So long, farewell.

I came to the end of a mini-era last week as I said goodbye to both Berg and A2. My constant companions on the farm are off to bigger adventures; A2 is headed home to New Hampshire where he'll be working with his father as an environmental consultant (so, you know, he can actually use that degree). Berg, meanwhile, is leaving next Monday for a 10-week trip to Tanzania where he'll be working on behalf of the Island Creek Oysters Foundation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to start building a shellfish hatchery on the island of Zanzibar. (Check out details on how and why this is happening here.) While I've known for awhile that both would be moving on, it's hard to see these guys go, especially since they've been such a large part of my farm experience so far.

Seeing as it was A2's last day on on the farm, I spent Friday afternoon with my crew (or what's left of it), counting and bagging on the float. I'd been jonesing to get back down there ever since moving into the office so when the guys asked for help, I was happy to throw on my boots and a Grunden jacket again. The oysters have changed, believe it or not. The guys have been pulling up those mesh bags we put down late in December and inside, our oysters are a different shape and color than the were when I left the farm. Some were slightly lighter and more golden than the deep green our oysters get when they're grown directly on the floor while others were elongated and spindly instead of round and flat. It's amazing what a difference a few months in the bags will do to the shells. Inside, though, the meat still tastes the same: briny and sweet with a firm, chewy bite.

It was a great way to end what turned out to be an epic week. It started with the Oyster Stout launch party hosted by Eastern Standard last Monday night, which was followed by tastings at Harpoon Brewery on Tuesday and Thursday and an oyster and beer dinner at B&G Oysters on Wednesday. We drank and ate our fair share and also had a number of opportunities to connect with IC fans and our friends at Harpoon. Everyone at Island Creek has pretty much fallen in love with stout brewer Katie Tame, who is a natural in front of crowds. She and Skip did a great job playing off each other for the crowd at B&G on Wednesday night.

We ended the week a little ragged but still found the energy to toast A2's farewell with one last beer at Shop Friday (a farm tradition of beers and scotch at one of our grower's shops).

So what's next? As for me, I've decided to stay on the farm for a little while longer. If it isn't obvious from my long rambling posts, I've kind of fallen in love with the place -- and the people aren't too bad either. As of now, I plan on staying through the summer to help Skip with the seed for another season and to help the guys plan Oyster Fest (mark your calendars: September 11th). It'll give me a chance to enjoy another summer on the water and to watch the seed we planted last fall grow up into big, tasty, edible oysters. After that, I guess we'll see.

So this is my way of saying stay tuned. Because the ride ain't over yet...

Beer and Raw Bar Madness

There are a million ways a raw bar can go down. As a shucker, you're hoping it's a leisurely pace with oyster lovers cruising by the boat in between socializing and snacking on other appetizers. You shuck until the boat is full of half shells, then fill in oysters as the crowd comes and goes.

This was not the case last Sunday at Sel de la Terre during their annual Pig & Oyster Fest. No, I think it's safe to say that we got crushed that night. Skip, CJ, Asia, Chris, and I were behind the boat and must have had about 150 people enter the room at the same time (there was a line out the door before we even started). Plates in hand, the crowd descended, mercilessly snatching oysters out from underneath us before we had time to catch up. We shucked as quickly as we could but for two full hours, the masses waited, plucking six oysters at a time before letting another person squeeze into their place to do the same thing.

Thankfully, the guests were nice. No one complained or looked annoyed (though I did detect a few longing glances from folks at the back of a line five deep). But for the shuckers, it was hard both working at that pace and gauging whether the crowd was happy. We sold out of 2200 oysters in 2 hours. Definitely a new record. Afterwords, we took the edge off by downing a few whiskeys with our new friend, Louie the Pig.

Every raw bar we do has its own vibe. At restaurant parties like this, where oysters are the focus, the crowd can be ravenous. They've paid a set fee to walk in the door and they expect to get their moneys worth. Other times, when the raw bar is set up amongst multiple food stations and guests have a number of options, our pace is slower and we have time to talk to everyone. It's a tricky balance but one I'm slowly learning how to control.

My office role has me handling the raw bars that we do, both for events like Sel and for the upcoming wedding season (yes, you can hire us to come out and set up a raw bar -- just say the word).

This week, we're about to get our fill of raw bar insanity. And it's all thanks to (drum roll please) the release of our OYSTER STOUT! We spent Friday morning at Harpoon Brewery while they bottled up what turns out to be a very impressive version of stout made with oysters.

We had our first taste in the bottling room, amongst the clanking of glass and the noisy machines, around 10 a.m. Fresh from the tank, it was a treat, full of chocolate and roasted smokiness. I could actually smell the ocean on it. The brewery then put us to work capping the bottles with gold foil (Skip worked the bottling line like a champ.)

Later, Nicole, Dave and I split a bottle at home to really get the taste. Dave, a lovably stubborn beer snob, took a few deep whiffs, putting his nose deep into the glass and declared it awesome. With each taste, the smokiness increased, the faintest hint of seawater came through and the stout improved.

The real test, though, occurred last night at Eastern Standard when we drank the stout (from a growler we snuck in to the restaurant) with a plate of Island Creeks. Suddenly, the beer changed. The chocolate notes faded to the background. The oysters woke up a blast of minerality and then the smokiness came roaring through. One oyster, one sip. It really is a magical pair.

To celebrate the beer's arrival, we're throwing parties with Harpoon all month. Between restaurant parties and Brewery room tastings, we'll have raw bars all over town. I highly recommend making it to one of these parties -- or tracking down the beer at your nearest retailer. Drink it with oysters or on its own. And if you make it to one of our raw bars, do us a favor and say hello. Tell us what you think. We'll be hard at work shucking. But we always have time to chat and have a beer.

Oyster Stout Brew Day

I woke up with butterflies in my stomach on brew day. After months of planning, contemplating, and strategizing, we were finally going to Harpoon to shuck oysters for the Island Creek Oyster Stout.

After a quick stop at Lucky's Lounge (we're planning a stout party there in late February), Shore and I made it over to Harpoon where 6 bags of oysters awaited. Dave Grossman had been at the brewery snapping photos all day and when we got there, a reporter and photographer from the Herald were capturing the event for a piece that ran in the next day's paper.

Inside the cavernous brewery, we got to work counting out and shucking oysters for the brew itself. Brewer Katie Tame had tested various recipes for the stout and her final version required exactly 180 per batch. Katie does a nice job explaining what exactly the oysters are doing inside the stout for the Herald piece:

Not to worry, drinking the beer won’t be like downing an oyster shooter, nor will there be an intense oyster flavor, according to brewer Katie Tame. The oysters are poached in the heat of the liquid during the brewing process and disintegrated.

“All those proteins boost up the body of the beer, and an increased protein content adds head retention, which is great for the stout,” said Tame, the first female brewer for the 100 Barrel series that started in 2003.

“A lot of the oyster quality - be it the brine or actually the oyster itself - will blend with the darker malts,” she said.

The expected result is what Tame describes as a full-bodied beer that’ll be a bit sweet, with lots of roasted flavor, “bready, biscuity” flavors from the malt and a little dryness at the finish.

Along with Harpooners Bill Leahy and Liz Melby, Katie grabbed a shucking knife and got busy helping Shore and I shuck. We collected the meats into a huge stock pot which Katie dropped into the boil later that afternoon.

By the time Skip and his daughter Maya showed up, we were feeling a little like zoo creatures -- we'd attracted quite a crowd of onlookers (the tasting room was in full swing by that point) and there were cameras everywhere.

But we muscled through and got all 540 oysters opened (180 per batch/3 batches) with a little fortification from a couple pints of Munich Dark and Ginger Wheat - always helpful when shucking bare-handed.

