May means raw bars, shuck offs, and seed

I've heard it at least five times in the last two weeks: "You guys are everywhere." It's true. The Island Creek crew does make the rounds. Last weekend alone, we were in New York for the Lucky Rice Asian Food Festival on Friday...

...where chef Jonathan Wright from the Setai Miami paired our oysters with fried pork belly and kimchee (it was an insane combination that drew ravenous crowds...

...along with chef David Chang of Momofuku fame who we couldn't manage to capture on film) ... before setting up two separate raw bars on Sunday, one at Harvard Square's May Fair with the Russell House Tavern and the other at B&G Oysters for their annual Oyster Invitational.

It was a long day of shucking in the sunshine and snacking on grilled sausages, lobster rolls, and oysters. We met some great Island Creek fans and even put Chris into the shucking competition where he promptly cut himself -- don't worry, he's ok -- but still came in second place.

We were also voted best oyster of the bunch, thank you very much! And our friends at Moon Shoals came one vote shy of beating us -- incredibly stiff competition.

Thanks to Barbara, Jen, Chef Stephen and the gang for another incredible spring party.

So here we are, smack in the middle of raw bar season. We've got fundraisers, Nantucket Wine Fest, and Chefs in Shorts on our horizon -- some seriously entertaining events. But this is the time of year to do it since patios are opening and folks are coming out of hiding. In just a few short weeks, the farm kicks in to full gear and summer crews arrive, which means our raw bars will take a back seat. We have a few lined up for June but that should be it since the majority of our down time will consist of sleeping and fretting about seed.

I can practically taste my return to the farm these days. The 70-degree heat and sunshine don't exactly deter my excitement. Plus, Berg came back from Africa this week, putting us one man closer to a summer crew. We toasted him with a few cups of Oyster Stout (our only keg is finally tapped) at an afternoon barbecue yesterday.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Shop Friday without A2 who drove all the way back from New Hampshire for the festivities. Good to see you buddy!

Skip came to the barbecue a little late -- he'd been out in the back river and was anxious to show me the first of his seed. Sorry I don't have a picture but the little guy was a nice, healthy couple millimeters long! Skip's keeping the seed up in the river until the upwellers go in, which should be happening any day. The next few weeks, the oysters will start to double in size almost daily -- and once again, we have a seed season underway.

Guess that means it's time for me to hang up the suit and throw on some boots. Two more weeks and I'm back on the farm!

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...

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.

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

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!

Planting the Seed

Skip's crew might be dwindling but we've still got plenty of work ahead of us. We've got an acre or so of open lease to plant; like any other farm or crop rotation, after a crop has been harvested, the land has to be cleared before you can plant again. We've spent the summer picking it clean and now we're filling every last corner of it with new seed. (And to answer a Mom question, there are other sections of the lease that are packed with full-grown oysters which were planted last year.) Skip is taking a break from "shovel" planting to try a hand at hand planting. We're planting onto a part of the lease that's just north of the cages (nursery) where the seed is being stored so for the next few days, we're carrying bags from the cages straight over to the lease, opening them, and emptying them out by hand into a small square area. This is a pretty cool set up since we can shake the seed right onto the ground when the tide is out and see what kind of density we have in that spot. Shaking the bags feels a little like operating a fertilizing machine. You hold the bag horizontally and shake it carefully from side to side while walking backwards so that you can cover a small line of area with a consistent number of oysters. Between Monday and Tuesday we put down thousands of oysters into a fairly small window of space. The seeds are still only about 3/4 to 1 inch long and they're all set pretty close together. Imagine that same space in about a year when the land is covered in three-inch oysters. Pretty incredible that we can get so many of them into a condensed area. But, as I keep saying, there's still a ton of seed.

Speaking of which, we may be at the tail end of our upwelling season...finally! Having watched and been very much a part of the process from the beginning, I can say that it's a fascinating system. Force feeding the oysters in a controlled environment produces an incredible yield. (But it's not without its headaches: at the very whisper of nearby Hurricane Bill this weekend, the Maritime School almost pulled all of their docks -- and our upwellers -- out of the water. Thankfully, the storm went far enough east so we we able to keep everything intact but the idea of getting the seed moved and possibly disassembling the upwellers was a major hassle. The only good thing that storm produced was some huge swells for Berg and Greg to ride on Sunday afternoon.) We'll probably do our last grade tomorrow and get that seed into the nursery. (It will be the last seed we plant later this season.)

Besides completing my tasks as Mama Seeda for the season, I've been able to spend more time on the float with the crew. Sadly, we're getting down to bare bones: today is Maggie's last day for the summer and Catie is out after Friday (she's taking a job as an eco-consultant in Burlington). But I have the feeling both will still be around quite a bit over the winter -- at least they better be. On Monday, it'll be back to me and a crew of guys: A2, Berg, Will & Greg. It's a good number for the fall so I think we'll have plenty of hands to get work done. It's just so hard to believe that summer might be coming to an end. Didn't it just get started??

some of the summer crew

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.

