Notes from Chicago

DSC00541 Matthew and I got to Chicago on Wednesday morning and after solving various phone issues (we were both getting the shakes after a few hours without our Blackberries) stopped into Shaw's Crab House. We were there for the Royster with the Oyster, which Shaw's has been putting on for more than 20 years. We made it there in time for the Oyster Hall of Fame dinner honoring Rodney Clark, the newest inductee.

Personally, I find it fascinating that there is an actual place where the biggest, best-known names in oysters (Hog Island, Jon Rowley, Joan Reardon, Rowan Jacobsen, MFK Fischer, and of course, Island Creek) are honored in an official way (and yes, there is an actual hall in the form of a private dining room filled with photos of all the inductees). They get together this time every year to celebrate oysters, reconnect, and honor those who have kept these fascinating bivalves in the spotlight.

The dinner was a hoot. We slurped back oysters (Rod's Queens, which I was told were about 12 years old, ShanDaphs, and Sand Dunes) opened by Rodney's 25-year-old son Eamon (a master shucker - Rodney thanked him for "his stroke on the knife to the calcium") and then sat down to dinner to hear speeches, the reading of letters from those who couldn't be there and plenty of oyster conversation. Rodney's Oyster House is up in Toronto where Clark is considered Mr. Oyster. He was an entertaining speaker who kept it short (it was only as long as the number of words that fit onto an airsickness bag, which is what he wrote it on) and referred to his placement in Chapter 11 of Robb Walsh's book Sex, Death and Oysters as the only way he ever wanted to be affiliated with Chapter 11.

Hendo and I spent the rest of the weekend running around Chicago visiting restaurants with our oysters in tow. A few highlights were peeking into the Alinea kitchen from a side window during service one night (chef Dave probably would have kicked us off our perch if we'd spent one more minute spying on them; chef Grant hardly looked up from his work), being greeted at Charlie Trotter's kitchen entrance by Mr. Trotter himself, hearing about the Chicago social scene from chef Bruce Sherman (who then sent us to The Wieners Circle for the best charred hot dogs of my life) and two incredible meals at Publican. Friday, we spent awhile chatting up the crew there and got to know owner Paul Kahan who was incredibly gracious and funny (I love that he visits Avec and Blackbird every night but almost always ends up at Publican to shuck oysters and drink a beer).

After Friday's first Publican visit (we went back late-night for dinner), we went to Shaw's where Steve LaHaie showed us his new collection of oyster plates (they were a gift from author Joan Reardon).


Eventually, we made it to the Festival where the annual slurp off ended with a win by Jon Ashby ... who just happened to be wearing an Island Creek tshirt (we owe that guy a bag of oysters). And please, if you have a minute, you've got to listen to this emcee go on about the requirements for winning this contest. He was a riot.

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.3747996&w=425&h=350&fv=%26rel%3D0%26border%3D0%26]

Oyster Fest 2009

Phew. I finally found some time to sit down and wrap my head around Oyster Fest and just in time: I believe my clothes have finally dried out. It was a one of the wettest 36 hours we've had all summer (despite the entire soaking month of June) and of course, it had to fall during the set up and timing of the farm's biggest party. The rain didn't deter the tents from going up (there were delays but they eventually went up) or the rock star committee from getting the bones of the event put together on Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning, we woke up to a deluge that tapered off to a windless drizzle and eventually dry skies. The morning was productive, though. With dozens of volunteers plus the tent, lighting and sound crews, the world of Oyster Fest slowly took shape. Committee member Brenda Henriquez and I were busy getting the chef's stations set up and all of the decorations pulled together (entirely Brenda's doing and it looked fantastic) while Nancy Bennett and her crew hung the signs. (Her crew included Billy and their grandson Joe who suffered a minor thumb injury and missed the entire party -- never run with scissors!)

