Oysters, East to West

And so, life goes on. My time at Island Creek ended, ceremoniously, with that last lunch at Tsang's. But there had been a pretty eventful week leading up it as well as a couple of neat oyster moments directly thereafter which I never properly reported.

It started with a visit from Adam James of the Hama Hama Oyster Company out in Lilliwaup, Washington. He was in town doing a tour of the Northeast and stopped by the farm for a quick morning to scope out the operation. While it wasn't a great tide to get him out in waders, Chris, Skip, and I were able to show him the Plex and give him a peek at the cages.

Skip popped a few oysters open for him, giving him a taste of Island Creeks at their peak. The oysters are just starting to get plump with all that pre-winter glycogen; the flavor is perfectly round and sweet. Just beautiful.

Adam's operation is a lot different than ours. His family owns the 400 acres of tidal flats he farms on out in Washington's Hood Canal.

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While he has plenty of space to grow, he's working with a unique, gravelly surface and 17-foot tides. His oysters are all naturally raised, meaning they're grown from spat set on shell (versus ours, which are "free range"), which he harvests mostly by hand (their tides get them about 4-5 hours of picking time) and he's growing both Pacifics and Olympias. He also grows geoducks and Manila clams.

As I was able to see for myself last week, his operation is similar to Island Creek in so many ways. Dave and I visited his farm on our trip to the Northwest the week after I left the farm and found it to be just the right day trip for our week-long tour. The company recently built a brand new retail operation and processing facility which sits right off Hwy 101 on the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula -- the drive over from Seattle takes you across the spindly fingers of land that jut out into Puget Sound. We arrived to find Adam tapping away at his computer, which he happily abandoned to spend a day touring the farm.

After checking out his shucking and jarring operation (he has a big audience of shucked meat lovers) and sampling some of the oysters his wife Andrea was in the process of smoking, Adam and his dog Derby showed us around the rest of the farm. His family owns about 4,000 acres, all of which surround the Hamma Hamma river, a fresh water source that runs straight out of the Olympic range (and happens to be flush with salmon). A few family houses as well as a horse barn sit at the eastern edge of the property near the water but just past that sits a lovely forest park, planted originally by Adam's grandfather -- his family has owned the property since the 1920s. Up the hills, Adam pointed out where they've harvested and replanted glades along the range -- they sell Christmas trees, too.

He walked us up the river a bit, pulling out a paper bag halfway through the walk to dive into his true passion: mushroom foraging. As we walked, he darted amongst the trees pulling up chanterelles and carefully stowing them away in his bag. Though he mostly forages for his own consumption and fascination, I'm hoping he'll stash a few into the oyster shipments that have started showing up regularly at the Island Creek Oyster Bar.

Out on the water, Adam introduced us to one of the oyster crews who took us out for a ride on the barge. A heavy duty version of our skiff, the barge can handle a large number of oysters -- they use it to pull up the seed which they keep on the southern part of their farm in rack systems as well as to harvest from the beds which sit a little farther north, close to the mouth of the river. That cold rush of fresh water, Adam said, is what gives Hama Hamas their sweet and briny balance.

We got to to sample a few, of course, fresh off the knife. As Adam pointed out, a few were still in spawn mode but those that weren't were firm and juicy.

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With our appetites fully primed, Adam took us back to his cabin and made us a hearty, Northwestern lunch: bagel cheese burgers made from beef Andrea's father grew topped with freshly picked chanterelles.

While Adam offered to put us up in his family's guest cabin for the night, Dave and I made our way north into the Olympic range -- but we're determined to get back out soon and take you up on that offer, Adam. Thanks again for everything.

One final meal.

My very last day on the farm ended with a group lunch at Tsang's. Wholesale and the crew... suits and boots... all noshing away on General Gau's and pork spareribs.

While I have plenty to share about my last week on the farm, I'm about to hop on a plane to Portland, Oregon for a week of road tripping up the Pacific Northwest. So, I'll leave you, for now, with some of my favorite Duxbury eateries.

...for the Old Italian...

...for the mac n cheese (and usually a Twix and some cookie samples)...

...for a bagel and the best coffee in town...

...for an IPA, a warm fire, and some laughs...

...for the crabcake sandwich...

...for ham and cheese croissants...

...for the chicken verde burrito...

...for the pulled pork sammy...

... and a fried chicken box lunch.

There will be one more meal to enjoy, just not in Duxbury. The Island Creek Oyster Bar opens for business tonight... around the same time we hop on the plane. My best of luck to everyone who worked their tails off to get that place running. You guys are going to rock. We'll be there as soon as we get back...