Back to work (and highlights from a whirlwind trip)

I felt incredible driving to work yesterday morning. Refreshed, renewed, strong... at least until about 10:30 when we started pulling out silos to grade the seed. Our babies exploded while I was away! Not only was I huffing and puffing trying to pull the massive seed out, but my arms were completely out of shape. After a week. So pathetic. Yesterday we hit the tide early to change over some of the nursery bags to a larger size -- the seed we put out there a few weeks ago is massive but some of it may be out there for another 4-6 weeks so we want to make sure it has plenty of room to breathe. I love seeing the difference in size -- it seems so dramatic in such a short period of time.

As for the upwellers, I was happy to see that Eva and Catie (the other seed mamas) kept things under control. It's insane how heavy our silos have gotten. But, the fantastic news is: We've started planting. Just today in fact. For those who don't know, once Island Creek Oysters have reached a certain size in the nursery (about the size of a half dollar), they're planted on the bottom of the bay floor where they're grown "free range" as we like to call them. They won't attach to anything; they simply grow loose on the bottom. Over the next several months, they'll grow pretty big until the water temperature drops in November when they'll go dormant. Once the water warms back up in the spring, they'll continue growing until they reach full size (about three inches) around harvest time. We'll be harvesting this batch sometime in Fall 2010.

To get started with planting, we pulled about 75 bags of seed out of the river and spent the morning dumping it into the bottom of our boat. Skip then took the boat out to the now empty lease (we spent the last few weeks cleaning all of the oysters off the bottom) and with a snow shovel, carefully flung loads of seed out onto the bay floor (he did it at low tide so he could watch the way the seed distributes).

While planting is a good sign, we still have a ways to go with the seed. Skip is planting the first batch of seed we received this past May and he'll leave the newest seed in the nursery and upwelling system until they're as big as what he planted today. Berg broke it down for me yesterday: we keep the seed growing in the bags for as long as we possibly can because once we plant it, the growth that occurs on the bottom of the bay floor is out of our control. By keeping it in the bags, we're keeping them safe from predators and giving them a little breathing room to grow.

Essentially, my job as Mama-Seeda is winding down but we still have a long way to go to get it all planted.

In the meantime, summer is definitely winding down. Quinn headed back to Indiana University last weekend. Eva is here just one more week (which is devastating since she's been an enormous help on the seed); Pops is off to college in a few weeks and Maggie's headed back to grad school at the end of August. "In the fall," Maggie said yesterday, "you guys will feel like it went by in a blink." She's right. Summer is just way too short. But don't worry about us. We're soaking up every second. We wind down the day with a swim and are doing everything we can to soak up the sun (with sunscreen on, of course).

Now, to the trip. There are way too many great stories to tell so I'll keep it focused on the food. A few dining highlights:

quenching his appetite for the Cleve

Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland We found this spot on Saturday night after taking in a baseball game. It's right in the theater district and had the best crispy frites topped with a poached egg. Also discovered Dogfish Brewery's Theobroma. Love it.

Founder's Brewing, Grand Rapids, MI Dave has become quite the beer nerd which pleases me to no end since it gives us an excuse to hit up every divey beer bar and brewery we come across. At the Publick House (where he bartends) he serves Founders' Centennial Ale among others so we stopped into the brewery on our way through Michigan. Beautiful space with lots of windows and long, winding bar plus views into the on-site brewery. The beer cheese dip (made with cream chese, gouda, plus three of their beers: Pale Ale, Red Rye, and IPA) was a gooey, outstanding road snack.

Alinea, Chicago Words can hardly describe this one. We were blown away from the minute we sat down. It's a dining/theatrical experience, from the rock-heated basil and tomato vines (served as an aromatic essence to accompany heirloom tomato salad) to the nitrogen-frozen mousse finale (wherein chef Grant Achatz himself arrives at the table to plate a variety of blueberry sauces, maple-wood globes, the mousse, malted ice cream, and fresh thyme artistically across a silicon pad set directly on the table and then tells the diner: "the rest is up to you.")


I am still wide eyed over the white chocolate sphere filled with watermelon liquid and accompanying straw filled with raspberry jam AND Bubbilicious bubble gum and piece of caramel-drizzled bacon served from a string. Also adored the "steak and potato" course with sous vide wagyu beef, potato crisp covered potato cream cube and involved a centerpiece that spewed dry ice and the smell of the grill (garlic, thyme, smoke) across our table in wisps of smoke. Oh, and there was a packet of powdered A-1. We managed to catch a little piece of it here.