So now what? We wait two weeks for the brew to ferment and then we'll head back to the brewery for Bottling Day on February 5th. Personally, I can't wait to crack one of these heady brews and taste it alongside a couple of freshly shucked oysters. Once it's bottled, we're on a whirlwind schedule of tasting events and activities. Part of my fun new office gig is helping the guys plan and put on events and we've got a ton planned around the launch of the beer. While I've never been that interested in marketing, this is a part of the job I can get into (I think I can add event planner to my resume now).

Meanwhile, back on the farm...

Yes, we're still harvesting oysters. Despite all this business with beer and parties, the guys are out on the water every day, pulling up our now-dormant oysters. It's been a weird winter, though. We're starting to see growth on our seed which is not supposed to happen when the water temps are in the high 20s. Might be the January thaw? It's hard to say but we're keeping an eye on it.

The farmers are also putting in orders for new batches of seed. Believe it or not, the cycle starts up again in just a few short months. Both Skip and John Brawley have put in orders and are starting to strategize for the season. Hard to believe we're talking about upwellers and river trays already. Must mean spring is right around the corner.

Skip's Winter Feast

There's a reason they call it The Clubhouse. The office is a revolving door. Characters come and go, news filters in and out, and the day is peppered with fun, crazy, and sometimes unbelievable events. The growers are in and out, we're on the phone taking orders all morning, Corydon and CJ spend a lot of time leaning on furniture while waiting for orders, and to my happy surprise, there are plenty of snacks. Aside from having to adjust to a constant seated position (I miss being on my feet... I'm antsy) and being able to see, smell, and feel the oysters all day, it's really not so bad.

There are, of course, more visitors than there were on the float. Some are unexpected (like a friend from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife who stopped by yesterday) while others are a pleasant surprise. Last week, it was Per Se Chef Jonathan Benno, his wife Liz and their daughter Lucy who stopped by to tour the farm and spend the night in Duxbury.

They were in town for quick getaway while the restaurant was closed. (Jonathan said having the doors closed gave him his only opportunity to relax.) After arriving on a hectic, chilly afternoon, the whole family went down to the water with Skip and Shore for a tour of the float and the waterfront. Skip's parents, Nancy and Billy, had offered them a place to stay for the night so they decamped for the afternoon before leaving Lucy with Shore's sister Hadley (a first-class babysitter) to join us back at Skip's house for dinner.

I'd seen Skip cook feasts on the float but had yet to enjoy a meal at his house. That afternoon we sat down to hash out the menu, which he pulled together on the spot (clearly he's done this before) and then broke off to run errands. Back at his place, I worked on some easy prep while Shore helped Skip put together a new bench for the table. My mom called as we were prepping and asked who was handling presentation (it was, after all, the chef from Per Se). But Skip was all over it. We would feast at an oyster farmer's house in the oyster farmer manner: family style.

We started with a platter of Billy's shrimp, a plate of oysters (Liz had her first Patriot Oyster), some fresh clams, cheeses, and prosciutto. Plus, Don Merry had called. He'd shot a duck that morning. Could he swing by with his son Ben and bring us a little? Jonathan was psyched. Don showed up with a plate of roasted duck breast which we ate with our fingers, dipping them into a raspberry jam he'd made from raspberries off of our friend Myrna's farm. CJ was the last to arrive carrying in a pizza box. We gathered around him in the kitchen as he opened it slowly. Inside was an incredible spread of charcuterie made by our friend Jamie Bissonnette at his new restaurant Coppa as well as a rich and creamy washed-rind cheese from Formaggio Kitchen. Billy was a huge fan of the tongue pastrami.

We set the table with mismatched cups and silver (Skip and I called it 'farmer chic') and sat down to platters of Caesar salad (the dressing was Skip's made with fresh anchovies), garlicky spaghettini with littleneck clams and lobsters steamed by Skip's neighbor Peter. We passed around a bottle of Au Bon Climat and later opened a dust-covered 1988 Australian Cabernet that Peter had been saving for 18 years.

Skip doled out heaping plates of pasta and we all got to work. At one end of the table, Nancy described her favorite way to catch eels (bobbing for them, of course) and (reluctantly) shared her secret ingredient for lobster rolls (I'm saving that one for myself). At the other end, Skip told Jonathan and Liz stories about the farm and Peter's wife Ligaya explained how she'd had to toss out her clothes just so Peter could carry that bottle of Cabernet back in their suitcase all those years ago.

As we finished up with a French Memories meringue tart, Jonathan and Liz let us weigh in on naming his new, upcoming restaurant (he's leaving Per Se at the end of this month to start the next chapter -- an Italian concept near Lincoln Center). While I'm certain he already has the name picked out, we tossed around a few ideas for fun.

I loved watching Jonathan's face throughout the meal. He sat there smiling, almost in childlike awe, at the sight in front of him. I don't imagine he gets many invites from people anxious to cook for him considering his role at Per Se -- let alone take the time to sit down and enjoy a long meal with friends. But watching he and Skip, the farmer and the chef, sharing food that had come off the water that day and stories about their worlds was an unforgettable experience. I'm guessing it was for him, too.

So I take back what I said there not being anything exciting going on at the office. Clearly, it's nonstop action. In fact, we've got a busy couple weeks coming up and I already have a full plate.

Now, if I can just get used to sitting down all day...

Pain's Last Tide

At the start of this project, I decided it would make sense to move into the office towards the end of my year in order to better understand how the company runs as a whole. Last week was my last official week outside on the farm -- and my last week on the tide.

For now, anyway.

We spent some time getting back up to speed after Christmas weekend. The company had sold a ton of oysters over the holiday and needed bags from our crew ASAP, especially in time for New Years. But we also had our eyes on the tide: There were just 60 or so cages left to bring in and Berg wanted to get all those bags that we'd laid out flipped so they weren't drowning in the mud.

But despite good timing, the weather was a factor, as always. Monday afternoon's tide was rained out. Tuesday's was risky because it was well below freezing and the windchill put us down into the single digits. But Chris, Will and Berg hustled before it got too low and pulled all but 9 cages out with a few bitter-cold runs on their own. By Wednesday, we were looking at a somewhat milder day (in the teens!) and a tide that coincided with sundown. After spending the day culling, we headed out with some fresh gloves and a couple extra layers under our waders. It was a minus .9, which meant we'd have plenty of time on the flats to get the bags flipped. We started with the bags we'd tied together with a system line, flipping them out of their pockets of mud to give the oysters on the bottom some breathing room. We'd put about 600 bags out there, all full of oysters that had repaired themselves in the warmer weather and were now laying dormant for the winter. The system lines are there to help us if the bay ices over -- we'll be able to pull up 50 bags at a time with the hauler. So it's our safeguard as well as a contingency plan. We'll be able to harvest, even in the bitter cold, plus it gives us a couple thousand oysters to pull up if we need them in a pinch.

We still had about 400 bags to tie together: A tricky feat when your gloves are the size of an astronaut's and the air is biting cold. Chris and I laid the lines down on the bags while Will went at the zip ties bare-handed. But as the sun started to set, the temps dropped and the winds picked up. We were racing the cold, pulling our gloves off to get each tiny plastic tie zipped shut, and wincing at the air exposure. I could get about five bags tied before my hands went numb. As we kept moving, it got down to two bags. Pretty soon, I was leaving the gloves on and doing my best with the big, bulky fingers. (The guys did a much better job fighting the cold.) We got about halfway through the bags before the water came back up. By about 5:30, with a massive full moon rising above us, we were back on land -- dry but not nearly warm. As I drove back to the office for a round of shop beers, the thermometer in the car read 19 degrees. Ouch.