Winding Down

In classic Island Creek fashion, my last few weeks on the farm have been packed with some incredible memories. That's right. One week and counting. I don't think I've made any official announcements on this site, so here goes: This spring, I got a book deal with St. Martin's Press. The book, titled SHUCKED, will be a memoir about my time at Island Creek, about leaving the real world to get my hands dirty on an oyster farm, and about my relationship with a farm, a town, and its people. Sadly, my time is almost up but the good news is that I get to take a few months off to write before my deadline in February. If all goes as planned, the book will be out next fall... just in time for peak oyster season.

I won't dwell on how weepy I've been or how I can't imagine a day without a high five from Skip, a smile from Shore, or a hug from CJ. Because while it's way too sad for me to put into words just yet, it's a happy reality for me to face. Not to mention, I don't have time to be sad what with the way I've been spending my days and nights.

This week, the insanity started at the Chefs Collaborative National Summit. I spent Monday sitting in on panels listening to some pretty incredible voices weigh in on the current state of our seafood supply. Chefs Jasper White and Ana Sortun were part of the introductory session and gave some entertaining commentary on how they got connected with local, sustainable cooking. A few of their comments:

Jasper: I was frustrated with the seafood supply so I started my own wholesale company. It was so much red tape, that was five years ago, but I did it so I could get control of my supply. I tell every chef, "you have the right to see what we're doing. Get up at 4 a.m., and come see what we do. Come to the auction, come see what it means to get 6,000 pounds of local swordfish in and what we do with it."

Ana: I think culinary schools should get back in touch with the seasons. At the school I went to [La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine], they had us rip up recipes that weren't in season. We cooked from what was available.

Jasper: [On sustainability lists] The focal point should be on environment instead of a single species. Keep the oceans clean. We'll figure out how to grow it. And we promise, we'll make it taste good.

My next stop was a panel called The Gulf Oil Disaster: What Will Become of our Domestic Seafood Supply? where the discussion was heated. Margaret Curole, an advocate for Louisiana fishermen, was hoarse from all of the speaking she's done since the spill, and was the loudest dissenter of the group. She was frustrated that certain fishing areas had been opened prematurely and even more frustrated with the promotions boards which are pushing for people to eat Gulf seafood. She argued that they are putting pressure on those fishermen to fish when the fishermen themselves are still seeing oil in the water. Chef Stephen Stryjewski, co-owner of Cochon (who, like a true New Orleanian, referred to my favorite bivalves as "ersters") explained that oystermen were losing most of their crop not from oil, but from the fresh water diversion the government approved back in May -- it was meant to save the oyster beds but all of that fresh water has done more harm than good.

After lunch, I checked in on a panel called Is Local Sustainable? A Look at New England Fisheries, where chef Michael Leviton sat down with three fishermen to discuss their reasoning for supporting local fisheries. Two of the fishermen have started community supported fisheries, one from Port Clyde, ME, the other down in Barnstable while Adam Fuller, a former chef talked about becoming a lobsterman with Snappy Lobster in order to open up the supply chain. Their message was: Get to know your local fisherman, learn what's in season, and buy local when you can. Leviton took it one step further, from the chef's perspective: Support local...at the highest quality.

A final panel of the current state of food writing had me intrigued as Tom Philpott of Grist.org, Corby Kummer of The Atlantic, Jane Black of the Washington Post (and soon to be author), Corie Brown of ZesterDaily.com, and Francis Lam of Salon.com, hashed out what changes they've observed in the world of food journalism. Despite the massive shift of media from print to online, each sounded optimistic about coverage as a whole. We're getting more news, more stories, and more politics... and seeing less of the fluffy, recipe-driven, cooking content (though, there's still room for that too). What I enjoyed hearing was Philpott's theory that the elite, holier-than-thou gourmands of the past have become story savvy (I'm paraphrasing). They want to soak in their foie gras... but not before finding out who raised it, packaged it, shipped it, and prepared it.

All encouraging news for someone who writes about food online and in print. Especially considering the project ahead of me.

Tuesday, Skip sat on a panel with fellow oyster folks Jon Rowley and Poppy Tooker. Our friend, author Rowan Jacobsen moderated the discussion, which ended with a tasting of east coast, gulf, and west coast oysters. Chris, Shore and I shucked for the group while Skip encouraged the audience to get to know its purveyors and buy from reputable sources.