VIP tent

The morning was a blur but the chefs started to arrive and things quickly moved into high gear. They rolled in one by one: Chris Schlesinger's sous chef Eric from East Coast Grill with the Caja China (stuffed to the brim with Gourmet -- see the story of it below); Jamie Bissonnette of Toro with his pig portioned and wrapped in foil; Louie DiBicarri and Ian Grossman from Sel de la Terre who were full of hugs and big smiles; Jody Adams and her team; B&G's Stephen Oxaal; Solstice's John Cataldi with a solar powered-oven; Nick Dixon from Lucky's Lounge; and Tony Maws from Craigie on Main with his adorable son Charlie in tow. By now the tent and everything around it was shrouded in an incredible fog and I got a call from Will Gilson who was turned around and had traveled halfway out to Saquish before turning around to find us. Jackson Cannon arrived with his bar set up and two super quick helpers from Eastern Standard. Jasper White rolled in around 2 and gave me a big hug before pulling on his chef's jacket. The jackets, made by Shannon Reed, matched the signs and the motif . Aside from one small typo (sorry, Jeremy), the chefs really seemed to like them.

most of our Oyster Fest chefs

Louie & Ian

Suddenly, I looked up and it was 3:15. The party had started and guests were rolling by. The first hour was filled with families and little kids who were crawling all over the Kids Zone but before I knew it, 4 pm arrived and the beer taps were open. The chefs, picking up cues from the ravenous crowd, started putting out their food earlier than scheduled, which was fine for Skip and I who found ourselves snacking behind the tables once or twice (but probably not for the people in line).

a little taste of Midnight

Around 5, the VIP tent opened and folks started trickling in, eager to try Seth and Angela Raynor's "oyster crack" (aka: green love), Chris Schlesinger's Peking roast pork, Jody's scallops in crazy water, and Jasper White's razor clam ceviche. Jackson was just getting started with 4 different Grey Goose cocktails when I snuck away to check out the rain situation at 5:30. Consensus? It was a downpour. It would taper on and off but never fully let up until well past midnight (the upside was that we had more than a few fantastic lightning displays). But the troops, all 3,000 of them, carried on unphased. Between the space under the main tent and the confines of the beer tent, most people stayed pretty dry.

I ran over to the main tent a few times to find my crew working their butts off behind the raw bar. The Andys, Will, Greg, Catie, Eva, and Pops were volunteering, Maggie had her art on display (again, more on that below), and we even had an appearance from Quinn in the form of many (many) phone calls.



Our shucking contest culminated with the finals which were up on stage at 9 (I jumped up to time one of the contestants) and wouldn't you know it, our old friend Chopper won the prize. By then, the crowd was in full swing with the Heavyweights on stage and oysters disappearing like hotcakes. The VIP tent almost took on an open door policy (which Jackson handled remarkably well considering he and his crew were weeded for a good hour) and folks in the main tent were dancing up a storm. I made it to the side of the stage for the last few songs, including one killer performance of "Don't Stop Believing."





I ended the Fest sitting on stage in an empty tent with Dave, Nicole, Shore, Skip, and a few others surveying the damage. I had a huge grin on my face and a sigh of relief. It was all behind us and despite a rainy night, we'd survived it.

There was, of course, the inevitable after party at CJ's house which involved a kickass DJ and several kegs of Harpoon.




I rolled into bed around 4:30 that morning all amped up and psyched to spend the next few days reflecting on our successes (and few failures), reminiscing about the party, and hearing how everyone else perceived the night.

Now, to the story of the pig. The plan was to give Chris Schlesinger his pig on Saturday morning at the Fest. But Friday afternoon, I got a phone call that went something like this:

Chris: Hey Erin, I have a few questions for you ... (two easy questions followed)... and now here's the hard one. Is there any way we could get our pig delivered into the city today? Erin: (Pause.) Hmmm. Well. I guess it wouldn't be... impossible (internal freakout). Chris: Because, I have to say, knowing that she's 125 pounds and considering all of the logistics, we really want to get her up here and have a look at her. We'd really like to get to know her a little better, if that makes sense. Erin: Sure, of course Chris. I totally understand. Let me make a few phone calls and get back to you (more internal freaking).

