What could possibly go wrong?

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).

july 4th

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."

river crew

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.

Moving seed

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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more about "The Toss on Vimeo", posted with vodpod

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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more about "Back River", posted with vodpod

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.

A taste of summer

Berg staying cool We had a record-breaking hot one yesterday: it hit 91 in Boston and we were in the high 80s on the water all day. My crew was out on the tide by 7 and around 8, the heat picked up and those huge rubber waders felt like lead. But it was a super long tide so we got lots of picking done, despite the dreaded weed that still covers everything. And, despite this friendly little spider crab who I almost picked up since he was disguised as an oyster.


A2 wasn't thrilled and now I know why. These things are prehistoric and when you're inches away from the mud, terrifying to come face to face with. But he didn't do any harm and eventually scurried away and buried himself back in the mud. Where he belongs.

back into the mud

After the tide, we picked up Joe of Jeeves (who's helping us out for a few days), along with some iced coffees back on land before heading back to the float to cull. After an hour or so I was broiling and decided to take my chances in the freezing waters with a quick swim. It was absolutely frigid -- the kind of cold that takes your breath away -- but felt incredible. Later, Shore said I should try to get myself into the 12-month club and hit the water every month of the year. Not sure I can get myself in when the water temp is lower that mid 50s, but we'll see. I know I'll be going in a lot once things pick up. Joe was telling A2 and I about the endless summer battle they have tossing people in. Once that cell phone comes out of your pocket, all bets are apparently off.

It was a long day in the heat and sun but I finally had that aha moment. I used to spend days and days behind my desk, staring hopelessly out a window into the summer sunshine wondering what else I would be doing if I only I could go outside. I probably wasted countless hours doing that on someone else's dime (apologies to any former bosses). If half of this summer is anything like yesterday, I may never go back to an office again.

We have growth!

A2 culling in the rain We're seeing buds on the trees and now we've got growth on our oysters. We were stuck up at the shop yesterday due to weather but it gave us a nice break from the water and chance to catch up with all of the folks who wander in and out of the garage all day. The morning started with culling and listening to CJ's crazy weekend stories while he and Cory loaded up the truck. As Cory would say, "The kid's on fire." Shore joined us for a bit (looking every bit as haggard as CJ) and we got to chat with Billy who just got back from vacation. He was telling us about the weather diary he's kept for the last several years - says the water temps are probably up to about 40 degrees right now. I asked if he'd seen the weather trending one way or the other in general over the last few years and he said no, not really. "There are cycles here and there but for the most part, it's been the same. But we have had some pretty bad nor'easters at the end of April these past few years." Fingers crossed this year's an off one.

oyster growth

Also got to visit with John Brawley who came by and asked if we'd seen any edging on our oysters yet. He picked one up to show us: "See this white rim at the top? Means the water's warm enough for the shells to start growing back." Which also means all of those RTG's (return to grant's) we've been sending back to the water are repairing themselves more quickly. They'll sit for awhile longer but soon enough, we'll be able to re-harvest them and send them out to restaurants. A2 said that he'd noticed it while washing (we've been pumping up ocean water when we're on the float where you can really feel the difference in the temp). Brawley responded: "Yeah, the water doesn't hurt my hands so much anymore."

And my weather guy tells me we're looking at an 80-degree weekend. Wha?! Here's hoping we're on the upswing...for us and the oysters.

The Float

I know what you're thinking. Just how did we get that thing in the water? Great question. Keep in mind that this is a 40-foot float with a custom-built garage/house on top of it so logistically, getting it into the water was something of a project. I wasn't there for the move but I hear it was a little dicey. Once the lift picked the float up there was some swaying and everything inside the house slid around a bit... but no major damage. Mark adding extra flotation minutes before the move

preparing to lift

strapped in

on the move

down it goes

moving crew (Skip, Shore, Hendo, Mark, Berg)

the tug boat

my favorite part... pushing it out to the mooring with our tiny shuttle

Hopefully that gives you some idea of the process. Personally, I found it fascinating.

So, now, we're at home on the water. As I mentioned, there are challenges. I arrived on Thursday morning expecting my crew to be hanging around waiting for me. After 20 minutes, I realized I'd literally missed the boat. I called Berg and sure enough, he had to shuttle back over to get me. I either need to get there before they do or be prepared to wait for a ride.

I also need to get used to that swaying feeling that stays with me for hours after reaching land. It never goes away. I'm actually swaying right now while I type this. Do I get seasick? Guess we'll find out.