The oysters can stand tremendous cold bouts like this. But whenever we leave oysters on the float overnight, we keep them off the ground on a palette (sorry, Cory) and keep a tiny electric heater going.

During the day, we use Mr. Heater, a propane-run space heater. And yes, I'm the one who begged to use it most. So much so that the guys called me pro-Pain for most of the winter.

Keeping us warm along with the heater was our trusty new coffee maker, donated by my Mom and Dad. Handy on the days when it's too cold to make a run to Frenchie's.

Thursday was New Year's Eve day and my final day on the float. We culled in the morning, then washed and bagged after a long lunch at Tsang's. The snow started around 10 that morning -- by lunchtime, we were looking at a few inches. But that didn't stop Berg and Chris from running out to pick up those last 9 cages. Believe it or not, we got all of them out of the water on the last day of the year. I can't think of a more fitting end to the season. Or a better occasion to celebrate.

loading up in the snow

I ended up spending New Year's with my crew at a party thrown by Eastern Standard (where we shucked) and later at the Publick House where I brought the guys up to visit Dave, who was working. It was quite the party and a damn fine way to wind down my final week on the farm.

So now what? I'm onto a new adventure as Office Girl. I'll still be blogging (from what I hear, things can get pretty exciting up at the office...sometimes). I got through Day One (not nearly as challenging as my first Day One) and am happy to be holed up inside a warm office while there's still snow on the ground.

But... I already find myself missing my crew, the float, the water. And oddly enough, the smell of oysters.

I must be hooked.

A very Duxbury Christmas

I honestly thought I could get through my last few winter weeks on the farm without a single snowstorm. I'm also that girl that never thought it would rain on her wedding day and got married outside on the beach.

Naturally, it poured.

And we got 22 inches of snow in Duxbury this past weekend.

The snow made for a picturesque ride down to the farm on Monday, especially since Berg made the call to put us on the tide at 6:45 a.m. We arrived to find the sun rising over the snow-covered beach and our Oysterplex trimmed in icicles.

There was a lot of busy work involved with that much snow. A2, Quinn (who's back in town for a few days on winter break) and I ran up to the shop to grab the farm truck only to find it completely snowed in. We shoveled it out (at one point, Billy Bennett stopped to watch us shovel and yell out: "Not what you signed up for, was it Erin?") and ran it back down to the water so we could pick up the cages, which Berg and Chris had hauled out of the water for us. We made a few trips, getting several dozen cages out and stored away in the process. Our short day ended when the tide came up -- we celebrated our mini success with a big breakfast at Persy's.

Last week, we had purposely put a massive pile of bags into the cooler so that we could all take some time off for Christmas. Last Thursday and Friday were impressive: Despite sub-freezing temps, Pops (who is also back for winter break), Will, and Berg washed a ridiculous number of crates so we could load up the truck and get this huge stack of oysters packed away. Hopefully Santa is delivering a few bags like these to you and yours this week.

Monday was also the Island Creek Christmas party, a raucous affair that started at 4 pm and ended well past midnight. We set up a raw bar in the shop and a liquor bar in the office which made for a number of freezing-cold sprints from one venue to the next.

It was a wild night for the whole family. Skip pulled out half a case of champagne which went down like water with our glass perron. A2 found out that despite a lot of practice, he still can't beat Skip in a shucking contest. And late, late into the night, we all came face to face with Don Merry's ferocious dexterity with a hose. Dave and I left the scene soaking wet and laughing our heads off around 11:30.

This week, Dave and I are spending some time in Knoxville with my Murray side of the family (the 15-hour drive went well - our usually carsick dog, Rex, managed to pitch a no-hitter). While we won't be eating any oysters (my expecting sis-in-law Allison wouldn't be allowed to eat them anyway - yay!) we've got plenty of snowy Duxbury memories to get us through the week. Plus, I know somewhere in Charlotte, our friends the Williams are shucking and slurping a few dozen Island Creeks on our behalf. (Thanks, Jim!) Also looking forward to a visit from my sis Shannon and her husband, Brian, so we can toast the upcoming arrival of their new, adopted daughter Gracyn. Yes, 2010 is looking to be a very baby-filled year.

Speaking of babies, the Wall Street Journal did a nice job capturing the story of Island Creek in its infancy in this blog post (unfortunately, they misspelled Skip's name... but the rest of it is accurate and fun to read).

Finally, a quick note of thanks for keeping up with Shucked. Through the ups and downs, the seed, the harvest, and the cold days of winter, it's been an absolute joy to chronicle, especially knowing you're out there going through it all with me. Here's hoping your holidays are filled with family, love, and plenty of Island Creek oysters.


What goes down before the bar opens? Soon, Island Creek Oyster Stout

About two weeks back, on our last warm-ish day before the bitter cold set in, Skip's crew convened at the office after work. It was 4:15 p.m. and the sky was dark. Skip presented us with an oyster farmer dilemma: What does one do between the time the sun sets and the bar opens? We were done with work, we'd put in a full day and we were ready for a brew. The Winsor House wouldn't open for another 45 minutes. Skip's answer: Warm Bud Light. (Random fact about Skip: He likes his beer warm.) But more often than not, the farmers I work with enjoy heartier beers, especially ones that pair well with our 'sters. So it only made sense, Skip told me a few months back, that Island Creek and Harpoon Brewery had decided to pair up to brew Harpoon's next 100-Barrel Series, Island Creek Oyster Stout, a heady, dark beer brewed with our very own oysters. The guys are pretty stoked: They get to pair their creative energies with another local institution, one who supported us at Oyster Fest and who we support by drinking gallons and gallons of their IPA.

Island Creek Oyster Stout due February 5th, 2010

Last week the brewer Katie came down to check out the grant -- she's still working on her test batches (that's actually chocolate stout in the bottle) but will be brewing in January. The beer launches on February 5th so keep your eyes on local beer menus.

While we were out there (it had been awhile since my last trip to the grant) we actually got some work done too (riiiggghhht.... work). We've been prepping for winter by stashing some oysters into mesh bags that will lay on the bottom of the grant. We connected all the bags together with system lines so that if there's ice (fingers crossed there won't be), we'll be able to pull the bags up easily. Out on the tide last week, we got about 200 bags connected. As we zip tied everything together bare-handed, Skip cried out: "Hey office girl - no gloves?"

tying our mesh bags together

the last of our cages, coming out this week

As we'd hoped (prayed, begged for, desperately needed), the last of the seed came out of the water this week. Berg pulled the very last of it today and Skip will get it planted tomorrow. No more dirty bags, no more cages (except the ones we have to pull)... We can all breathe a little easier. Berg especially (that stout can't get here soon enough).

Friday was our first below-freezing day and of course, we weren't ready for it. We got to work to find our hoses completely filled with ice (we defrosted them in the shower at the Maritime School) and spent the day tackling the temps and high winds.

Despite running out of propane for our space heater midday we survived the coldest day of the year. And while the temps are already much lower than they were my first day, I'm feeling a lot more prepared this time around. Maybe it's the fact that the office is calling my name in just a few short weeks. Or maybe I'm just plain used to it.

If you can't handle the heat...

After my day at Per Se, Berg texted me: "If you can't handle the heat you can come back to the farm." Ah, Berg. Always good at handing me a dose of reality. Honestly, I was ready to get back. Our trip to NY had left me with stars in my eyes - we'd eaten at Craft, visited the Food & Wine offices to chat with Kate Krader and Kristin Donnelly, who wrote a great blog post about it, and spent the day (and night) at Per Se. An oyster farmer can only handle so much. My first day back, we were on the move once again. The float came back to land (if you can remember waaaay back, it's been on the water since April.).