I pick up the phone, call Matthew, call Berg, call Shore... outcome did not look good. Finally, Matthew agrees to pick up the pig at the butcher in Bridgewater, bring her back to the shop and the plan was I would load her into my Honda Civic (yes, a Civic) and drive her up to Boston around 4 that afternoon.

I head down to the Festival site to start setting up and get a call from Matthew: he and the pig are almost back at the shop, do I want to meet them there? Yes, I said. Be there in 5 minutes *to drive the pig up to Boston.*

Just then, my old friend (and new favorite) Cory shows up and tells me that he is driving one of the vans up to Boston to help Maggie pick up her art in time for the Festival. Would you be able to drop off a pig, I ask? He hemmed and hawed (understandably) and finally said: Yes, Pain. I'll drive your pig to Boston.

Later that night, I get a text from Maggie: Can I have your email address? Sure, I replied with the address. This is what I received in return:

pig delivery

Along with a note from Maggie: "So we are going to pick up my paintings and had to deliver a pig on the way. It was quite the site! Crowds were forming. We just got paintings into truck. Success. En route home."

When I got the message, I happened to be at the Winsor House with Shore, Skip, and Matthew who got an enormous kick out of the photo. Cory was obviously the hero of the night (and if I haven't thanked you enough, Cory, I owe you big time).

It was just one of the many, many examples of the number of helping hands it took to put this thing together. As Shore said early in the day on Saturday, "Can you believe how many people are working to make this event happen right now?" It was remarkable. We are incredibly fortunate to have had so many people interested in working towards this goal. We raised a huge amount of money for the Island Creek Oysters Foundation and it really was a pleasure to be a part of it all.

And... so... Now what?

I got to the farm this morning after a short day off yesterday and found the harbor eerily empty. It was about 50 degrees and I could taste that crisp bite of Fall. The effects of the party are still heavy in the air (and so are the stories, which keep revealing themselves) but I'm happy to have it behind us -- and ready for the summer to fade out slowly.

quiet September morning on the harbor

It's August what?

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.

half-inch oysters 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.

DSC00288 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.

Nantucket Wine Fest '09

shucking at the White Elephant There are far too many fun stories to tell about this past weekend. Not sure this little blog will do it all justice. But here goes.

Most of the farm packed up early last week to hit Nantucket for the 2009 Wine Festival. On Friday, Will, Berg & I hopped a flight from Hyannis to the island and arrived just in time for a seminar hosted by Skip and Shore at the White Elephant. They were joined by Sarah Leah Chase, a cookbook author, Jamie Hamlin, a TV personality, as well as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat wines. A group of us stood behind the raw bar shucking as Skip told the seated crowd the story of Island Creek. Sarah paired our oysters with a black pepper mignonette to start and later served them quite simply with grilled sausage. The sausage dish was a hit, as was the roasted bone marrow dish that followed it (no oysters but a fantastic pea shoot salad and a few dabs of Martha's Vineyard sea salt from).


Jim had several fantastic things to say about our oysters which was a huge endorsement for us -- he called them "a delicious example of East Coast oysters." And we were absolutely enamored with his wines, especially the Hildegard and the Nuits-Blanches au Bouge. Really tasty juice.

Afterward, we packed up and got checked in to a few rooms at the Cottages (conveniently located above Provisions, the sandwich shop run by our friends Amanda Lydon and Gabriel Frasca who also run the Straight Wharf Restaurant) before turning thoughts towards dinner. Skip lead the charge to the Boarding House, owned by close friends of Island Creek, Seth & Angela Raynor. Somehow, after a trip into the kitchen, he was able to snag a table for all ten of us up in the Pearl's private dining room -- which was exactly the color of Pepto. The guys were unfazed so we sat down to a huge table and started an epically long (and hysterical), family style meal with a few cocktails and a magnum of Ridge Zinfandel. Skip took charge of ordering and out came a parade of amazing food: dumplings, soft shell crab, lettuce wraps, 60-second steak, wok fried lobster, black was never ending. Berg and I hoarded a few dishes at our end of the table just so we could lick the plates.