Tuesday night, we put together a pretty epic oyster table at Eastern Standard: John Finger of Hog Island Oysters was in town so Chris, Shore and I sat down with he and Rowan, as well as ES proprietor Garrett Harker for one of the most luxurious wine dinners I've ever experienced. ES wine director Colleen Hein opened some insane bottles, including a mindblowingly rich H. Billiot brut reserve grand cru... an absolute stunner with our selection of oysters.

And, it was a perfect way to celebrate Bug's 26th birthday, which we did more of on Wednesday. Jeremy Sewall (chef at the new restaurant) very thoughtfully offered to cook for Shore's entire group of friends...inside the almost-ready Island Creek Oyster Bar space. It was the perfect ICO meal: sharing plates, standing at the table, dunking chunks of lobster into butter, passing the wine, and putting down piles of beer. I share these photos reluctantly -- and only because they take place in the kitchen.

Just wait until you see the space. Any day now... I promise.

The Fifth Annual Island Creek Oyster Festival

Well, it's officially over... and it has been for almost two weeks. Apologies (again!) for taking so long to get this to you. But truthfully, I don't think I'd fully digested all that occurred at this year's Oyster Festival until just now. But here I am, with a recap at last.

It was an absolute whirlwind, from the moment the tents went up until the very last oyster was shucked. While we kept the footprint and general scope the same as last year (oysters, Harpoon, 20+ chefs, super-fun bands) we'd made some improvements to the system. One of those was the addition of a serious volunteer program -- it produced more than 450 volunteers who did everything from teach our guests about recycling to working side by side with the chefs. We got them all under the tents on Thursday night for a little info session where Shore, Michelle Conway (our tireless volunteer coordinator and my new hero) and I filled them in on what to expect.

From there, it was straight into Friday for a long day of set up, a flurry of ticket sales and visitors at the office. On site, we got the signs hung, the tables set up, and put all the bones in place. That night, we celebrated with pizza and a few beers under the tent and welcomed a few friends who'd come in for the Fest (Nantucket buddies Seth and Angela Raynor & winemaker Jim Clendenen)

Saturday morning, we woke up to an absolutely brilliant sunny morning. After gathering all my last minute lists, supplies, and sanity at the office, I was out to the beach first thing. By 9 a.m., the place was buzzing with committee members who were anxious to get the final touches in place. Meanwhile, over at our friends the Hale's house (where I've had more than a few Will Heward-hosted dinners), chef Ming Tsai and the TV crew of his show Simply Ming got busy shooting a number of segments for his upcoming season (look for Skip, Shore, and Jeremy Sewall once the show starts up again).

By noon, the Fest space was starting to look like a party and I got to spend a few quiet minutes with the who'd arrived.

But before long, it was 3 p.m. and Fest was underway. The crowds arrived in droves. From the minute the party started, the raw bars were packed - we shucked 34,000 oysters over the course of the day! Our shucker volunteers were animals, a few of them even worked straight through the event. (Thank you, Mark Goldberg!)

Inside the VIP Tent, some of our superstar chefs, winemakers, and bartenders demo'd entertaining tips for the crowd; but Annie Copps and Jim Clendenen truly stole the show. The food lines snaked through the tent but somehow my parents (who were up for the weekend) managed to sneak in at least a few bites of lobster served up by the Island Creek Oyster Bar staff. (Curious yet?)

Around the Main Tent, chefs were putting out steak tacos, pulled pork sammies, oyster bloody Marys, lobster tacos, and razor clam ceviche. I walked through the crowd a few times, overwhelmed by the number of people, but they were all having a blast and raved about the food. Just as the sun was going down, I finally got a taste of my own -- a mini pulled pork slider from the guys at East Coast Grill.

Before I knew it, our band Joe Bachman & the Crew were on stage ripping it up for the crowd. Shore, Skip and I got pulled up there a couple times but the best seat in the house was right beside the stage. And while I didn't catch the actual announcement, I was pretty touched to find out that Shore went up there at one point and told the crowd that they'd named me the 2010 Island Creek Pearl. An honor I will never forget.

Of course, it wouldn't be an Island Creek Oyster Fest without a killer finale. Ours came in the form of the band playing Bon Jovi's Dead or Alive -- for Berg and the boys, of course.

And just like that... the party ended. After shuttling everyone out of the tents, we made our way over to CJ's for his historic after party. And look - we had the whole party bus to ourselves.

The after party was as wild as it's ever been. DJ Ryan Brown spun some tunes, the dancefloor was a mess, and someone passed out in the bushes. Just like high school...