Now we're anchored next to the dock by the Maritime School which means we're hooked up to electricity and running water and we're within spitting distance of the bathroom. (Hooray!) We like our new little nook. When the tide's high, we can see over the wall that shields the dock from most high winds and waves and during low tide, like the epic drainer we had last night, it feels like we're hidden away from the rest of the world. Nice little place to be for the winter.

We celebrated our first week with a few swigs of Harpoon from a growler Skip brought down. We used our sustainable ice bucket just for the occasion.

our sustainable ice bucket

hey look! it works!

We've been lucky to have a mild fall and early winter so far. There are rumblings that this might be a "less-than average" year for snowfall - here's hoping that's true (though, Skip admitted that the oysters do like the cold for a little while).

And believe it or not, we're nearly done with seed! I'm sure I sound like a broken record - we wanted to have it all planted by the end of October. But we depend on good weather and the tides to get access to the lease and neither have been on our side this fall. But Skip and Berg planted more of it yesterday and we're hoping to get the final cages emptied and planted by next week. Once that's done, we can get our cages up to storage and call it a year. Just in time for Christmas.

As for me, my time on the farm is winding down - incredibly hard to believe. The plan is for me to come off the farm and start working in the office on January 1st. I know, I know - Erin, you're turning into a suit! (And conveniently, right in time for whatever cold snap we might get.) But that was my plan from the beginning and I'm sticking to it. I need to see how the company runs things from the other side. It's a missing piece on my farm-to-table path so I'm looking forward to learning a new aspect of it all.

Yes, the guys are giving me a hard time about it. They've even come up with a new name for when I call it quits on the farm: Part-Time Pain.

Per Se: Part II (Dinner)

Our dinner reservation was for 8 pm so after a quick costume change, I met Skip and Shore back at the Time Warner Center. Walking through the restaurant's sliding glass doors felt completely surreal - I'd spent the day working behind the scenes, watching the kitchen hustle before and during service. Now, I had the rare opportunity to admire the hard work from the other side.

Skip and Shore had given the front-of-house staff a quick presentation about Island Creek earlier in the afternoon at a pre-service meeting. Benno ribbed the guys about being Red Sox fans but then offered them the floor where Skip spoke about our oysters as well as the Nantucket Bay scallops and razor clams we sell. The staff fired a few questions at Skip (how did he prefer to eat his own oysters; who caught our scallops) before he handed things over to chef David who went over the menu for the day. Again, there was a round of insightful questions: Was there lobster in the mousseline? Where was the sea bream from? Was there bacon in the lentils? How long had the beef been braised? They weren't just prepping for their customers. They were genuinely curious about the food itself. (I sat next to a friend of mine, Andrew Newlin, a captain who's been at Per Se for three years; Andy and I went to high school together but I didn't realize he worked there until I saw his smiling face when I accidentally walked through the front door instead of the service entrance for my stage. Though it was brief, I really enjoyed catching up with him for the day.)

Maitre'd Chloe Genovart then went through that night's seating chart. Skip, Shore and I sat in amazement as they listed the parties that would be dining alongside us. Many were regulars (the servers had long memories, pointing out how many times guests had been to the restaurant) and even more seemed to be VIPs (doctors, a baroness, magazine editors). The fact that everyone on staff was clued into who would be dining that evening made our arrival seem even more official - they knew our moves before we could even make them.

We sat down to glasses of champagne and the restaurant's signature salmon cornets and Gruyere gougeres. Our captain, Antonio Begonja, arrived with menus that turned out to be more fun than for real - inside, the guys found photos from this year's NY Yankees World Series win. We weren't going to need menus. The chefs had already created an incredible 23-course journey that would take us almost 5 hours to finish. And while I could wax for hours about every course, I'll spare you the gut-busting details and hit you with the highlights.

Course 1 (after the two amuse, of course): The Patriot Oyster This was Skip's favorite way to eat an oyster with a slight modification: Raw, splash of vodka and a slice of jalapeno (he usually takes his with green Tabasco - the jalapeno was a nice touch)

Course 3 Oysters and Pearls I relished every bite knowing how hard Kenny worked on each element of the dish. The texture blew me away - rounded pearl after rounded pearl, the dish is about layers and levels of firmness. The caviar explodes while the oysters and tapioca practically melt together. You can taste the oyster in the tapioca base but just slightly - it's the sauce (Kenny kept bringing up the sauce) that pulled it all together. Vermouth, a hit of vinegar, and all that rich and wonderful butter. Twelve outstanding bites.

Course 5 Nantucket Bay Scallops This dish haunted both Skip and I all night. A small mound of Pacific sea urchin sat atop our scallops and a tiny bit of pickled ginger and a thinly curling paper-thin slice of crispy rice paper. The sea urchin was gentle and addictive but never masked the sweetness of the scallops. Skip called it the best dish he's ever eaten.

Course 6 Duxbury Razor Clam The clam meat was just barely cooked through and served on the shell in three small segments with broccolini leaves a hint of Meyer lemon and Spanish capers. Shore was a huge fan.

Course 7 Abalone "Rockefeller" I'd never tried abalone before - the meat was firmer than I thought it would be and it was covered with a jolt of mousseline hollandaise and bits of bacon and spinach. I spent several minutes examining the shell, trying to figure out how abalone are harvested. Picking up on my fascination, our waitstaff cleaned out and boxed up our abalone shells, offering them to us as parting gifts.

Course 8 White Truffle Oil-Infused Custard This has been called a TK signature and will be a personal lifelong memory. Served inside a hollowed out egg, the truffle-oil infused custard is topped with a black winter truffle and veal reduction "ragout." The display itself makes the dish - only about half of the eggs they cut are usable. And it was paired with a stunning wine called Radikon, which thrilled me for it's odd resemblance to an unfiltered cider or even a pale ale. I could not get enough.

(One dish later, as they were clearing the table, our team of servers asked if we were ready to get started. The meal had really just begun.)

Course 11 Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras The presentation here included a set up of six salts from around the world (Himalayan, Hawaiian, French) This would be one of my "last meal" dishes - toasted, crumbly slabs of brioche, perfectly placed celery branch "ribbons," slivered breakfast radishes, and of course, the impossibly rich slice of foie gras. Luxury on a plate.


Course 13 Butter-poached Nova Scotia Lobster Mitt The mitt is really more of a knuckle and was placed alongside tender tortellini filled with forest mushrooms. My shredded black trumpets made an appearance, as did the slivers of young French leeks I helped prep. Skip appreciated the lobster meat, calling it his new favorite lobster dish.

Course 14 Carnaroli Risotto Biologico Along with the lobster, this was the one-two punch of the night. The creamy risotto was really just a blank canvas for what was to come. Chloe presented us with an ornamental wooden box which housed a massive, overwhelmingly fragrant white truffle. She held it in a piece of cloth and shaved slivers of it onto the risotto directly under my nose before another server drizzled a spoonful of melted brown butter over top, blowing the aroma into the depths of my skull. It was the most seductive dish any of us had ever experienced. Watching the deliberately intrusive shaving ritual, inhaling the aroma, tasting the subtle, earthy flakes... a blog post isn't the venue to tell you how it really made me feel. But damn, was it memorable.

Course 16 Rib-eye of Marcho Farms' Veal Roti a la Broche They presented the rib eye before slicing and serving it - it was skewered on a medieval-looking sword which then showed up on Skip's plate. A few bites of sweetbreads and squash puree, layers of salt, meat, and dripping juice - this dish could have been a meal on its own.

Course 19 Coffee and Doughnuts One of three desserts, this one was about as complex as coffee and doughnuts could be. The cappuccino was actually a semifreddo served beside a couple of deliciusly cakey house-made pastries. I had just about hit my max but managed to put the whole thing down.