After dinner, we eventually found our way to The Chicken Box where the phenomenal U2 cover band, Joshua Tree, rocked straight until closing time. There were after parties, beers on the roof, and eventually, we all made it home safely to bed.

Saturday was an early one but we managed to get to the Nantucket Yacht Club in time for our 11 a.m. set up. We arrived to the tents and found our boat already in place (thanks to Shore and a few others) on the back lawn, right in front of the water under a powder blue sky. Picture perfect spot.


Seth and Angela and restaurant team were set up to grill Island Creeks with an ancho chilli butter and also created four toppings for us: straight mignonette (from the Boarding House), Thai lime dipping (the Pearl), tomatillo salsa, and regular salsa (their new ceviche bar and Peruvian restaurant, Corazon del Mar -- opening in a week or two). The Thai lime dipping was an unbe-lievable combo of garlic, cilantro, lime, Thai chillies, sugar, and fish sauce. By the end of the weekend, we were calling it Green Love. Just addictive stuff. We shucked for both the mid-day and afternoon sessions under pretty gorgeous weather which took a turn towards cloudy gray at the end. We kept at it and by the end of the day, had run out of about 5,000 oysters for the weekend. (But one quick phone call home and we had 25 more bags sent to us on the ferry -- thank you, Lisa). We also had an incredible crew of fans stop by the float -- many of whom wanted to buy the t-shirts off our back and wish us well. Jim Clendenen came by to pour wines with us for the afternoon session; we made friends with a huge oyster fan named Ted from Kentucky; my pals Alex Hall and Mike Blanding stayed the day; and Marlo Fogelman (Marlo Marketing Communications), Glen Kelley, and Janice O'Leary (from Boston Common magazine) swung by as well.

Island Creeks on the grill

Berg taking a break at Wine Fest

the coveted t-shirts

CJ, Erin, & Matthew grinding

We managed to escape with a few farmers' tans and plenty of extra bottles of wine in us. A quick nap later and it was dinnertime once again. This time, we hit American Seasons, owned by Orla and Michael LaScola. This was a more intimate dinner (literally since two tables held all 8 men and myself) but we managed not to disturb too many other diners. We split two more magnums of Zinfandel (this one was called The Prisoner and at 15.2% alcohol, did most of us in) and ate another wonderful collection of dishes. My braised pork shank could have fed an army (well, ok, just myself and Berg... CJ gnawed at the bone) while the meatloaf "sandwich" topped with foie gras won for hands-down flavor.

the magnum

the Oyster Dude goes to town

one fat and happy oyster crew

Again, our night turned a little rowdy and we found our way over to the Straight Wharf for a late-night dance party. The videos are priceless, but alas, too damaging to share.

Sunday, we found ourselves up and at 'em for the final day of Wine Fest and a rainy, foggy morning. The weather had us stuck indoors and without a grill at the Yacht Club but we made the most of it and kept things light with a few Mexican wrestling masks to entertain the oyster fans.

Berg, Shore, CJ, & Will

More wine and a pitcher of sangria appeared on our raw bar but once again, we escaped alive and finished the second session at 2 p.m. at which point Shore & CJ walked the raw bar boat through the streets of Nantucket and over to the Boarding House (in case you're wondering, the boat was hand-made by by a Duxbury local and yes, it's heavy).

raw bar parade

Once the raw bar and grill were re-set-up on the Boarding House patio we shucked for the Festival wind-down party. More of those fantastic sauces, more shucking, and more wrestling masks were in order. By the end, Skip looked as tired as we all felt and just kept saying, "The tide is going out on this one." One final meal at the Boarding House bar turned up a tasty plate of gnocchi, amazing French fries, a crispy, thin crust pizzetta with roasted grapes and arugula, and yes, a few more cocktails.

Seth, CJ & Shore

After we ate, Angela walked me over to Corazon del Mar, the couple's newest restaurant set to open in a few weeks. The concept is a Peruvian spot and ceviche bar and the aesthetic is gorgeous: think Mexican Gothic and romance. Really beautiful, two-story place.