It was yet another epic night in the history of Island Creek...one I'm proud to say I helped pull off. We raised about $150,000 for the Island Creek Oysters Foundation, entertained 3,000 of our closest friends, and had a damn good time doing it.

So you think we'd give ourselves a break, right?

Not this crowd.

The following week, Island Creek hosted a pretty incredible oyster tasting at Eastern Standard. We invited a number of wine experts from around the city to sit down and taste 18 varieties of oysters with us. It was a wonderful array with oysters from across the country. A few stand outs (for me) were the Moon Shoals, Totten Virginicas, East Beach Blonds, Kusshis, and Hog Islands. Man, those West Coasters grow some fine oysters. My favorite moment came when Skip tasted the Kusshi -- he immediately turned to me and said, "I think I just fell in love with oysters again."

No higher praise from an oyster farmer, I'd say.

We'd asked all of our guests to take notes in order to put together a list of oyster language, one that would help the team at Island Creek expand its own vocabulary. The tasting came just in time - the previously mentioned Island Creek Oyster Bar opening is right around the corner. We needed some ammunition for the restaurant staff and with this tasting, are now awash in new terminology. Listening to Theresa Paopao (of Oleana) describe the buttery taste as not just butter but "lobster butter" was eye opening. We also had Nick Zappia of The Blue Room who chimed in with descriptions like "beefy," "toothsome," "lime green," and "full bodied." Each oyster brought out a new set of descriptors, giving us, the oyster growers, a new world of words to aim for.

Kai Gagnon from Bergamot, Liz Vilardi from the Blue Room and Central Bottle, and even Rebecca Alssid, culinary director of Boston University (a pioneer in the world of culinary education) were also at the table -- it was truly humbling. I did my best to capture as much of their knowledge as possible. For those that have read from the beginning, this was a tasting that I've been waiting 18 months to sit through.

Fitting, then, that it should arrive so close to my final days.

It's true. I'm leaving Island Creek in about three weeks. I'm not quite sure I'm ready to face that final day... so for now, I'll just say I'm ready to pack a lot in until October 15th.

Lucky for me, we've got a restaurant to open.

Tracking hurricanes

Mention a hurricane to an oyster farmer and you'll likely get a weather report. While mostly contradictory, these reports can be useful for their range of entertainment. Part meteorology, part superstition, with a healthy dose of gut instinct thrown in, weather predictions for a hurricane provide hours (and hours) of fascinating farm banter.

A casual polling of Island Creek growers resulted in these thoughts:

Mike George: "Bah. We'll get 40 mph, easy. But that's no worse than what it blows like here in the winter. And personally? I don't care. I've got 100 crates stacked up in my cooler right now."

Gregg Morris: "Of course it won't rain! I mean, it may rain a little. But not a lot. You know why? Because we prepared early. If I'd left my float on the mooring, we'd get a ton. It's free insurance!"

Skip Bennett: "Who's got a blender?"

Lisa Scharoun: "Good boogie boarding this weekend I bet."

Billy Bennett: "Oh, it looks bad. We'll probably lose power. Better get those coolers filled with ice."

And, of course, I picked up a few non oyster farming locals' thoughts, too:

Guy 1 at True Blue roadside bbq stand: "Whaddya think we'll get? 60, 70 miles per hour?" Guy 2: "Nah. 40 easy. Maybe if you're on the Cape, you'll see 75. But up here? 50 tops." Guy 1: "Humph. I'll bet it gets up to 60." Guy 2: "Yeah, like I said, 60 easy." Guy 1: "Nuthin' like a good storm on the haah-bah." Guy 2: "Got that right."

I love days like today. Despite the shaky predictions on wind gusts and jokes about hurricane parties, and even with Hurricane Earl barreling up the coastline, folks on the farm are in an easy going mood. Summer's winding down, the guys are taking a three-day weekend. And football season's right around the corner. Earlier this week, down at the harbor, things weren't so lighthearted though. In just under 36 hours, about 90% of the boats were taken off their moorings by nervous owners while the growers moved their big floats and loose gear over to the Blue Fish River for safety. I'd show you a picture but my camera's on the fritz. This morning, the harbor looked a little like this.

As for me, I've been neck deep in Oyster Fest planning so the weather only concerns me a little. Worst-case scenario, we get 6+inches of rain tonight which would put us in a rain closure, meaning our growers can't harvest for up to 4 days. Since we're about 8 days away from the Fest, I figure even with a closure, we'll still have about 48 hours to get 35,000 oysters out of the water in time for next Saturday's festivities. But, you know, no big deal. No amount of fretting or anxiety can stop a hurricane... so we'll just wait and see.