Mignardises The chocolate presentation would have to be boxed up. By this point, it was well past midnight and the dining room was empty. But as we stumbled into our coats and out into the night, the staff waved us off sending us out with goodie bags and enormous, unbelieving smiles.

I've never had an experience like that before, but would no doubt welcome it again (though only at Per Se; by the end of the night, the dining room with its glowing fireplace felt more like the living room of a friend's apartment than a four-star restaurant).

It's clear after my time there, both in the kitchen and the dining room, that Per Se is not meant to be a mere restaurant where one can eat, linger, and remember. It's designed for everyone involved: the diner, the line cook, the back server, the chef de cuisine. It's a place to learn about, immerse oneself in, and idolize the entire art of gastronomy.

It is a temple to dining.

And an experience I'll never forget.

Per Se: Part I (The Stage)

"Sense of Urgency" There are a million tiny details about Per Se that I could bore you with (how I shredded black trumpet mushrooms into a million pieces, pitted 180 olives, or lined up dozens of tiny baby leeks to cut into perfect one-inch slivers). These details, while fascinating to me (Dave said I sounded like a kid on Christmas as I recounted them all to him), will most likely not have the same effect on you. Instead, I'll tell you that the phrase above is placed strategically around the kitchen (above doorways, mostly) and that because of it (and the fact that they're working for chef Thomas Keller) everyone there either runs or scurries. At all times.

Oysters and Pearls at the pass

At Per Se, Oysters & Pearls goes by OandP (from server to the pass, those letters rang out all day during my stage, or kitchen trail). Chef Keller came up with the idea in 1995 - he was inspired by the word "pearls" written on a box of tapioca and decided to pair them with their source of origin, the oyster. Today his tapioca/oyster/caviar dish is served daily at both Per Se and The French Laundry.

While the point of my visit was to watch the dish prepared from beginning to end, I picked up more than a few basics. I got to glimpse of the inner workings of a perfectly engineered machine.

I arrived at the restaurant (on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center) at noon and was promptly taken on a kitchen tour by Gerald San Jose, the restaurant's culinary liaison. The 5,300 square foot kitchen (the whole restaurant is 12,500 sqft), he explained is broken down into pastry, storage, prep, private dining, and the line (there are also offices, more storage, 18 reach-in refrigerators and a temperature-controlled chocolate room). We walked through dry storage where they keep the very few canned items they use as well as their cooking vinegars and oils. ("The finishing vinegars are kept under lock and key," he said with a short laugh.)

From there, it was on to the line where I met chef David Breeden, the intricately tatooed sous chef who took me through the paces. The line, or main kitchen, is small for what it produces, but every section is strategically placed. The pass, where dishes are expedited to servers during service, is actually a stainless steel island in the center of the kitchen that acts as a prep station during the day but is transformed before service into a paper-covered counter - the chefs stand on one side, the servers approach from the other. It's also covered with every menu for the night; there are several prix fixe menus plus the salon's a la carte menu along with that day's menu from The French Laundry. The famous closed-circuit flatscreen TV system which connects the two kitchens by a webcam is perched directly overhead so the two staffs can watch each other work.

Chef David introduced me to Kenny Cuomo, canape chef de partie, who I'll get back to in a minute. Following our oysters, I spent an hour with seafood butcher, Santiago Jimenez, a friendly, towering guy from the Dominican Republic who's worked there since the restaurant opened in 2004. He had a plastic bin of Island Creeks at his station and was quickly opening and separating them. (He shucks around 1200 oysters per week which puts him at about 300,000 over the course of his career.) As he shucked, he told me how he'd just broken his favorite shucking knife (it was 7 years old) and showed me his other butcher knives which had been sharpened and sheered down to practically nothing. With each oyster, he was careful not to puncture the belly but slid the knife gingerly between the top muscle and the shell before scooping the meat and all of the oyster juice into a plastic deli container. He then trimmed the bellies by holding the oyster meat flat against the top of his palm snipping away the outer meat with a pair of needle-nosed scissors. In three quick snips he had a perfect almond-shaped nugget (the trimmings were also reserved). He handed me the scissors to try a few, then put me to work trimming the rest. (Careful not to trim too much, I got the hang of it after about 30 but once Santiago started snipping beside me I realized what a snail I was - he finished 4 in the time it took me to do one. Practice.)

So, the oysters are separated: bellies, juice, trimmings. The three containers are sent to Chef Kenny at the canape station. Kenny was a whirling dervish, kind and funny but always moving, always gliding through projects and his work. Each day, Kenny prepares O&P and each day, he strives for absolute perfection. "There are variables, always variables, that can change or adjust the dish. But my job is to make it perfect regardless," he told me quietly as he worked.

We started with the tapioca, which had been soaked in milk for 8 hours. In a pot, he heated milk and cream, then added a deli container of oyster trimmings (from about 170 oysters). While they steeped, he got his sabayon mise en place ready: 14 egg yolks, 170 ml of oyster juice, and a bain marie (hot water bath).

Thomas Keller has been making this dish since he opened the French Laundry, Kenny explained. "That's 15 years of perfection every day," he said a little wide-eyed. He showed me the dishware that was specifically designed for O&P by Raynaud (the flat, round dish has a 2-inch round cup in the center and a subtle, white-on-white houndstooth check around the trim).

the dishware

Back at his station, he whipped heavy cream in a mixer and set it aside. He strained the oyster trimmings from the cream infusion, then added the tapioca pearls and the infusion to the same pot and returned it to a low heat. He started his sabayon, whisking the egg yolks and oyster juice together.

"Both have to come together at the same moment for this whole thing to work," he said as he stirred both seemingly at once. He handed me the tapioca spoon.

I stirred and watched him whisk until the tapioca became firmer -- then suddenly Kenny declared, "We're ready." He folded the sabayon gently into the tapioca and handed me a black pepper grinder. "100 cracks, please, chef," he said as I got busy counting to 100 (something I'm used to on the farm). He folded the whole mixture together and then quickly moved us over to the patisserie station where he had room to set up his dishware.

Taking a little of that reserved whipped cream, he folded some into the tapioca to keep it from firming up (which it would do as the mixture cooled). Using a large spoon, he doled perfect portions into each of the dishes (90 covers for the night; he got 89 servings out of his batch) before setting them aside on trays to chill until service.

In the meantime, he pulled together the poaching liquid: 1.8 pounds butter, 125 ml oyster juice, 125 ml champagne vinegar, 250 ml Noilly Prat vermouth.

At that point, Kenny was off to work on other dishes and I got busy helping with some other prep work. As I was slicing olives later on, Kenny leaned over and whispered: "Look at you, Chef. You're cooking at Per Se." Ha! I laughed a little. Actually, I was chopping at Per Se. But it certainly felt grander than any other chopping I'd done in my life.

Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno introduced himself in the middle of the day and while I didn't get to spend much time with him he was helpful and accommodating. Skip, Shore, and Matthew love Benno, or JB as they call him. And he, in return, gives them an incredibly hard time about the Red Sox (during a pre-meal staff meeting, he presented them with "I heart NY" t-shirts and a couple jabs about the World Series win).

I was invited to stay for a small part of dinner service and watched as the kitchen transformed into its "hectic" pace. The energy shifted ever so slightly; folks moved a little faster and heads were buried together at the pass while finishing touches were put on a dish. Nothing seemed frantic or harried, it just moved, rhythmically and in sync, like a well-rehearsed dance. (Though at one point, the phone rang and the whole kitchen stopped and held its breath. All eyes went towards the television and then to the phone's caller ID. JB picked it up, spoke quietly, hung up, and went over to whisper something to Chef David. Later, I asked JB if that was Chef Keller on the phone. "No," he said. "But when the kitchen phone rings during service, it's only one of two people. Chef Thomas or someone at the French Laundry.")