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more about "erinbmurray's Channel", posted with vodpod

Map Room, Chicago Another beer lovers' haunt, complete with volumes and volumes of National Geographics stacked in the bookcase. We hit this post-Alinea so our palates were fuzzy but the Guldenberg was a nice nightcap.

The Publican, Chicago Our final stop before the long car ride home. The design and decor are really unique with long, communal tables, tall, stiff-backed chairs and beautiful wood and brass fixtures. We were there for afternoon service (3:30-5:30) so didn't have the full menu or a big crowd but the space was filling up by the time we left. The limited menu was a perfect sampling of their easy, lighter dishes. We took in some frites (also offered with a poached egg - I'm seeing a midwest trend here) as well as some oysters (the chef's selection, decent but ultimately disappointing since they weren't our own) and the charcuterie plate (pork pie; duck liver terrine; spicy Spanish sausage; and a first for me, raisin mustard).

Eastern Standard, Boston



Ok, ok. Not on the itinerary but we did end our vacation here on Sunday night. Garrett Harker invited locally based friends that are originally from in and around the Maryland area to join him for an authentic Maryland-style crab festival and it was glorious. Newspapers, mallets, Old Bay, Natty Bo in the can, tasty crabs, and yes (YES!), TastyCakes for dessert (Mom, you would have loved it.) It ended with CJ laying face down on the table due to a self-induced food coma (he survived) along with us leaving in time to get a full night sleep and head back to work on Monday morning.

the aftermath

It is fantastic to be home but sadly, staring into our far-too-empty fridge makes me really want to go back to Chicago. Or at least crack open some Island Creeks.

The chef connection

DSC00106 One of the main reasons I was drawn to Island Creek (aside from the oysters, of course), was the way in which the farm established relationships with chefs. Almost every Boston chef I can name knows of (and favors) Island Creek oysters. But more importantly, they all know Skip and "the guys from Island Creek." Skip and Shore have clearly worked hard to make theirs a well-known brand. But they've also opened the door and welcomed any chef that wants to come down to the water and check things out. While this isn't a new concept (chefs have probably visited farms and had relationships with their purveyors since restaurants were created), I knew early on that there was a takeaway with ICO that most chefs couldn't get anywhere else. Being on the water and going out to the lease can make people a little awe struck. There's a mystery behind growing oysters. Sure, it's scientific and methodical but oysters themselves aren't easy creatures to know. On top of which, the farm has an aura to it. The people there happen to love their lives and the place where they live. And sure it involves hard work, but it all takes place in the middle of a breathtaking bay.

To be fair, there's no easy way to describe to visitors what to expect. You'll come down to the water, go out to the float and probably get a tour of the nursery and the lease. You'll be on a boat. In a harbor. It will most likely be beautiful out. The crew will be busy and will likely keep working while you explore. You'll see what it means to cull and to drag. But we won't tell you much more than that. We'll wait for the questions to come. And while we try to tell people what to expect, every time we get them down, we get the same reaction: Wide eyes with a face that's half smile, half awe. One that says, "How fucking cool is this?"

Will Gilson, chef at Garden at the Cellar came to the farm with a few of his cooks on Tuesday. Talk about cool: he's cooking a dinner at the James Beard House in New York on Tuesday, Aug. 4th and he's personally sourcing every ingredient on the menu from New England. He's raising and slaughtering pigs, catching his own mackerel, harvesting his own produce, and, of course, hand picking the oysters.


He and his guys gallantly suited up in waders and came out on the tide with us. We were there to get some work done, cleaning cages and organizing bags, while they were there to pick. We handed them some buckets, gave them a few guidelines and let them go. Forty five minutes went by before I checked on them. Walking towards them in the water, I could tell they were enjoying it. Their buckets were full of perfect oysters and they were relishing the sunshine and the water. Will was happy with his haul and Brandon was antsy to open some of the jumbos so he could fry them up and stuff them into po boys at the restaurant that night.

It might not sound like much. But I guarantee they'll always remember Island Creeks because of that visit. And they'll remember what it felt like to stand in the water and pick the food they would eat later that night. It will stay with all of them no matter where they end up next or who they cook for. And that's a pretty powerful tool.


Of course, we also grow pigs for our chefs. Gourmet and Midnight are getting nice and fat in time for Oyster Fest. The chefs who will be roasting them, Chris Schlesinger (East Coast Grill) and Jamie Bissonnette (Toro) are in for a treat. We've been feeding them about 10 pastries a day and Hendo's been mixing up a slop (including beer) for them every now and then. If this isn't enough to make a chef fall in love, I don't know what is.

Will giving the pigs a bath

Getting to work side by side with our chefs is a pretty big part of it all. We're not just raising goddamn delicious oysters -- we're doing it in a way that works for the chefs. We create culls for them. We pick them at just the right size. And we spend hours putting together perfect bags. It's a business but it's one the growers and their crews are downright obsessed with doing well.