One more night out meant one more stop at the Straight Wharf (with a pit stop at Captain Tobey's) and a round of shots for everyone at the bar. I finally got to catch up with Gabriel Frasca (who requested a few late-night oysters) before we shut down the bar and all stumbled home. It was one long finale to end a sweeping weekend of fun.

Of course, the 8 a.m. flight home wasn't nearly as idyllic but we still put in a pretty full day of work yesterday. And now... we catch up on sleep and officially say hello to summer.

B&G Oyster Invitational... and hey look, it's May.

ICO raw bar at B&G On Sunday, Island Creek participated in the first annual patio opening party at B&G in the South End. It was a stellar event put on by Barbara Lynch's B&G team and we were happy to be involved. While the Creek shuckers (myself, Berg, Shore & CJ) spent most of the afternoon under a tent on the downstairs patio (right next to the DJ and our friends from Harpoon Brewery), the party stretched through the restaurant and across the street over to Lynch's cookbook library/demo space, Stir, next door. Chefs like Louie DiBicarri (Sel de la Terre), Jamie Bissonnette (Toro), and Tim Cushman (O Ya) participated in the oyster-dish competition (congrats to Louie for winning - I never tasted the dish but hear good things). There were also oyster profile demos taking place at Stir across the street (teaching folks what type of oyster they prefer) as well as a few shucking competitions -- CJ shucked for Island Creek but, sadly, was beat out by Perry Raso of Matunuck Oysters (he was shucking at a booth next to us and happens to be Berg's former boss -- he's working on opening a raw bar near his farm this summer so go visit him).

We started the day with about 30 bags of oysters and after a few hours (the event stretched from noon to 8 pm), we'd flown through them. Shore called Cory who drove up another 20 bags from the farm and we kept shucking... my arms are still killing me. Chopper, the world's fastest oyster shucker (from Wellfleet) stopped by to give CJ and I a quick shucking demo. Clearly, I found out, he's figured out a method. He uses a self-made shucking knife ("better than what anyone else makes," he said) which he slides into the side of the oyster ("you can't see it but there's a sweet spot on every oyster") and, after popping off the top, slides its curved edge down into the shell to scrape the meat away in one swift movement.

Chopper & CJ

CJ gave it a whirl and got pretty good at it but decided to stick to his usual method during the competition ("too soon, and I need more practice," he told me) -- unfortunately, it wasn't enough. As the afternoon carried on, the crowd loosened up and we let the B&G shuckers take over while we enjoyed a few beers with our new friend in the police uniform (he let us borrow his hat for a few pics).


Cat Silirie, No 9 Park's wine maven, was pouring Txakoli, a crisp, effervescent rose which went really well with the oysters, as did the Harpoon Munich Dark. I managed to sneak a few sausages and mini lobster rolls from the trays that kept passing by but by 8 pm, we were all ready for a full meal (and a few more drinks). But first, we had to figure out what to do with the ice luge that had appeared out of nowhere and ended up on our raw bar. The best option? Head to Eastern Standard, of course. Our whole crew, plus many tag alongs (including Meggie, a former Creek employee and current cook at O Ya) ended up at ES for some late-night bourbons and more oyster luging. I'm not sure which was more haggard by the end of it, us or the ES staff, but we had a fantastic night and, naturally, we all got home way past our bedtime.

Meggie, Berg, Erin

And even though our week started with a bang, we kept riding high. Shore actually woke up Monday morning and made his way to New York where he shucked Island Creek Oysters at the James Beard Awards with Rialto chef Jody Adams. It was a huge honor for ICO and while they were too exhausted to do any serious partying (as is the tradition at the Beard awards), they ran into plenty of Island Creek friends like Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, and Tony Maws.

Back at the farm, the week started a little slow -- it's been rainy, raw, and windy all week. But our newest cohort, Will, started with us on Tuesday, plus we had Joe of Jeeves with us Tuesday and Wednesday, so we rocked all of our weekly duties (culling, washing, bagging) and by this afternoon, we'd done the bulk of our bags and officially moved on to spring cleaning. In oyster farming terms, that means we're getting ready for the seed to arrive.