Speaking of the Fest, if you're wondering where my posts have been, you can blame it on that big ole 3,000 person party coming up next weekend. Between fretting about when our Duxbury raised pig will get slaughtered, keeping on top of our crazy number of volunteers, and wondering when our t-shirts will arrive, I've hardly had time to sleep, let alone blog. All that work, plus a few other things have been keeping me busy...sort of.

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Suburban Shepherds, posted with vodpod

I mean, can I really complain?

Just keep your fingers crossed for good weather next weekend. And hopefully, I'll see you on the beach.

Mud Runs and Oyster Diving: New Olympic sports?

It's safe to say that The First Annual Island Creek Oyster Olympics won't be the last. The festivities took place last Saturday in and around Duxbury Bay under a sparkling blue sky; the weather, the people, the events, and of course, the friendly competition turned it into a new tradition for the Island Creek Oyster family. The two teams, led by Skip and Mark, gathered on Don Merry's Oyster Plex for the first event: Oyster Diving. Each team member was allowed one dive to try and secure a yellow bag of oysters. With some snorkeling masks and a few suggestive hints, Team Bennett came out on top, picking up 4 oyster bags to Team Bouthillier's 3.

We moved over to Long Point Flat where the course was laid for an epic mud fling. Each team put 4 members on the field and lined up across from one another. Then, with PVC pipes in hand, the teams did their best to fling and flop each other into a muddy mess. They successfully muddied each other but we're still unclear on who actually came out clean. The victory went to Team Bouthillier's... despite the fact that they carried the muddiest player (that would be me).

Our next event, the mud run, may very well be the competition that kills us all. Each team put 4 runners on the course, with points going to first and second place. The distance was far, the runners were severely out of shape, and the mud proved a vicious foe. In the end, Scott and Blake Doyle crossed first. And, every player finished... barely.

Next up: The Oyster Sack relay race, wherein little Lila almost hopped her team to victory. But Team Bouthillier won out once again, putting them at least a dozen points in front of Team Bennett.

The day ended with a 6 (or 7) inning game of Whiffle Ball which Team Bouthillier cleaned up with a 4 to 1 win. The competition was fierce, especially as the teams started to expand (spectators became players as the game ran on), but in the end, Team Bouthillier took home the coveted Golden Oyster.

What really made the day was the group that came out. Those who played had just as much fun as those who watched -- though I suspect that the ones who watched have way more to chuckle about.

Big thanks to Samantha and Maya for pulling the day together -- happy birthday Sam!

Now, we start training for next year.

Surviving the summer

I'd forgotten that what it feels like to get through a summer work day at Island Creek. Between early tides, late nights, and Oyster Fest planning, the time I get to actually sit down and decompress has been shaved down to a few minutes a day. But, I can't complain. That's summertime on the oyster farm.

Hopefully you'll forgive the lapse in posts. But just to recap:

We had two successful float dinners in the last few weeks - one involving a few visiting editors from Food & Wine and their families (dinner: Jeremy Sewall's kickass chowder & heirloom tomato salad, lobster, steamers, steamer dogs); the other for the entire restaurant team from Lineage (dinner: lots of oysters and mignonette, Skip's on-the-fly razor clam, asparagus, and tomato salad, steamers, lobsters, and sausages).

We've gotten the process down pretty pat -- especially nice considering we're putting on a traveling party for anywhere from 15 to 25 people. They are always a success, no matter what the weather (as our F&W friends can attest) and almost always end up with some shenanigans or another (bridge jumping, in the case of the Lineage night).

We're doing fewer charity raw bars now that it's summertime but did make an exception for Mark Wahlberg and his brother Paul who threw a premiere party for "The Other Guys," which Mark stars in. It was a great party at Paul's new restaurant Alma Nove. Mark even ate a few of our oysters. Plus, we got to hang out with this guy:

Meanwhile, back on the farm, we said goodbye to Steve of Jeeves who has taken a "real" job in the seafood industry (he'll be doing sales for a customer of ours). His parting note to Berg put everyone in stitches... even the Bergman himself.