Which is why I'm almost reluctant to leave the farm for a week-long vacation. (I did say "almost.") We're headed to Mackinac Island, Michigan for the Murray Family Reunion tomorrow night -- we're road tripping out there and have stops in Cleveland and Chicago on the way to and from. (Dining at Alinea on Thursday night. And yes! They buy our oysters!) While I desperately need a break (my lower back could probably take a month off), leaving the farm and all of the seed is no easy feat. I can still see oysters when I close my eyes at night. Wonder if that goes away after a week? I'm guessing no...

They're alive!

When you look at oyster seed every day, it's hard to remember that they're living, eating, breathing creatures. The little buggers just lie there while you wash and grade them and aside from floating around in the upwelling system, they don't seem to do much of anything. At least, that's what I thought. And then Skip reached his hand into an upweller last week and something happened. It was the seed he'd been growing out in the back river (which feeds into Duxbury Bay from the northeast, just past the Powder Point Bridge) in floating trays. He was experimenting with one of his batches of seed and it had done really well, growing quickly to a size that looked good to him. We'd moved it to the upwelling system about a week or two ago. He pulled a handful out on Tuesday to take a peek and as they were sitting in his hand, the seeds started moving. They were actually opening and closing but it looked like they were about to jump.

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more about "moving seed on Vimeo", posted with vodpod

"I've probably grown about a hundred million seeds over the years and I've never seen anything like it," Skip said a little wide-eyed. All of the other growers came down to take a look and said the same thing: "Never seen that before. (And we hope it's not a bad thing.)" We watched it happen again a few more times over the course of the week so Skip called his friend Dick Krause from ARC. Dick thought it might have something to do with the difference in salinity between the back river and the upwelling system. Perhaps they were getting used to the higher salinity levels? They eventually stopped doing it and have been growing nicely all week -- definitely not a bad thing. I, for one, was tickled to see these fragile little things having some fun with us.

Other than that, our week was a good one. We finally had a string of good weather (and luck) so things on the farm ran smoothly. Berg was back with a leg brace so the team felt whole again. We did some cage cleaning to get all the seed that we've put out in the bay nice and neat. Cleaning involves pulling those mesh plastic bags out of the cages, banging them a little with a PVC pipe to keep the oysters from crowding into the corners, giving them a shake and a hand swipe to get some of the gunk off of them, then rotating the bags so they all get equal time on the top or the bottom of the cage. It's a slow process but we managed to get a number of cages done this week. We also deployed some more seed so our nursery is almost completely full both in the bay and in the back river. My favorite day was Friday: the seed crew (Catie, Eva, and me) graded in the morning and then went out to the float and culled for the rest of the afternoon. We went for a swim, hung out in the sun...Eva taught me how to skip oyster shells (I was a complete hack until she pointed out where my forefinger should rest on the shell; I got a few good ones off but definitely need some practice). We ended the week on a very relaxed note.

This was also a huge week for Island Creek in the press. Tasting Table, an epicurean email newsletter (like a foodie's DailyCandy), did a sweet write up on our new webstore (thanks Ryan!) and How2Heroes posted some videos they'd shot a few weeks back. Nice way to introduce folks to the farm so pass it along.

I spent this weekend in Charlotte for my sister's baby shower. She and her husband are in the process of adopting a child so it was a fantastic way to celebrate their new addition... and they'll be super prepared for whenever the baby gets here! The best part about it is that my sis could eat and drink whatever she wanted yesterday so we had a few drinks, and of course, a few oysters. The farm shipped 5 dozen down for the party and we had a blast shucking in the back yard. Lots of love for Island Creek in the South. We just need to get our oysters into more Charlotte restaurants (hint hint, Hendo).


Dad's doing the left handed shuck

Brian slurps one back

And away it goes

our grading set up We're on a roll now, moving seed out from under ourselves daily. The weather and the tides have kept us from deploying a ton this week but between tomorrow and Friday, we'll have a huge chunk of seed out in the river and in our cages in the middle of the bay. We have to wait until low tide to get most of it out and the tides aren't cooperating like they should. They come in and out at varying speeds and this week, it's just been fickle. But at least Catie and I are past the hump of grading daily. Now we're giving our sub quarters a few days to pick up speed and grow.

quarter-inch grader

Plus, Skip actually sells a lot of the seed he grows to other growers and this is the week they're all getting it (and deploying it on their own leases). We're doing seed counts daily which takes some time and keeps my head filled with crazy numbers. I'm getting very good at determining a liter count on a tote by eyeballing it, thanks to Skip.

But I've also started counting everything, all day long. How many shakes it takes to grade a scoop of seed. How many scoops it takes to empty a tote when grading. How many boards on our upwellers are driving me crazy. Adding up all these little things gets my head focused, in a very weird way. My dad and high school math teacher would be proud.