I stood beside Kenny as he plated a few O&P's. The dish moved quickly: the order came in (the sous chef calls out the ticket and the whole kitchen repeats the order in unison, then by station - "table 26!"-- "table 26 CHEF!"), Kenny pulled a prepared dish off a prep tray. It went into a warming oven while he put two perfect oyster bellies into a small pot along with a ladle of poaching liquid and some fresh chives. The pudding came out, Kenny spooned the sauce and oysters over top of the pudding, filling the cup almost to the brim.

Kenny pulled out Ossetra or sturgeon caviar and carefully draped it atop the dish, which was then sent to the pass and given a swipe with a towel. Chefs Jonathan and David examined the plate, which was then carried out of the kitchen by one of the waitstaff.

Oysters & Pearls: the plated dish

Of course, this description is brief and utterly simplified but the level of precision that is achieved within it, and every dish at Per Se on a daily basis, is mind blowing. Every minuscule component is pored over: every sliced olive, every oyster, every perfectly slivered artichoke heart. I stood beside an extern from the CIA, Ethan, as he tirelessly diced a small stack of Aji Dulce peppers until they were practically liquified (he was stretching his forearm by the end). Those peppers appeared as a mere bite on a cod dish later that evening but his efforts seemed monumental. From beginning to end, O&P probably takes Kenny and Santiago a combined three hours to prep and serve. Once on the table, it's gone in about four bites. There is a standard here which has been set higher than almost any other restaurant in the world -- and the preparation behind every dish lives up to that.

Of course, the chefs I met seemed content to be right where they were. At 4:20 on the nose (ahem), a server delivered plates mounded with staff meal (barbecue pork, two different salads, sauteed greens, and a macaroon) and throughout the entire day, no matter how high tensions would rise (a dish wasn't thoroughly worked out for a VIP that night; timing was tight on prep) no one raised their voice and everyone calmly and respectfully addressed each other as "chef." Granted, there was ribbing and poking fun (a good amount directed at me) but overall, there wasn't an ounce of attitude or pretension.

On top of it, they fed me well. Both here and when we sat down to dinner a few hours later (stay tuned for part II).

Prepping for Per Se

The menu at Per Se simply calls it: OYSTERS AND PEARLS "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar

Nothing to it, right? Tapioca with oysters and a hit of caviar. Right. Except when it's part of a $275 tasting menu at one of the country's finest restaurants. Clearly there's more work behind it than words on a menu.

Chef Thomas Keller has been using our oysters since he opened Per Se in 2004. On an ever-changing menu, this dish is actually one of the very few that remains available daily. The oysters we send him are a specific cull, a compact shape and deep-cup (called the Per Se), which gives the kitchen exactly what they need to pull together the elements of the dish. After we cull them out, A2 counts and bags every one of them to ensure that Per Se gets the same bag of oysters every time.

While I've never eaten any of Chef Keller's restaurants, I know that he and his kitchen staff put an incredible amount of research into the ingredients they use and hand selected our oysters after one of their chefs spent time on our farm. Tomorrow, I'll be down in New York to spend a day in Per Se's kitchen to get an up-close view of how exactly they prepare our oysters. My goal is to follow the dish from beginning (when our oysters hit their door) to very end (when they arrive bound in tapioca, cut down to the belly and laced with sturgeon caviar). With any luck and good note-taking, I'll also be able to report on how a kitchen like this is run.

Naturally, having had very little professional kitchen experience but knowing the caliber of restaurant I'm about to gain access to, I'm jumping out of my skin right now. I have everything I might need (basic knife kit, empty notebook, couple pens, camera) along with a million questions... but I'll refrain from asking them all at once. I think my only approach is to treat it like any other kitchen stage: stand back, watch, and learn. Hoping to put the first of two posts up this weekend with details on the day followed quickly with details on the dinner. And photos, of course. Wish me luck.

Saving daylight and a few words about the Gulf

ICO fall Ah, yes. The sun's started setting earlier this week which means our days on the farm are about to get a bit shorter. For me this means no longer driving to work in the dark -- which makes me feel like I'm part of the land of the living for awhile. But A2 kept joking yesterday that we needed to get a move on since the sun would be setting soon (this was at 2:30). So yes, there's been a shift, albeit slight.

ico fall2

We've also seen all our gorgeous red and golden leaves start to drop, the cranberry bogs flooded and harvested, and the chickens start to fatten up for winter. The winds are picking up (we had what felt like 1-ft waves on the harbor yesterday) and I'm pretty sure we've gone through whatever pleasant fall days this season had in store for us. Oh well.

We had a skeleton crew last week with Berg and Skip traveling to Zanzibar and Will in Houston for a few days. By Friday, it was just A2 and I doing some quiet work on the float. This week, we're back up to speed and have a boatload of work to get done. We still have seed (!) in cages on the lease that needs to be planted. Once that comes out, we still have to pull cages, get our bags put away and make sure everything is stored and secure for the winter (we're stowing everything at a very friendly farm near the water). Lots of busy work, which feels a little like spring cleaning did, but there's a little more urgency since we never quite know what the weather's going to bring.

Right now, our oysters are right about at their peak - Dave and I tried a few on Friday just to be sure - as they are all over the country what with water temps dropping everywhere for the winter. But down south, the Gulf is dealing with a new challenge: the FDA has proposed a new regulation that all oysters harvested in Gulf waters during the summer months need to be processed, or hit with "mild heat or low-level gamma radiation." The regulation wouldn't go into effect until 2011 but the news has been extremely sobering for such a small industry.

Obviously I am a huge proponent of eating oysters raw, especially right out of the water. What this regulation is trying to combat is a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus which is extremely rare but can be lethal to people with weakened immune systems. It's not something we deal with in New England (fortunately) since the water temperatures stay below a point that propagates the bacteria. But for our friends in the southern oyster farming industry, this regulation, is going to pose enormous challenges and some folks have already spoken out and are lobbying against the ban.

Whatever the outcome, the main message to get across is that we need to support these oyster farmers no matter what. There are an important number of jobs and lives that depend on this industry's success (mine included, now) and all we can do to help is eat more oysters.

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.

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Wild October weather and... finally, I'm heading to Per Se.

I woke on Friday morning to find that the weather was doing exactly what it did my first day of work: wet, snowy, slick, and cold. This isn't typical for mid-October but we are, after all, in New England. The snow came down even harder this afternoon -- Dave and I watched from our living room as the Pats slid all over the field tromping the Titans on a snowy Sunday. Friday ended up being a wash. We got to the harbor and watched the sailboats bob sideways while Berg and Greg bounced out in the bay on Morris's boat in the rain only to find that they couldn't land on the float. The waves were too high for us to be out there so we ended up at the shop working on some farm-gear upkeep for most of the morning.

This time of year is tricky for the crew. We're all anxious to get the seed planted and get our cages out of the water but with the weather last week, we only made it out on the tide once. We did manage to get a solid night of celebration in - we finally had our crew outing in the city. The guys all took a limo up from Duxbury; Catie and Maggie met us after work/school; and Eva took the train up from Brown. We started at Post 390 for a couple beers and oysters and then moved on to Toro where we ate incredibly well: foie gras with pear chutney, roasted bone marrow, garbanzos with chorizo, smoked duck legs, our oysters with a citrus-y foam, kobe burgers, paella, and of course, a perron of cava.