Work? What work? Oh, right. We do grow oysters, don't we. Actually, the past two weeks have been oysterless for Skip's crew (we're waiting to dip into the 2009 crop...a few more weeks!) So instead of harvesting, our daily work has been focused on one thing: The back river. For the first time since he started growing oysters, Skip had a barnacle set on his back river bags this summer. We went out to clean them last week and found a few of the outside rows covered in the little buggers.

barnacle-covered pipe

Once they set to the bags, they can reduce food and water flow, taking those two precious resources away from the seed. Skip and Berg reacted immediately: We needed to switch all of the seed over to new, larger-weave bags (the barnacles will most likely not grow back now that we're this far into the summer). The process takes time, even with the crew working in teams (pulling bags out, unpiping, pouring oysters into a basket, filling the new bag, repiping and setting back on the line), but over the course of two weeks, we've gotten almost every bag transferred over. There's something so satisfying about watching the clean bags line up behind you. You can practically see the oysters smiling.

This is also the time of year we start to see our crew disperse. Eva's last day was yesterday; others like Michelle and Maggie will be gone in a few weeks. And just like that, the seed crew will disband. We had our last grade this week, resulting in a tote full of tiny quarters and the very last of the runt seed.

Our upwellers are still full of seed which we'll keep clean for another week or so before the planting begins. Once we plant what's in the river, we can refill those bags with the seed from our upwellers. Personally, I just want to see the pumps get shut down... all in good time.

For now, we have bags to clean and plenty of events to keep us busy. In fact, later today, we're participating in the First Annual Island Creek Oyster Olympics! Five oyster-farm related competitions; 3 cutthroat teams; 1 peachy summer day. A recap post is soon to follow!

A lobster feast after a few long tides

A pile of lobsters for dinner?

It was the least the crew deserved after a week of drainer tides. So Will hosted a crew dinner at his place on Thursday night. He and Berg pulled up a pile of "lobbies" from their traps last week. The result? A feast of steamed meats that the crew literally devoured standing up.

We're not the only ones flush with the luxury meat, as this great article in NY Mag can attest (and we know a lot of guys that consider Old Bay their "secret"). But it sure was nice to see Berg's biggest catch, a 2 1/2 pounder get lumped into the feast.

Maggie and Eva contributed with a few sides, like Brussels sprouts and broccoli (which were also devoured within minutes of being plated), while Michelle whipped up a nice guacamole for the crew. My contribution? Brats for the grill, of course.

The girls and I had lots to celebrate that night. We'd officially shut down one of our upwellers (the dreaded 20s) earlier in the week and can probably count on getting the rest of the seed wrapped up by the end of the month. It's a far cry from last year's late August wrap up but one we're all a little sad to see coming. Just when we've gotten the dance down to a science (lift the silo, tip forward, steady the tote, spray the hose here, watch your feet, don't lose the wingnut...) it already seems to be ending. Hopefully, for those who make it back next year, the routine won't escape us over the winter.

This week also marked Dave's first hand-picking tide. We stayed with Maggie on Sunday night so we could arrive at the water for our 5 a.m. start time Monday morning. Dave kept up with the crew, as did Skip's daughter Samantha, and all in all, we picked a somewhat hefty number of crates. I did hear about some tight hamstrings later in the week but I think Dave was surprised at how enjoyable the work was. Plus, he got to see one of the week's most beautiful sunrises...one of my personal favorite perks of the job.

Best summer we've had in years

I've been hearing it for weeks. We're in the midst of the best season Island Creek has ever seen. High temps, crystal clear days, very little wind = perfect conditions for both the crew and the seed. The bay is packed with life, as evidenced by the schools of herring dancing across the top of the water near the docks every day. Terns flit around our heads while we grade and eels are swimming in our upwellers. We haven't had much rain which means there's not a lot of fresh water entering the Bay but the seed is still finding plenty of food. Last year at this time (the absolute worst season in Island Creek history), we were still a month and a half away from shutting down the upweller. On Friday, Skip hinted that we might be getting out of ours in a week or two. What a difference a year makes.

The temperatures are causing our seed to explode at a much faster rate. And faster growing seed requires a lot of extra hands. This year, Maggie, Eva, and Michelle have jumped on the seed crew, making my job as seed manager much, much easier. We've been grading every day for the past three weeks and have the routine -- and stimulating conversation -- down to a science. (Eva and I actually startled ourselves on the first day of grading when we realized we'd both forgotten how to tip a silo and what word we used for "subs." Luckily, we got our wits about us quickly.)

Skip's playing with a few other products this year, like clams and scallops. The clams are a nice touch - they've been hanging out in our upwellers so Michelle and I graded some a few weeks back. Such a difference from oysters! They're smooth and mostly pearly white so they slide through the grader like beads. So clean! So easy to work with! No, we're not turning into a clam farm. But I wouldn't complain if we did...