Everyone on the farm is grinding these days. The farmers are deploying seed all at once. The crews are helping them along with culling and bagging a huge amount of oysters every day. The delivery guys are out there pounding the pavement. On the wholesale side, we've been selling scallops both in the shell and shucked; we've been hand delivering our products to NY (which requires a twice weekly round trip in one of our trucks in less than 24 hours - Hendo's been leading the charge); we're about to start selling striped bass (next week!); and finally - finally! - the Island Creek Oyster Fest tickets are on sale. GO BUY ONE. They will sell out before the festival takes place on September 12. We've been busy putting together a pretty killer lineup of chefs and bands plus we'll have thousands and thousands of oysters and beers by Harpoon. Our pigs, Gourmet and Midnight are getting fat and happy in time for the pig roast and we've been watching our chickens turn into lovely little hens (don't worry: we're not eating them). Skip even cobbled together a makeshift pen for them out of seed cages.


But Billy's in charge of corralling them into their coop at night. Not an easy feat but I think he has a way with these chickens.


The only thing we're missing on the farm is Berg. Poor guy got hit by a car last week. He's doing fine - just a hairline fracture - but the crew is definitely feeling a little lost without him. Hopefully he'll be on his feet in no time. (And if you're reading this Berg, the girls say 'get better soon!')



A long week of super long drainers

our picking team Phew. That was a long one. We just wrapped up a full week of drainer tides -- where low tide completely drains the bay floor giving us loads of time to hand pick oysters -- most of which started super early in the morning. It's typically the longest week of the year since the tide stays out for hours on end several days in a row. Only, we couldn't go out to pick on Monday or Tuesday because of the weather. Monday's storm seemed to hold on forever with the wind and rain blowing us off the float by lunchtime. Tuesday was another windy, rainy one. Catie and I were on the dock with the rain blowing at us sideways while we graded some of our seed. But it had to be done: our oldest seed had popped and almost a quarter of it was big enough to go into seed bags. When we grade, we separate the quarter-inch seed from the smaller stuff and put the smaller stuff back into the upwellers to continue growing. It brings down the volume in our silos allowing the smaller seed more room to grow. So we graded that batch and had enough quarter-inch seed to fill about 600 bags. At the end of the day on Tuesday, the crew spent the evening filling the bags with the seed and finally, on Wednesday morning (5:30 a.m. start time), we were able to get out on the tide. We spent the first few hours hand picking oysters and once the tide started to flow back in, we put the filled seed bags into cages which we set up in southeastern facing rows of 10 on part of the lease. Each cage hold 6 bags so we filled about 100 cages that morning. Quick work to do when the tide starts coming in but we got all the bags out and made it on the boat before the water spilled into our waders.

There was more seed washing to do on Wednesday afternoon, plus we were able to take a look at some of the seed Skip's been growing in the back river. It's coming along a little at a time -- it'll be interesting to see how much it pops once we move it into the bay.

On Thursday, the weather FINALLY broke. We were out on the tide in the fog that morning but by the time we came in, grabbed a coffee and got to work culling, we were working in the sunshine. After lunch, Catie and I graded another set of silos which meant we were set up under the scorching sun on the dock for the afternoon. Nothing wrong with that after 20 straight days of rain. Yes, we wore hats and sunscreen but still managed to get some color. We capped off the day with a trip back out to the float where we found a spanking new soaker float attached to our garage float. That gives us around 70 feet of float space to work on -- it's like adding a patio the size of your house to the backyard. It's huge! I'd show you pictures but, sadly, my camera bit the dust after sitting in a pool of water one rainy afternoon. Ugh.

Friday was another decent day. We were out on the tide in t-shirts in the morning and made our way in for an early lunch by 11:30. Eva came to the dock to help us grade that afternoon (it goes much faster when there's three of us) and despite a passing thunderstorm and an army of ferocious no-see-ums (tiny, invisible, flesh biting gnats), we finished up by about 4 p.m. and joined the rest of the crew (who had been culling and bagging on the float) to help load up the truck.

I'd recount more details or give you some funny anecdote about the crew but to be honest, I'm wiped. We put in a few 12-hour days and worked our tails off all week. After two full nights of sleep and even a few naps, I'm still recovering. But this is the busy time and from what I hear, we'll keep it up at this level until summer's over. I'm ready for it. My hands and lower back are ready for it. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we've got some drier days ahead.

One (mostly) lousy June

This week, we managed to get one brilliant day (very little wind, sunny, low 70s) and it happened to be a day Catie and I were working on seed. We spent the morning washing everything in the silos. Just to give you a quick idea of what it takes to pull out and clean a silo (plus, what a balancing act/teamwork effort it is to manipulate the silos around a bunch of rowing boats) a few quick videos, courtesy of Dave Grossman. [vodpod id=Groupvideo.2771829&w=425&h=350&fv=]

more about "untitled", posted with vodpod

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more about "My Back Hurts on Vimeo", posted with vodpod

Later that day, Skip, Dave, and I went out to the back river to grab the seed Skip's been working on out there. On the way, I got a little taste of Skip's love for speed. We came flying under the bridge on the way out.