We ended up at Eastern Standard telling stories and laughing uncontrollably. As always, it was a wild night out with the crew - one we definitely needed after all that hard work this summer (thanks, Skip).

We've got some work ahead of this week but I'll be taking a short break from the farm to head to Chicago with Matthew. We're going out for the Shaw's Crab House Royster with the Oyster this Wednesday where we'll check out the ChicaGourmet's Hall of Fame dinner and spend a few days doing sales calls. The guys at Island Creek are always part of the event (they're serving our oysters on Thursday night at the Goose Island beer dinner) and we're looking forward to seeing our bud Rowan Jacobsen along with (hopefully) some other oyster notables.

And now, the really good news. I just got word that on Nov 12, I'll be heading down to NY to stage at Per Se (talk about burying the lede here). We very kindly asked chef Jonathan Benno if I could come down for an afternoon and watch as Thomas Keller's famed New York restaurant prepares one of its signature dishes, Oysters and Pearls ... which just happens to include Island Creek Oysters. Thankfully, he's agreed. We had a visit from one of the restaurant's chefs this summer (it was part of a couple-week long educational program where the chef went around the country stopping at Per Se's various purveyors to work for a few days); I'm looking forward to retrieving the favor by spending a day with chef Keller's kitchen staff. I'll be trailing the fish butcher and at the canape station plus I'll get to hang out for a bit during service. Skip and Shore will head down with me to do a pre-meal presentation for the staff and later that night, the three of us will sit down for dinner (my first at Per Se).

I'm trying hard to contain the nerves that comes with something like this. For any chef, spending the day in Per Se's kitchen is a treat. For a non-chef, oyster farming writer (that would be me) it's just plain unexpected. Since learning about Island Creek's relationship with Thomas Keller's restaurants, I've been salivating over the idea of getting into the kitchen to see what they do with our oysters. After all, the whole point of spending this year on the farm was to watch an ingredient go from seed to table. Finally, after months of nurturing, planting, harvesting, and handling our tasty oysters, I get to see what happens to them in the hands of one of the country's most revered chefs. And then, more incredibly, to taste them while sitting alongside the guy who grows them.

Not bad for a girl on an oyster farm. Right?

The Off Season

What happens on an oyster farm when things slow down? We find more to do. It's not that we're at a loss. We planted some more on Tuesday during an early morning tide and more today during a mid-morning tide. If all goes well, we'll have all of our seed planted/distributed by the end of next week (fingers crossed for good weather).

This week, though, the wind blew like mad. Tuesday was a brutal day -- we rushed out to tide after a 5:30 a.m. arrival, got out to the cages in the dark and the tide just. wouldn't. move.

We had some water to play with so we got our seed bags out of the cages (something A2 likens to pushing and pulling a crinkly dollar bill out of a vending machine only, you know, 100x the size) and loaded onto the boat. Then we waited for the sun to rise and the water to keep going out. Only, it never really did.



Skip, somewhat frustrated, explained that we were under a high pressure system (as evidenced by the crystal-clear sky -- we could still see Orion's Belt) and that, usually, the tide moves the right way with those conditions. But what we were experiencing felt almost like a low pressure system. No movement (the air, pushed down by that low pressure, keeps the water from moving anywhere quickly) which meant no time to shake and plant. Regardless, our bags were loaded up so we went back to the float to start emptying seed into one of the boats. Skip and Berg would plant with the shovel after all. It wasn't a total loss. We got to watch the night fade away, the full moon lower and then, finally, the arrival of the sun right on time at 6:46 a.m. For Skip, it was the 4th moon rise/sun rise in a row.

There's a rhythm to our days on the float now. We wash and bag in the morning and then cull in the afternoons. The crew has little projects to work on here and there and we're usually in the zone. But I have the feeling all of that will shift, at least for me, in the next few weeks.

We've been hatching some travel plans for the fall since that's pretty much the only down time we have on the farm. Collectively, in the next month, we're headed to Chicago, New York, France and... Africa (and that's just for work). Matthew, Lisa and I will hit Chicago for the Shaw's Oyster Fest; Skip, Shore, and Berg are off to Zanzibar for some research for the Island Creek Oysters Foundation project (which involves starting a hatchery in Zanzibar); Matthew is heading to France; and Skip, Shore and I are working on a trip to NYC to visit Per Se.

It's not going to be easy leaving the float here and there. But, as Shore puts it: this is the way things go in Oyster Land.

Fall on the farm

As I got to my car one pitch-black morning earlier this week morning, I stopped in my tracks. There was frost on the windshield. Ok, I thought. I'm right back where I started. sunrise on our way to the float

Luckily, fall seems to be shuffling in just as slowly as summer did. We've had some warm days mixed in with cool ones, rain mixed in with some sun. But these frosty mornings are bringing me right back to the beginning when my body was still getting used to spending hours and hours in the cold. Not that I'm complaining. I love bundling up for the chilly mornings and then picking off layers by 10 a.m. Afternoons can be dicey since the wind usually picks up after lunch time. Christian says its due to the drop in water temps over the last few weeks. From now until May whenever we have a warm day the wind will blow like crazy -- which makes our time on the float a little rocky. We've been watching white caps toss us around while we try to keep our balance out there.

No photos, please

And, once again, it's just me and the guys. Greg, the Andys, and Will are doing their best to keep me amused and comfortable each day. There's plenty of time to get the job done so things are relaxed but we can still wipe ourselves out with a hard day of work. We just laugh a little bit more while we're doing it. We had a visit from Jeeves last week -- Joe and Steve are officially splitting up (Joe will be working part-time with a couple different farmers from now on) so they gave us something to remember them by.

Jeeves' depiction of Lounge-Chair Berg

Fortunately, I wasn't there for their first gift: they tossed a couple of old dead fish onto the float (Will and Berg had a swell time cleaning it up).

Fun and games aside, we're still planting away. We got another good chunk of our river seed planted this week -- just a little more and we'll be done with the river for the season. Once we pull all of the bags and get the gear out of the water back there, I'll feel like we've made some progress. The seed that we've had back there is enormous - the shells are sturdy and each oyster looks nice and healthy.

To get the seed from the river to the boat, we have to unhook each bag from a couple of system lines (long ropes that are moored down into the river bed) and then haul the bags out of the water and onto the boat (feels great on the back). Once we've filled two boats with bags (which are stuffed with our fragile seed plus a piece of styrofoam), we get them back to the float and disassemble them so that we can dump the now enormous seed into a big pile into the boat.

a pile of seed ready to be planted


From there, Skip goes out at low tide with his snow shovel and carefully shovels it all out onto the bay floor. Getting him set up to plant is a messy endeavor. The seed's been back there for months so the bags are not only covered in poop but also mud and the occasional bird feather. Even when I'm covered head to toe in waterproof gear, I get mud everywhere.

Once the seed is in the boat, we then have to get the nasty, dirty bags from the float up to the shop, which requires loading them onto the boat, then onto the truck, and finally off the truck into tidy piles behind the shop. Again, a messy, smelly endeavor but I love watching the piles build. The more bags we put away, the closer we get to the seed being planted. Like Skip said the other day: "You guys spent so much time taking care of the seed, the least we can do is get it out there and keep it growing."

As for our cull, the oysters we're pulling up right now are damn near perfect. Each one is strong, sturdy and absolutely delicious. We've been shucking around town a little more, too. Last week's FB party was fun (afterwards at ES was even more so) and the guys were set up at the Post 390 openings this weekend. Everyone seems happy to be out and about around town again. Feels like we can finally enjoy the finish line we've all worked so hard to reach.

Lisa and Skip, post-FB party

fun with the Oyster Dude

The more we plant...