And, yes, being a woman has finally caught up with me. Sadly, I can't (by that, I mean won't) pee off the side of the float. If I'm going to feel totally comfortable out there all day long, I need to learn how to drive the boat. Good motivator, right? Not a big deal but it'll probably take some practice.

On the up side, doing all of our work on the float is a breeze. I love being on the water all day, especially on days like yesterday where we were skimming 70 degrees and the wind was nill. I was out there in a tank top catching some sun when Greg Morris, a super-energetic grower and total grinder, and Christian Horne, another grower who's taught me some valuable tricks for being out on the water (keep your cell phone inside a spare sneaker), cruised past us. Morris jumped on the bow, his arms wide open and shouted, "Where's your tie-dye??"

Christian Horne and Greg Morris

At the moment, things are pretty quiet out there. We've got our battery powered, industrial-strength Dewalt radio but other than that, I can't hear anything but the water lapping against us and the occasional boat cruising past.

just us way out there

I hear the mantra all day long: "Just wait until the summer...Just wait till all the boats arrive...Just wait until it gets busy." Well, to be honest, I'm pretty content with where we're at right now. I imagine that once the warm weather starts to stick around, this quiet, empty piece of the harbor is going to get crazy. Between the moored boats and oyster floats, we'll be in the middle of a summer-long party. So for now, I'll soak up the silence. And practice driving the boat... without any obstacles.

Surf & Turf

dsc00294 Before I left the farm on Friday afternoon, Skip asked if any of us wanted steamers. Well, obviously, yes we did. We waited for him to come back from the water and pull a huge basket of steamer clams out of the back of his truck. The Andy's and I loaded up bags of the freshly dug clams before heading to the garage where Skip was pulling scallops out of the cooler. "Help yourselves," he said. pointing his thumb to a 20-pound bag of shucked scallops. These were the dayboats Island Creek has just started selling and they were so fresh, we were eating them raw out of the bag (the fisherman who sold them to us shucks them while he's dragging - all in a one-man operation). Each one was sweet and meaty with the perfect amount of soft, chewy bite.

Berg's scallops

Berg gave me his tips on how to do bacon-wrapped scallops: 450 degree oven, make sure it's completely pre-heated, wrap up the scallops and secure them with a toothpick. Pull them out when the bacon's brown and crispy.

My scallops

He was right - they were perfection. Dave and I spent the afternoon flipping between the Masters and the Indians game, enjoying a progressive dinner of steamers (we used Greg Morris's recipe which I'll post later), bacon-wrapped scallops, and then steaks and twice-baked potatoes. Our new favorite way to dine.

The Cull, part 2

Last night I was talking to my sister Shannon about the cull. As she put it: "You don't talk about actually harvesting oysters much." It's true, I haven't really gotten into the harvesting part. We were actually be out on the tide yesterday and will go back out today to hand pick oysters. The tide only gets low enough to do it every couple of weeks so on the days in between, Berg or Skip go out dragging. At the moment, that's not the point of my job. Instead, I told her about a game we play with each other and with Skip while we're culling. One of us will pick up an oyster from the TBC crate (tbc = to be culled) and ask, "What would you do with this one?"

Here's the thing about the cull: We're hand-inspecting every single oyster that comes out of the water. Each oyster is like a puzzle piece. It can go into three or four different piles depending on it's size or shape -- and there are as many different shapes for an oyster as there are snowflakes. No two are ever exactly alike. So we pick up every oyster and ask ourselves, "Where should I put this one?" Would it go into the 3's pile (our standard, perfect oyster), the Graybar pile (a rounder, deeper cup oyster named for a restaurant that originally asked for that style), the Per Se pile (also called the Porn Star, this is the oyster specifically ordered by Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant), or the RTG pile (Return To Grant, or the oysters that need to repair themselves or get a little bigger)?

The answer changes with every oyster and I've gone from taking full minutes to answer that question to a split second. While it's a repetitive movement that might seem mundane, we're tasked with paying very close attention to details. It is the most important part of our job since it's the whole reason we are able to provide a consistent product to our restaurants. Each pile has to look roughly the same so that when a restaurant gets one of our bags, they can plate a complete dozen or half dozen orders that look alike. It's our quality control and it's the reason chefs love our product. It will probably be the topic of many posts so the more I come to understand it, the better I'll be able to describe it.