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more about "Under the Bridge", posted with vodpod

Not nearly as fast on our way back in as we were carrying precious cargo: 8 trays of 1 1/2 month old seed. On the way, we ran into Don Merry, who also has some seed back there and Skip was anxious to show him the progress on ours.


river trays filled with seed

Back on land, Catie taught me how to grade, which is separating the oysters by size. Once some of the seed gets to about a quarter inch (called quarters, obviously), we can pull those out and put them into either separate silos(to continue growing in the upweller) or into mesh bags which will be put out in cages now set up in the bay. The seed that is too small (under a quarter inch) is put back into its original silo to continue growing. This helps bring the volume on each silo down, giving the oysters in each batch more space to grow. Still waiting to see where our seed goes next. After all the love and care we've given these babies, it might be a little sad to see them leave the nest to start growing in the big, blue sea.

My crew has a new Thursday tradition. We have a lot of summer birthdays, many of which happen to fall on Thursdays. Hence, Birthday Thursdays. Even without a birthday, we're all in for a celebration of some sort. This week's involved a feast at Will's place. We started with baked oysters (a la Berg) and fried oysters (made by Will).

Will's super tasty fried oyster

the spread

A2 enjoying a glass of wine before dinner

Berg's Baked Oysters

2 dozen Island Creeks 1 bag baby spinach, chopped 3 tbsp minced garlic 3 tbsp butter, chopped Couple handfuls of shredded parmesan

Shuck the oysters. Top with couple pinches of spinach, 1/4 tsp garlic, pat of butter, couple pinches of parmesan. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for about 5 minutes or until parmesan is melted.

Will's "Chilean" Island Creek pan-fried oysters

2 dozen shucked ICO's, reserve some liquor. Kultru Chile olive oil Extra Virgin olive oil

Batter: 1 c. buttermilk 1/4 c. oyster liquor (from shucked oyters) 4 farm-fresh Araucana eggs (or regular eggs), minus 1 egg white 2 tbsp flour

Breading: 3/4 bag of Panko bread crumb flakes 2 tbsp flour Homemade or commercial chili mix to taste. (Will uses Fireman Fred's Flaming 3 Alarm Chili Mix from Saratoga) 1 tsp paprika Pinch of cinnamon

Over med high heat in a saucepan combine Kultru Chile Olive Oil with EVOO (half and half to fill pan halfway). Combine all batter ingredients in a large bowl. Combine all breading ingredients in another large bowl. In sets of 6-8 oysters, dip in batter, then roll/cover with dry ingredients. Pan fry for a few min on each side, until batter gets golden and crunchy. Serve atop garlic Triscuits, cover with small slice of pepperjack cheese and a pinch of chopped spinach. Arrange on baking sheet and heat in 375 degree oven for as long as it takes to just melt the cheese. Serve 'em up with a glass of Crios Malbec Rose.

Washing seed

We've been having funky weather for a New England June. With temps hovering in the high 50s/low 60s and more cloudy days than sunny ones, the water temps haven't quite warmed up to where we want them to be. This is definitely having an affect on our babies. Christian tells me that with some sun, the water should warm up to about 60 degrees and that's what makes the oysters "pop" or go through a growth spurt. Since we have seed at different stages of growth in the upwellers (some seed came in early May; other batches came in early June), we've seen some of them explode but the younger ones are still small. As seed tender, I'm tasked with keeping them clean and poop free so they can continue to grow and eat. So Catie and I have gotten into a washing routine, which usually happens every other day now. The process goes something like this:

on the rowing dock with two of our silos

We start with dock 1 where there's 1 upweller with 8 silos. Because the boards to the dock are awkward and heavy, we open one portion of it and start unbolting the silos. We each pull one or two out, which means hoisting the box up by the ropes, waiting for it to drain of water, then dragging the bulky box up and onto the dock (we're still able to do this individually but as the oysters get bigger, it'll get harder and harder). Once we've got a few boxes out, I'll grab the hose and wash each one down individually: Outside, inside, then the seed and screen below it, which are now usually covered in crap. I'll move onto the next box and Catie will jump into the upweller to put the clean box back in place (they're secured to the trough with bolts and wingnuts... when the wingnuts are screwed on too tight, we use a wooden mallet, courtesy of Greg Morris, to knock them loose).