But who am I kidding? I'm an oyster girl. The seed is sharp and fickle and fragile. They're our babies. My crew mates are mastering their ability to identify which seed came what hatchery. We make a stellar team. Plus, being able to hang out with them for hours at a time makes the tedious, painful parts of the job (including toe injuries and a million tiny finger cuts) all worthwhile.

Other than the new faces on the seed crew, characters around the docks are all the same. Gustav, the resident cormorant, has been guzzling down whole, live eels while we grade. And just like last year, we spend the day dancing around DBMS students, teachers, and rowers.

Meanwhile, out on the float... actually, I have no idea what's happening on the float. I'm never out there these days (usually because I'm racing back up to the shop to work on Festival details). I hear it's tough times out there, though. We've dried up the lease, clearing it of almost all of this year's oysters after a busy winter. The guys are still pulling up crates but our cull and count has slowed to a crawl as the crew picks out the very best of what we have left. This coming week will give us a better idea of what's in store - we have a week of huge tides and plenty of time to examine our upcoming crop. Everyone is hoping that in a few weeks, we can start dipping into all that seed we planted last summer.

As for me, my time is split between the docks and the shop. I'm spending my "farm" time on the seed and when we're done grading or washing and the crew heads out to the float, I make my way up to the office to work on Festival details. Tickets went on sale last week! (Got yours yet?? If not, get on it.) It's a lot of back and forth and early mornings but so far, I think I'm doing an ok job keeping my eye on both. The seed gets my attention during the day while the Festival takes over my life at night. Yes, it's a ton of work but nothing I would give up or trade considering I get to use both sides of my brain and watch these two projects unfold in all the right ways.

What I haven't got is a lot of time for anything else. Chris has taken over most of the farm tours, raw bars, and marketing work I put in place this winter. Occasionally, he and the other suits make their way to the dock to play with the seed. (I kid. This was me about 6 weeks ago.)

But that's the beauty of seasonal work. We're at the midpoint of summer and my mind and body can feel it. Weekends are for resting. Or blogging. Or just enjoying a long, lazy day of air conditioning. Tomorrow morning, I'll be giddy to get back to work, back on the tide, and right back to tending seed.

The Big Week

There are weeks throughout the summer that just happen. The tides hit. The seed gets graded. Farm work gets done. And this was one of those weeks. Ages ago (last Sunday), we hit a 6 am tide to do some hand picking and set cages. It was foggy and rainy but the crew was in high spirits. Because, of course, it was Sunday. Despite having to sacrifice a few hours of restorative weekend sleep, we were happy to be out there getting the work done.

Monday, we went out again. The weather turned a little nicer, the tide lasted a little longer, and once again, we got it done. We spent some time walking over and around the seed we planted last fall and those tiny little guys are absolutely cruising in size. Thinking back to all the washing, grading, and planting last summer, it was awesome to see this year's crop doing so well. After the tide, the seed crew washed some seed, moving in and out around the rowers and trying desperately to keep them from falling in upwellers or tripping over silos.

Tuesday: The tide went out even longer, came low a little later, and officially drained the bay. We had a photographer with us and Gardner and I finished setting cages (the most gratifying feeling in the world is seeing all 300 cages set and the project-finishing fist bump).

Wednesday: It was another long tide but the water came screaming back quickly. Still, we managed to get a ton of crates picked and put on the float for the weekly number.

On Thursday, the crew went out to the back river to get our lines squared away for the river bags. We'll have seed ready to deploy back there as early as next week so it was a scramble to get the lines set and ready to go. Skip also got one more batch of seed -- this time, a group of triploids, which (hopefully?) will be his last... for now anyway.

Friday was the day. The Big Grade. Our first of the summer and a successful one at that. It always happens around Father's Day, Skip reminded me. We were three weeks in to seed (where did those weeks go?) and the babies were ready for it. We started by grading the biggest stuff, from two different hatcheries. The result was decent - a mostly full tote of quarters (oysters that are a quarter-inch in size) which we can start putting out as early as next week. Eva and I spent the day remembering all of those little tricks and motions that make the grade go easier. Dumping that first silo into a tote takes muscle memory. Then it was figuring out our system with the three-person grade, then remembering what it feels like to stand in front of a tote of water under the glaring sun for 8 hours, and finally, the feeling of immense satisfaction at tightening the last bolts and closing all the upwellers for the night. Getting it all done in one day, feeling like we've finally kicked off the summer, and knowing that we've got a million days just like that to get through before it all gets planted this fall.