ICO dayboat scallops

But there's also a lot of other things happening on the farm right now. The big news last week was a shipment of day boat scallops that came in off the Cape. We were trying these out to see what chefs think and I'm guessing the verdict is good. I went to Eastern Standard on Saturday night and chef Jeremy Sewell managed to save us the last two. He grilled them and soaked them in butter, then served them whole on the shell. While this made them tricky to eat (they didn't release from the shell) the final result was outstanding - really sweet, huge meaty chunks of scallops. I'm hoping they become a fixture for us. I'd never seen a live scallop out of the water and these babies were clackers. They were huge and could probably snap your finger off if you got too close. But they're gorgeous and hopefully you can find them around Boston and New York in the next few weeks.

We're also deep into preparations for the Island Creek Oyster Festival 2009. (Save the date: September 12.) Shore and I are working on a stellar lineup of chefs and the committee is in full swing. More on that as we get going.

Other big news that I'm super excited about: the farm is getting chickens. No, no... You won't be seeing Island Creek chickens on any menus. But Skip did order some chicks which should arrive in a few weeks so that, at the very least, the farm will have fresh eggs every day. Can't wait for those to get here. Another sure sign of spring, if you ask me.


apres ski at sugarbushOfficially, we hit spring at 7:44 a.m. on Friday morning, but you wouldn't have known it in Vermont this weekend. I went up to Sugarbush with my college friends, Karen, Co & Meg and while we had a fantastic, 40-degree sunburner on the slopes yesterday, we woke up to two inches of fluffy white stuff this morning. Thankfully, it was clear and dry here in Boston when I got home today. The first day of spring on the farm meant 30-degree temps and a bright, clear day. When I got to the shop Friday morning, I met up with A2 and our new comrade, Claudio, and then grabbed a ride down to the water with Skip. Along the way, we chatted about how things were going so far (good but physically grueling) and started to get into his own personal connection to the seasons. He said a friend once told him that he was more in tune with the seasons than anyone else she'd known. And he agreed.

"A few days ago, when we were out on the tide, I thought to myself, 'I bet the sea worms will be out right now,' and sure enough we got out there and there they were," he said. "I guess I'm just used to the way these things work."

You can feel that connection all over the farm, actually. Everyone seems to be in tune with how fast or slow the thermometer's moving. Every time a grower pops by the float or backs their truck up to the shop to drop off bags, they talk about the weather. They tell me that March is the worst month because of the fluctuating temperatures. But then last week, Christian Horne tossed out the fact that April can be brutal and rainy. And every day, someone asks us when the float is going back into the water. While we'd love to be out there now, it's still just a little too early -- and cold -- to get it out there yet. Every conversation, all day long, goes back to the weather. It controls every part of what we do. And absolutely everyone stresses that it's only going to get better. Like Berg told me on my first day of work: "In the summertime, this is the best job in the world."

As for me, I've only ever watched the seasons change from the comfort of a desk chair. I'm used to watching buds appear out of nowhere in May and then get miffed when it all ends up on the ground come October. And while I've always been aware of when it's getting warmer or lighter, I've never felt more controlled by what the weather is doing than I am these days. From what layers I put on in the morning to whether or not we wash and bag indoors, it's all I think about during the day. And, much to my surprise, I'm perfectly happy with that. Since I'm guessing the only constant in my life will be the changing weather, I'd better get used to it. And appreciate days like last Wednesday, when I could actually shed a few layers and enjoy that extra little bit of sunlight. erin-spring

I'm also guessing I'll get used to the new happy hour. No, not the one that took place at Frankie D's at 4 p.m. on Friday (though it was a stellar display of suits-boots camaraderie). I'm talking about the one that took place when I got home. After a hot shower, a glass of Kentucky bourbon and one single oyster, I was as relaxed as I think I'll ever be.


Two weeks down

the shop Can't believe it's Friday already. This week flew. Wednesday was a perfect day: high 50s, sunny, windy. We finished up our bags yesterday and have a new guy joining our crew today. Berg is out of town so A2, Claudio, and I are on our own today.

The shot above is our shop (well, Cory's shop, really). It's the garage at Island Creek Headquarters and until we get our float in the water, it's where we're doing all of our processing (counting, washing, bagging). Those are the famous orange Grunden's and orange crates. Our bags are stacked up on the palettes, getting ready to go into the walk-in cooler. We harvested those Tuesday and they were probably in restaurants by Thursday morning.

Last night I met up with friends for dinner at Toro and it was my first experience eating our oysters since I've been on the farm. There's a strong chance that the ones we ate went through my hands at one point during the process (and they were fantastic: marinated, served on the half shell, then sprinkled with grains of paradise and a hit of Tabasco saffron emulsion - really bright and tasty). That's why this whole thing just keeps getting better.

Berg counting and bagging