I ran into Christian at the water on Wednesday and asked what I should expect for May weather.

Christian: For May? Rain. And more drinking. Me: More? Of both? Christian: Actually, in the last ten years, it's never failed. Never. The day the seed arrives, the wind blows hard east. You want a hard east wind? And some rain? Just order some seed. Me: Nice. At least I know what I have to look forward to. Christian: Yup.

We chatted again today.

Christian (in a day-glo yellow sweatshirt): I forgot to mention it but May always means thunderstorms. Keep an eye on the [Standish] monument. If you see clouds and lightening coming that direction, there's a good chance it'll hit us. Me: Also good to know. Christian: It's a pretty no-fail warning system. A2: Great sweatshirt, Christian. Christian: It's bright, right? My spring colors. Can't miss me in this thing. I could be picking trash by the highway in this thing. A2: Right on.

So, anyway, the seed is getting here in the next week or so and to prepare, we're cleaning out all of our old seed bags. There' s huge pile back behind the shop -- we've made a small dent in it so you can almost see over the top now. We have to power wash each bag to get all the grit off from last year, and then prep them with styrofoam filling, piping, and metal rings so they'll be ready for this coming summer. It's a huge, tedious project but one of those signs that summer is almost here.

Quick trip to New Orleans

I took my first break from the farm to trek down to Jazz Fest in New Orleans this weekend. It was a combo trip: music festival with my husband Dave (a work trip for him), surprise birthday visit with my Dad (his big 60th is next weekend). Mom, sis, brother-in-law Brian and our best family friends, Carol & Jim Williams, joined the party, too. Dave and I got in on Thursday and hit up Lilette where I had my idea of the perfect dish - crispy fried Korabuta pork belly (each little package melted when I bit into it) tossed with pea shoots, melon wedges, cucumber bits, tarragon, mint, and fennel slices in one huge salad. It was that utterly addictive concoction of salty sweet with lots of acid -- brilliant since it paired this delicious but extra fatty piece of meat with all this light, spring freshness. We then traipsed over to the Howlin Wolf for some brass band music and Dave's favorite part of the night, the Lunchbox special (a shot a whiskey and a Miller Hi Life for $7). Two of those and we were good for the night.

Friday, after saying hi to my sis Shannon and her guy Brian, we made our way to the racetrack for the Jazz & Heritage Festival where a few of the bands Dave's agency represents were playing this weekend. We spent the day wandering between shows and hung out with the guys from the Benjy Davis Project for a bit before I finally dragged Dave over to the Jazz Fest Oyster Bar (it is, after all, a professional obligation).


We stood in line for a dozen, watching the shuckers rip through burlap bags of oysters. These were from Black Bay, an area where, like most of the Gulf, the oyster farms were almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. They've obviously had an incredible recovery and we were psyched to try out the Gulf flavor. A few major differences: they serve the oysters on what we would consider the top, or flat, shell instead of inside the cup. They also had a huge condiment bar with horseradish and hot sauce. All I wanted was a couple squirts of lemon for these bad boys, which were huge and stuffed with meat. My first bite yielded decent results: earthy, almost muddy flavor with some really good chew. But oysters 2 and 3, plus a few that Dave tried were, sadly, frozen almost completely solid.


Not all. We gave up after those first few, utterly disappointed, and made our way back out into the heat of the festival. I made up for it with a few really tasty fried oysters at Besh Steak later that night (after we surprised Dad and spent a little time on the casino floor).

