Oysters: An Odyssey
Every year, five million Island Creek oysters grow in the muddy flats of Massachusetts's Duxbury Bay. Most end up at top restaurants, but a few make it no further than Island Creek's floating "Oysterplex" for the farm's own seafood feast.
Our Girl. The Oysterplex. The Clubhouse. The barge used by the workers at Island Creek Oysters goes by any number of nicknames. Anchored in the middle of Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts, a few hundred yards from the watery expanse where millions of superbriny, deep-cupped oysters grow, the 40-foot barge with the shingled garage on top is the heart of the farm.
A few years ago, I decided to take a break from my job as an editor and try life as an oyster farmer. I spent two years working alongside Island Creek's founder, Skip Bennett. During the bay's massive, 10-foot low tides, we'd motor out from the barge to the mud flats where, in bulky waders, we'd tromp across the fields picking oysters by hand. Then we'd return to the barge to cull (sort by size), clean and bag our haul before shipping it to restaurants around the country, like New York City's Le Bernardin and Napa Valley's The French Laundry, or to local places like Boston's new Island Creek Oyster Bar.
Bennett started raising oysters in the early 1990s. He grew up working on Duxbury Bay with his father (then a commercial lobsterman, now an oysterman) and originally set out to farm quahog clams. But his entire clam crop was wiped out by a common shellfish parasite after just a few years. Oysters were not a logical second choice, but he decided that would be his backup plan. "My mentor in the business told me I was crazy, going from bad to worse," he said.
Fortunately, the bay turned out to be perfect for oysters. Those enormous tides keep the water cool (just under 70 degrees) and provide rich stores of phytoplanktonthe microscopic, plant-like organisms that oysters eat. Bennett taught himself how to raise oysters, starting with babies he bought from a hatchery, each the size of a grain of sand. Today, he and Island Creek's 19 other farmers nurture those babies in tanks filled with bay water. When the oysters are about a quarter-inch long, the farmers transfer them to a nurserya system of cages that sits out in the middle of the bay. When the oysters are around six months old and two inches long, the farmers plant them on the bay floor with shovels. Those oysters grow "free range" on the sandy bottom for another 12 months before harvest.
By rotating his oyster fields (public land leased from the state), Bennett is able to gather his bivalves year-roundeven in the dead of a New England winter. In February 2004, Island Creek acquired New York City's Per Se as a regular customer after one of Thomas Keller's sous chefs happened upon the farm and thought Island Creek's specimens would be perfect for the signature dish Oysters and Pearls. But then a devastating six-week string of sub-zero temperatures froze the bay solid. "There must have been almost a foot of ice in some spots," Bennett recalls. He and some other growers carefully drove out onto the ice in a pickup truck and, when they reached a spot where oysters were growing, grabbed a chain saw and cut through, making a hole in the ice just wide enough for the men to stand in the waist-deep water. They harvested that way for weeks. "It sounds intense, but really, we were bored just sitting around. There was no other way to work, and Per Se needed oysters, so we said, 'Let's go get some.'" Bennett shrugs. "That's just what we do."
Because so many workers at Island Creek have known each other their whole lives, they are a tight-knit fraternity. Nicknames are a must: Skip goes by Benny, and there's also Bug, Squeege, Pogie and Hans. (I was dubbed Pain, short for E-Pain after the rapper T-Pain.) Practical jokes are commonplacehiding each other's pickup-truck tailgates, sneaking into each other's garages to stack oyster crates up to the ceiling.
At the end of a day of farming, after scrubbing down the barge's waterproof walls, the Island Creek crew often pulls out a grill, a steamer kettle and a cooler of beer and hangs out with grower buddies and chef friends Bennett has invited out to the barge. That's what he did one night last summer, when farmers Don "Donaldino" Merry and Christian "X-Man" Horne came out with chef Jeremy Sewall (known simply as J), one of Bennett's partners at Island Creek Oyster Bar. Bennett has gotten close with a lot of his chef-customers over the yearsironically, in part, because of the economic downturn that followed September 11, 2001. That crisis, which happened during Bennett's first big oyster harvest, forced him to sell his crop one bag at a time at the back doors of local restaurants. The direct-to-chef model connected Bennett personally to chefs like Sewall, who is also the chef at Boston's Eastern Standard and the owner of Lineage. Since that tough start, Island Creek has grown speedily; today, it produces about five million oysters a year and even has its own nonprofit arm, The Island Creek Oysters Foundation, which helps create and fund aquaculture projects in places like Haiti and Zanzibar, Tanzania.
At this party on the barge, the evening started, naturally, with freshly shucked oysters. Bennett likes his oysters "naked," with just a squeeze of lemon, so he can taste the merroir. His take on the wine term terroir, merroir means the way an oyster's flavor reflects where it was grown. In the case of Island Creek oysters, that flavor is a pop of briny sweetness, followed by soft, almost grassy notes.
As we bobbed on the water, Merry and Horne (they were the first farmers to join Bennett when he started growing oysters) discussed the solar panels Merry had just installed on his own oyster float; he uses the energy to power a motorized pump to wash his crop. Sustainability and oyster farming go hand-in-hand: The work is low-tech, requiring little more than a few boats and pumps, and the oysters themselves filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. The oysters now planted in Duxbury Bay filter the entire waterway completely once every nine days, making it a thriving environment for wild species like striped bass, green crabs and razor clams. "We like to call ourselves carbon negative," Bennett often jokes.
As a russet-orange sunset lit up the sky behind us, Sewall and Bennett began discussing the Island Creek Oyster Bar. Sewall offers about a dozen oyster varieties there, including all five oyster species (Island Creek grows Crassostrea virginica, an East Coast native). Bennett hopes an oyster list like this will invite more discussions of merroir; eventually, he wants to hold tastings at the oyster bar and, more importantly, teach folks how to shuck.
"It's one of those life skills, like driving stick shift or building a fire, that everyone should know how to do," he says.
Boston-based writer Erin Byers Murray is a contributing editor at Boston Magazine. Her memoir, Shucked, will be released by St. Martin's Press in October.