As I'm washing, Catie stays ahead of me pulling out and putting away the boxes and eventually we'll move over to dock 2 (also called the rowing dock since that's where the rowers from the Maritime School keep their boats stored). Dock 2 is far trickier since we have two upwellers there which both live beneath a rack of row boats. The far upweller (we called it the 20s) sits below some really low-lying boats so getting in and out is easy only when that boat is off its storage space and in the water (ie: when the rowers are in class). Since we still haven't gotten the rowers' schedule down, Catie and I are often interrupted while we're opening the dock to let rowers in and out. Usually, they arrive just after we've gotten the doors off ... which means we have to quickly put the doors back on and step aside until they're done. It's impeccable timing... but we'll get the hang of it eventually.


As we wash the upwellers, we can track the progress of our seed, checking out which ones are getting bigger, which ones are super poopy, and how they're growing overall. I'm a big fan of the seed job. Not only does it give me access to the seed growth in slow-mo, I get to hang out on the dock a few days a week and shoot the shit with the other farmers. They fret and stress and get excited over the babies like any anxious parents: a little nerve-racked but totally filled with love. And lots of hopes and prayers for a really good season.

So, you can imagine that this weather isn't helping much. Today will be a nice one, in the 70s and sunny, but we just need one long stretch of sun... fingers crossed that it's coming soon.

Talk about culling

One thing we, as a crew, never tire of (besides making each other laugh) is discussing the cull. We've got Maggie and Catie who are both veterans on the farm (we like to say that Maggie has been around so long, she actually invented culling) as well as Quinn, Berg, and A2 who were all around last summer, plus myself, Will, and Eva (the newbies). While the cull itself never changes (still looking for threes, Graybars, Per Se's), discussion of what makes a Per Se or a Graybar can go on for hours. We've now uncovered 'tweeners, the in-between shape that could go either way but really, should just be returned to the water to grow up a little more. Maggie and Catie are strict with their cull and return oysters when their too oblong or narrow so I've taken to following their lead. A2, who's in charge of the float (and by virtue, the cull) constantly pulls out oysters to show us what he's looking for and what direction we should be going. Basically, it's an evolving discussion. Not to mention, no two oysters are the same. So every day, we flip our crates, set up our stations, and cull with a purpose. It really makes a difference in the oysters that go into our bags, which I hope (and imagine) makes a difference to the chefs who buy them. DSC00790


Last week, we got two new additions, Gourmet and Midnight. No, we're not going into the business of Island Creek heritage pork. But we are planning on fattening them up in time for Oyster Fest in September. Two of our participating chefs, Chris Schlesinger and Jamie Bissonnette are roasting them for the event. Plus we've got 16 other chefs on board from Jody Adams and Jasper White to Louis DiBicarri, Will Gilson, Greg Reeves, and Jeremy Sewell doing small dishes with scallops, stripers, and razor clams. We're also looking to shuck something like 40,000 oysters. Phew. You guys ready?

There I was, covered in oyster poop.

In my previous life, I often wrote or edited items about over-the-top beauty treatments like a 24-karat gold hair straightener or caviar facials. It was always sort of a pleasure (and sort of hell) to test drive the treatments: If things went well, you walked away with a shiny mane, glowing skin, or a fresh coat of polish; if they didn't, you could be missing an eyebrow. Once again, I get to revert back to my beauty editor days with the arrival of oyster poop. Not nearly as smelly as oyster mud, but just as freaking gross, it is the brown, slimy ejection of growing oysters and I'm hoping that it'll do wonders for my skin. Because I am about to be swimming in it.

a silo covered in poop

For now, the job is simple. Catie and I remove the silos from their spots on the upweller trough (ok, simple is an understatement: these beasts weigh about 60 pounds and are as awkward and angular as a giant, heavy box filled with water and poop can be) and pull them out of the water and onto the dock. The process sometimes requires both of us since we have to pull them up from a bent over position and slide them onto the dock without catching one on a toe. Once they're on the dock, each silo gets hosed down inside and out and tilted on its side, causing the oysters to slide down so we can hose off the screen underneath. The fresh water kills any bacteria from the poop and washes away the whole, filthy mess. But there's no easy way to hose down a square box filled with growing particles of sand. The misting water makes the tiny little oysters fly around -- one hit of the hose in the wrong direction can send hundreds of them scurrying up the side of the box. On top of it, oyster poop is thick and sticks to everything. It collects on the screen and sides of the box and when it sprays upwards, it sticks to clothes, hands, shoes, and, of course, faces.

Christian carefully hosing down his silos

Today, we finished cleaning out the silos and I looked down to find oyster poop all over my hands, cascading down my legs, and felt a splash or two in my hair. Catie, an old pro at tending the seeds, said just wait: "Once we start grading, you'll get covered head to toe. Literally. It gets everywhere."

As much as I look forward to that day, I'm still undecided on the benefits of oyster poop on the skin. My hands are cracked and dry and my hair looks like it's been doused in lemon juice and left frying in the sun. Maybe a few pats of oyster poop can clear that up? I'll keep you posted.