Saturday gave me the chance to show off ICO oysters to the fam. I'd had 3 dozen shipped down to our hotel so we sat by the rooftop pool and Uncle Jim and I shucked them for the crew. Jim was actually the one who introduced me to oysters back in Spartanburg, SC. We met while living there in the 80s and spent the years as a family ever since. Carol reminded me that Spartanburg was where Jim first started shucking oysters at home; now it's one of his favorite holiday traditions (that, along with watching old classics like Holiday Inn every year). Jim, meanwhile, told endless stories, like trying to explain why he and my Dad once used a vice and a greasy screwdriver to open oysters ("Those suckers just wouldn't open") and how his brother Biff once jabbed himself with a shucking knife and passed out on the floor at the sight of blood. And then, almost immediately, he did it to himself. He was using this handy little tool Mom had smuggled over from Houston, but still managed to jab himself twice, drawing blood (and when Jim jabs, boy he does it with gusto).

notice the blood-stained hand (that would be Jim's)

After a few more shows and more fantastic food, I made my way back to Boston last night, hoping to get back as soon as humanly possible. If not for the oysters, than most definitely for the cochon, fried pork belly, boudin balls, and po boys. Between that and the company, it was an absolutely priceless trip.

Dad, Jim, and Erin

Shannon & Mom hard at work

The Cull

the toolsI've gotten a lot of questions about culling. Essentially, we're sorting the oysters but there's a lot more to it than that. At least, it feels like there's more to it since we spend 4 hours a day doing it while standing on our feet. We have a couple of tools, like the three-inch ring, a flathead screwdriver, and our gloves (which are thick and lined for the winter; in the summer we'll wear a lighter pair). Music fuels us, as does a mid-morning coffee break; we do what we can to break up the monotony of moving oysters from one place to another. As for the cull, we're looking for size, cup depth, healthy oysters (any that are nicked or broken go back to the water to repair themselves), and of course, funky stuff (ie: the two-minute time waster). When you tip over a crate of oysters, you'll get about 200 bivalves plus a dozen other odds and ends on the table. Stringy, brown, mud-caked seaweed, neon-green kelp, quahogs, scallops, hermit crabs of every shape and size (they've been turning up a lot lately), broken-off horseshoe crab tails and shells, live spider crabs (A2 hates those), an occasional piece of garbage, and even the lonely chicken bone. Yesterday we turned up a tiny flounder. Today, we found a heart-shaped oyster, my second since starting on the farm.dsc00232

One of the perks of this job, as Skip reminded me yesterday, is that I get to take home as many oysters as I can eat. I brought home about a dozen and a half for Dave and I to snack on before dinner tonight. Besides a stellar, interactive appetizer, it gave me time to practice my shucking skills. dsc00241 Over our oysters, we chatted about my total lack of skills. Me: I think maybe I'll finish up the year and then go work as a shucker at an oyster bar. It could fulfill that "working in a restaurant" urge that's been nagging me for awhile. Dave: Yeah, well, you should probably see how this year goes first. I mean, of all the possible options you have ahead of you, working in an oyster bar has never really come up before. Me: Yeah. I guess I should learn to shuck oysters well first. Dave: Or you could just go back to being a writer... you know, like you always wanted to be. Me: (slurping back my 8th oyster) Riiiggghhhttt.

I'm starting to get the hang of shucking even though I cut myself once. We whipped up the Island Creek mignonette and put the puppies on ice. I was drinking a Harpoon Quad (courtesy of our pal Liz who smuggled a few bottles into Highland Kitchen for us when we met her and Adam for dinner there last week) and really liked the dark, Belgian-y style with our oysters. That heady maltiness really punctuated the the sweetness of Island Creeks. I strongly recommend it. And speaking of strong, the Quad is a killer at 12%. Consume sparingly. dsc002481 dsc00247

One last note: I'd love some more tips on where to find Island Creeks (or any really truly spectacular and way-above-average oysters out there). I'm going to try and amp up the Eating. Oysters. section so if you've got them on your menu or want me to put an idea out to the world, please send them my way: murray.erinb at

St. Botolph Club hearts Island Creek

oysters11Oyster marketing lesson #1: Put fifty or so distinguished Bostonians in front of an oyster farmer and the topic inevitably turns to sex.

I'm not picking on the distinguished Bostonians. It happens with everyone. Last night I got a glimpse of what is sure to be a limitless topic: oysters as aphrodisiacs. (It's the zinc!)

