swim and are doing everything we can to soak up the sun (with sunscreen on, of course).
Now, to the trip. There are way too many great stories to tell so I’ll keep it focused on the food. A few dining highlights:
Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland
We found this spot on Saturday night after taking in a baseball game. It’s right in the theater district and had the best crispy frites topped with a poached egg. Also discovered Dogfish Brewery’s Theobroma. Love it.
Founder’s Brewing, Grand Rapids, MI
Dave has become quite the beer nerd which pleases me to no end since it gives us an excuse to hit up every divey beer bar and brewery we come across. At the Publick House (where he bartends) he serves Founders’ Centennial Ale among others so we stopped into the brewery on our way through Michigan. Beautiful space with lots of windows and long, winding bar plus views into the on-site brewery. The beer cheese dip (made with cream chese, gouda, plus three of their beers: Pale Ale, Red Rye, and IPA) was a gooey, outstanding road snack.
Words can hardly describe this one. We were blown away from the minute we sat down. It’s a dining/theatrical experience, from the rock-heated basil and tomato vines (served as an aromatic essence to accompany heirloom tomato salad) to the nitrogen-frozen mousse finale (wherein chef Grant Achatz himself arrives at the table to plate a variety of blueberry sauces, maple-wood globes, the mousse, malted ice cream, and fresh thyme artistically across a silicon pad set directly on the table and then tells the diner: “the rest is up to you.”)
I am still wide eyed over the white chocolate sphere filled with watermelon liquid and accompanying straw filled with raspberry jam AND Bubbilicious bubble gum and piece of caramel-drizzled bacon served from a string. Also adored the “steak and potato” course with sous vide wagyu beef, potato crisp covered potato cream cube and involved a centerpiece that spewed dry ice and the smell of the grill (garlic, thyme, smoke) across our table in wisps of smoke. Oh, and there was a packet of powdered A-1. We managed to catch a little piece of it here.
Map Room, Chicago
Another beer lovers’ haunt, complete with volumes and volumes of National Geographics stacked in the bookcase. We hit this post-Alinea so our palates were fuzzy but the Guldenberg was a nice nightcap.
The Publican, Chicago
Our final stop before the long car ride home. The design and decor are really unique with long, communal tables, tall, stiff-backed chairs and beautiful wood and brass fixtures. We were there for afternoon service (3:30-5:30) so didn’t have the full menu or a big crowd but the space was filling up by the time we left. The limited menu was a perfect sampling of their easy, lighter dishes. We took in some frites (also offered with a poached egg – I’m seeing a midwest trend here) as well as some oysters (the chef’s selection, decent but ultimately disappointing since they weren’t our own) and the charcuterie plate (pork pie; duck liver terrine; spicy Spanish sausage; and a first for me, raisin mustard).
Eastern Standard, Boston
Ok, ok. Not on the itinerary but we did end our vacation here on Sunday night. Garrett Harker invited locally based friends that are originally from in and around the Maryland area to join him for an authentic Maryland-style crab festival and it was glorious. Newspapers, mallets, Old Bay, Natty Bo in the can, tasty crabs, and yes (YES!), TastyCakes for dessert (Mom, you would have loved it.) It ended with CJ laying face down on the table due to a self-induced food coma (he survived) along with us leaving in time to get a full night sleep and head back to work on Monday morning.
It is fantastic to be home but sadly, staring into our far-too-empty fridge makes me really want to go back to Chicago. Or at least crack open some Island Creeks.