...the more we seem to have. We've spent the last five days on the tide planting a lot of our seed by hand with the no-fail "fertilizer" method (we walk the bags from the cages to the lease and shake them out one by one to cover the ground evenly). we walk and shake, careful to get the right amount evenly distributed on the bottom

The seed is almost up to 1.5-2 inches in length but still feels brittle in the bags. Once we get it out onto the floor, the shells immediately start to toughen up. Now that they have space to grow and aren't fighting for nutrients nearly as much, they'll really start to pop. By the time the cold water hits them later in November, they'll be bigger and ready to sleep for the winter.


The plan is to get everything planted in the next few weeks so that we can get all of our gear out of the water and settle in for winter. It's been a good run with some late tides on Friday and Saturday nights. The crew can get a little cranky at the start of long days like those but everyone's been in good spirits. Plus, we've had the farm's old friend Meggie working with us all week -- she's actually getting ready to move out to Chicago and take a job in the kitchen at Alinea so we're happy to have her before she goes.

Finally, with Oyster Fest behind us and the seed nearly planted, fall has arrived. Good thing since Tuesday was the first official day of it. Funny, I've never paid close attention to the beginnings and ends of seasons but these last few months have given me a new respect for them. It's not just being outside in the weather. It's feeling the cycle shift from one point to the next and reacting to it accordingly. My body has gone from the rigid, achy soreness of a hectic summer to a more relaxed, looser pose. I can breathe a little more easily. My back's not nearly as tight and my arms and hands are finally able to stretch out and feel good. No, I'm not wimping out (shaking the seed is a ridiculous arm and shoulder workout) but I do feel like winter will be here soon and we can all take a big sigh.


The other good news is that we'll be showing up with our raw bar at events around town now that we have more time. First stop: The FB Fashion Week Kickoff Party tomorrow night. We did an event at Rialto last week where Michelle Bernstein of Michy's in Miami came up to cook with Jody Adams. They started the meal with a reception where we found our oysters topped with popcorn (!) and aji amarillo.


We're also about to hit the sweet spot for oysters. Once the water temps drop, the oysters that are ready to be harvested get really fat and juicy. Definitely the best time of year to eat them... and there will be lots of opps to get out there and eat them on us, including my personal fave, Eat Your Heart Out Boston. Stay tuned.

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

This little piggy came from Island Creek

There are a few duties at Island Creek that the guys probably didn't realize fell under their job description. One of them is pig wrestling. DSC00341

Now, we all knew that our pigs, Gourmet and Midnight, would end up at the butcher eventually. Some guys may not have been prepared for what that would require. But Matt Henderson and Graham Bouthillier were ready. Tasked with getting our massive piggies onto the truck, they arrived at the pig pen at 7 a.m. with gloves, rope, boots, and a 6-pack of Bud tall boys (for the pigs... and themselves). After some sweet talking, a few dabs of beer, and two dozen donut holes, the pigs were under the impression that aside from the growing number of onlookers and the truck parked nearby, life was going to be ok.

getting prepped

born free

And then Hendo roped Midnight and unleashed hell.

I won't go into details (it was ear-piercingly loud and pretty tough on the guys) but will say this. It takes 1 dozen Island Creek farmers to get two pigs into the back of a truck: 4 to wrestle them, 3 to lift them, 2 to soothe them after it's done, 2 to photograph it and 1 to supervise.

Don watches over the mayhem

Thankfully it all ended well and the whole display was really a testament to how these pigs were loved their entire lives and treated with kindness, respect, and a whole lotta pastry. Their sacrifice for the cause did not go unrewarded. Hendo and Graham saluted the pigs with a tall boy and drove them down to our butcher on Wednesday.

So, here we are, 4 days before Oyster Festival. The pigs have been butchered (sorry, kids), the tents arrive tomorrow, the tuna has been caught (before the high seas we're expecting today, thankfully) and the razor clams are coming up today. What else could we possibly need? Oh right, sunshine.

Forecast right now calls for wind and rain today with more on Thursday, more rain Friday and then, fingers crossed, a few clouds giving way to sun on Saturday. We've got tickets left and PLENTY of food, including about 40,000 oysters, which has the farm in a tailspin. All of the crews have been cranking to get their oyster donations in before Saturday and get ahead of the weather. It's been hectic but I'm convinced that our efforts, along with the pigs', will make for an absolute stellar day on Saturday. Hope to see you guys there.

(Also, quick note: FOX 25 did a great job with this clip about my experience on the farm. Gives you a really good sense of why I'm doing this and what we do at the farm all day.)

End-of-summer storms

Considering we've only had about six weeks of summer, I truly hope this isn't the end of our nice weather. But the summer crew is gone, Oyster Fest is less than two weeks away, and now we're dealing with hurricane season. Must mean fall will be knocking. Last week, reality set in: We finished working on the seed and completely dismantled the upwellers. It was one of Catie's last days on the farm so it was only appropriate that we wrap it all up (in her four years working there, she's never been around to see the upwellers go completely empty... or taken out of the dock). We did our final grade on half-inch screen on Thursday, ending up with plenty of seed to go into the nursery. While we normally would have planted it all immediately, we were looking at an oncoming hurricane -- planting would have been a bad idea before a storm that size blew into the bay. So we locked it safely into the walk-in cooler at the shop (where it will stay cool and safe) and will get it into the nursery at some point this week.


While Catie and I finished the grade (and a little reminiscing: "remember how brutal those first lousy weeks of June were?"), the guys took the upwellers out of the dock. This project required a little bit of finesse (we have all those rowing boats to dance around) and a whole lot of brute strength (we have A2). Once the motor and bolts were taken out, the guys systematically lowered the trough to empty the water out, then tied some line through the pipe holes so that four of them could lift it out and put it onto the boat.

the giant box we call a trough


It wasn't without its frustrations (or laughs) but we got everything pulled out and put away before lunchtime. Friday, we spent the day storing it all away which required many trips back and forth between the water, the shop, and the farm where we're keeping all of the big stuff. We also spent the morning securing our float in the Bluefish River. I thought moving it ten feet last winter was a big deal but this required separating our two floats, attaching the soaker float (the long flat one which has baskets underneath it where we soak our oysters to keep them cool in the heat) to our mooring in the bay, and pushing our garage float (with our little Carolina boat) all the way over to the river where it would be protected should Hurricane Danny decide to blow super hard.

new digs

Of course, the weekend came and went and we survived the storm. But we also had several inches of rain come down on Saturday alone which means the State has shut us down for a few days. Since our oysters are filtering about 30 gallons of water a day, they're eating up whatever's been washed into the bay. Of course, once the waters even out and our oysters are filtering clean water again, they'll be perfectly fine to harvest. (These types of things don't bother oysters who are happy to just sit around and eat all day. Must be nice.) Once the State comes back down to check the waters (probably tomorrow) we'll be able to harvest again. Hopefully there won't be any hiccups because we are going to need some serious numbers in time for Oyster Fest.

E&D Duxbury

Last year, Dave, our friend Nicole, and I all went down and enjoyed an afternoon on the beach, slurping back oysters and plenty of Harpoons. This year, I've gotten to be a part of the planning which I've really enjoyed. And keeping the focus on putting on a green and eco-friendly event has been the coolest part. Not only do we have our pigs ready to go (to the slaughterhouse tomorrow, officially), but the 18 chefs who are coming down are all set to whip up dishes made from a ton of local ingredients: Duxbury striped bass, scallops, razor clams, tuna, heirloom tomatoes, and plenty of our oysters. We're recycling our oyster shells (40,000 to be exact) and using completely compostable dishware and glasses. Pulling it all together has been a pretty smooth process; now it's time to settle in and enjoy it. And we're still selling tickets!