Island Creek was featured at a dinner at the St. Botolph Club last night. One of the members is originally from Duxbury and was proud and honored to show off a product from his own hometown so he asked Shore to give a presentation on ICO before a five-course oyster dinner. The power-point presentation didn't get far before Shore was bombarded with questions about how oysters spawn, why they shouldn't be eaten in months without an "r", and a million other topics I could hardly keep up with. Yes, the topic of sex came up but Shore handled it all with grace, answering as many questions as he could while discreetly ignoring the two or three guests that nodded off mid-speech. (Really, it wasn't his fault. The free-flowing liquor took effect well before he got started.)

At dinner, I was presented with the largest oyster I've ever eaten (too bad for the kitchen since apparently they're a bitch to shuck when they're that size) and we were seated across from Chris Kimball from Cook's Illustrated. He and his wife were totally entertained by Shore and peppered him with questions throughout the night.

Totally entertaining experience. And I'm sure it won't be the last time I chat with a man my grandfather's age about his libido.

Oysters and gnocchi

la-morra2I've been getting this group of women together for wine dinners since 2006 (we call ourselves Lady Lushes mostly because it's so fitting). I love these women; they all truly appreciate good wine and food and want to be educated in a really casual environment. Plus, I think we all hate drinking alone. We try to meet at spots where there are female sommeliers (there's a growing number up here) and usually do 3 or 4 courses with ample amounts of wine. I always have a great time and we've had some unforgettable meals (Silvertone & Oleana are tied as faves). Last night we made it to La Morra (where I hosted the first dinner way back when) and in honor of my move, owners Josh (chef) & Jen (who handles the wine) gave me a great send off by putting Island Creeks on the menu. Josh admitted he doesn't use them often (don't find too many oysters in Northwest Italy) but he managed to totally elevate a gnocchi dish with fresh oysters, cauliflower, and caviar. It was all layered in a butter and chive sauce which I literally licked off the plate. Fantastic job, Josh.

Tonight, I'm headed to Rialto for a New England Shellfish Dinner. Rowan Jacobsen is speaking and signing books so I'm hoping he can help me with the whole oyster prose dilemma. Stay tuned. Oh, and if you haven't read it yet, check out Jody Adams' blog.

Describe an oyster.

I've just started reading The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark. It's a beautiful, out-of-print book (you can find a used copy here) recommended by a new friend, Alison Cook. (We randomly met at the bar at Babbo when I was in NY last week. After secretly coveting each others dinner choices, she spoke up and introduced herself. She's the dining critic for the Houston Chronicle - where my parents live - and while sharing each others' dishes and a lovely chat, we eventually realized we're separated by about one degree and have more than a few mutual friends. Truly serendipitous.) Anyway, Clark does a stellar job of describing oysters; the flavor, salinity, texture, brine. Not sure I can't do it justice like she can.

"It is briny first of all, and not in the sense of brine in a barrel, for the preservation of something; there is a shock of refreshment to it." ... "You are eating the sea, that's it, only the sensation of a gulp of sea water has been wafted out of it by some sorcery, and are on the verge of remembering you don't know what, mermaids or the sudden smell of kelp on the ebb tide or a poem you read once, something connected with the flavor of life itself..."

I'm at a loss for words like this, poetic and prosey, that really grasp the flavor, sensation, and overall aesthetic of tasting an oyster. So at some point in the near future, I'll have to use my reporter's approach, a mildly scientific one if you will, to uncover the words, my words, for describing an oyster. It won't be today, sadly. But someday, very soon. I'll bring home a bag of oysters, maybe several from a few different farms, then taste them one by one and write down every word, however poetic or not, that pops to mind. I'll need assistants, of course, and plenty of bottles of white wine and hearty beers (have you tried a good beer with oysters? Please do, it's fantastic. Try Harpoon's Munich Dark if you can find it) plus some crackers and plenty of lemons. Date is tbd so stay tuned. In the meantime, I'm open to suggestions.