Farm Visitors

I had the chance to see our process through someone else's eyes last Friday when my friends Jenn, Max, and Michelle came to the farm for a visit. We went out to the float where they hung out with the crew as we did our CWB routine and later, killed some time eating fresh oysters off the back. Afterward, Berg took us back to the dock where I showed them the upwellers and our babies before heading over to Snug Harbor Fish Co. for some lobster rolls and crab cakes.

lifting the cover off our upwellers

reaching into the silo while it's still attached to the trough

standing in the upweller (the water is up near my knees)

the babies keep on growing

Talking them through the process made me aware of just how much I've picked up on the farm. I walked them through the whole process, from seed to farm to float and actually felt like I knew what I was talking about. Wouldn't have been so easy two months back. But somehow, despite my previously empty knowledge base, I've managed to understand how our babies go from a twinkle in the eye to the sweet and meaty oysters we serve in restaurants every day.

oysters jenn

Of course, I'm still a fan of standing at the raw bar and shucking like we did at the Harpoon Brewery's Summer Session over the weekend. After days and days of looking at gnarly, rough-edged shells, it's fun to open a couple hundred and watch oyster freaks get excited. I always manage to slurp back a few at these events and just like that, every ache, pain, and bruise disappears. We shucked in the brewery's VIP room and while we didn't get creamed like we did at the Nantucket Wine Fest, it was clear that our oysters and Harpoon beer make a harmonious pair.


And, a quick plug for the farm: The new Island Creek website is up and running. There are some great pics of my crew hauling cages down to the water. Take a look around and if you're hungry, buy some 'sters.

Summer crew

DSC00768 More new faces on the farm this week. Well, new to me anyway. Catie, a veteran on Skip's summer crew, started with us on Friday (she just graduated from Colgate) and Eva (fresh outta Brown) starts with us tomorrow. With all these extra hands, the work flies and we can go through a massive number of oysters in a day. We put in a full day today and logged more than 150 bags. Sheesh! Back when A2 and I were the only ones culling, we'd be lucky to hit 50 in a day (but we still had a damn good time doing it). We've come a long way -- more ridiculous humor (Will's "Dopeass quote of the day" can lay the entire crew out with laughter - Maggie and I were to the point of tears twice today), more opinions on what music we listen to (Maggie's a Kanye fan, which makes A2 happy; Will and I are into the classic rock/90s stuff; Quinn seems to like whatever's on) and more competitors in our ongoing 'name that tune' game. (1 point for the artist, 1 point for the song title. Berg is a champ with classic rock; A2 can list the entire Jam'n 94.5 playlist which repeats itself about 3 times a day.)

the new Island Creek Shellfish farm logo

today's haul

But the crew shifts around so we won't be shoulder to shoulder on the float most days. Berg is teaching Quinn how to drag so we can have two guys bringing in oysters every day (though Quinn almost lost his life with the winch twice today, he'll pick it up eventually) and Catie and I will spend more time on the docks with the seed. We've got seed in all 16 silos now (with one more trough/silo going in this week) -- each silo is holding seed at different stages, from 1.5 mm to about 2.5 mm (at least that was the size they were when they arrived -- all have doubled or tripled since we've had them). For now, we're keeping the seed clean (ie: free of oyster poop) by hosing down each silo every few days. We'll go through and hose down all of the silos tomorrow and probably do some organizing -- Skip picked up more seed this weekend so we'll need to make some room for it. If the seed goes too long without getting cleaned, they'll foul quickly (foul, from my understanding, can be a much nicer way of saying either oyster poop, or the effects of oysters lingering in their own poop).

Since the seed is in an upweller system, there's fresh water being pumped over them all day long and they're just soaking up the nutrients, growing at an incredibly rapid clip. The volume of our biggest seed has probably tripled in the last two weeks, meaning they're healthy, hungry oysters that are going to move through the system quickly. Should be a beautiful week so I'll try to get some more photos and a better description of the process as we go.

Island Creeks on Ken Oringer's patio

In the meantime, I picked up a stellar recipe for our oysters from chef Ken Oringer during a Memorial Day bbq last week. Super quick and easy for summer.

Ken's grilled Island Creeks 1 dozen oysters 2 tbsp butter, cut into a dozen small pieces 1-2 tbsp Mexican hot sauce (essential that it's Mexican, says Ken)

1. Fire up the grill. Set the oysters cup side down over a medium/high heat. Grill until the shells just pop open (time varies depending on the oyster), then pull them off the grill. 2. With a shucking knife, separate the oysters from the top shell (toss the top; careful not to lose too much juice). Top each oyster with a piece of butter and a dash or two of hot sauce. 3. Put the oysters back on the grill for about a minute to melt the butter. Pull them off and let them cool for a bit before serving.