And suddenly, it's Saturday. I'm up at 5:30 (because to my body, that's sleeping in), I can feel every little muscle tweak, I'm nursing a half ripped toe nail (stupid upweller doors), and all I can think about is seed. How much we got done yesterday and how much there still is to go. My parents are in town for the weekend so Dave and I are taking them to the farm for a tour today.

Because even at the end of a Big Week like that, all I want to do is go back.

A whole new crew

Summers on the farm, I'm learning, follow a fairly specific pattern. We've got seed in the upwellers, which we're washing three times a week (like last year), we've got a number of busy-work projects to get through before the seed gets planted (like last year), and our daytime hours seem to follow the same path of the sun, starting early and ending late (again, much like last year). But new crew members breathe new life into what could be a predictable routine. We may have lost Catie Moore and A2 but in return, we've added Michelle Wong, Gardner Loring, and Matt Titus, a new set of faces to get to know and work with.

This year's seed crew will be Eva (truly FOB this year) and Michelle who just finished her first year at UNH. Already a great team, the girls and I are fully into our seed practices, making sure the babies are clean and safe, keeping the screens on tight and making sure the silos are securely locked into place.

Despite our best efforts, Papa Skip is still going to fret. He's given up drinking until the babies are safe and secure... or at least until we're ready to start grading. (For his sake, I hope that happens as soon as next week.) It's a tough couple weeks to muscle through since every storm and southeasterly wind makes the docks rock and roll. We've only had a few scares (one last week had Skip sleeping in his truck by the dock) but once the seed gets big enough to keep from blowing around, we'll all sleep a little more soundly.

In the meantime, there's work to be done on the lease, like placing buoys and getting the cages set. The crew's been out there this week getting things ready. (We'll all be out there bright and early for the 6 a.m tide tomorrow.) The next two weeks are going to give us a nice lull before the seed is ready to go out -- we can get our gear set and and be ready to go once it's time to move it all into the nursery.

On the office side of things, Festival plans are coming along nicely. We seem to have an abundance of eager wine donors as well as a few new committee members, all of whom are doing their best to make my life easier. As this year's event director (mostly?), I'm spending most of my free time mentally problem solving my way through the entire Festival from start to finish. I wish I could say I've got it all figured it out but that probably won't happen until September 12 -- one day after the party's over.

I've also taken a few rare bursts of energy to get out to eat, tasting my way around the city's latest and greatest restaurants. Boston's been a hot bed of new food and chefs this spring. Two highlights this week were eating at Menton, Barbara Lynch's new Fort Point spot (the butter soup is mind blowing) and trying Tiffani Faison's new menu at Rocca (beet-cured tuna and tagliarini with mint and blueberries - try them immediately). But the best meal I've had in months came from our close friend Dante Cantelupo who is leaving Boston (and his post at Parson's Table) to open a restaurant/business with his family out in San Diego. As a going away gift, he prepared a seven-course feast for all of his friends at his home last weekend. What he prepared was a tribute to all of the chefs he's worked with over the years as well as a few of his own innovative touches. I was honored to see his duo of Island Creeks -- served on the half shell and tempura fried -- but even more pleased to sit back and let the chef do his finest work.

These are just a few of the highlights to what ended up being an unforgettable afternoon. Huge thanks, D. You have incredible talent and will be sorely missed.

Now, I'm off to bed at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night so I can be up and at 'em by 4. If I'm lucky, I'll be home with coffee brewing before Dave and Rex even realize I'm gone. Ahhh, summer.

Ready. Set. Summer.

It begins on Nantucket.

We're still a few weeks away from the official summer equinox but at Island Creek, the season is well underway. And it started, as always, at the Nantucket Wine Fest.

The weekend was packed with shucking, wine tasting, eating and islanding. For Skip, Shore, and the tag along crew, it's become an unforgettable tradition (from what we can remember, anyway).

The weekend started at the White Elephant where Skip did a demo with Angela and Seth Raynor (The Pearl, Boarding House and Corazon del Mar are all theirs -- a common theme through this year's trip) and Jasper White from the Summer Shack. Our oysters kicked things off but the demo was all about seafood. Seth made a ceviche while Jasper shucked an in-shell scallop on stage. We also got an introduction to Abraxas, Robert Sinskey's incredible seafood wine.

The rest of Friday was restful with a leisurely lunch at Corazon where we got to try Seth's tacos (the al pastor was a true gem, bringing me right back to my Mexico City days) and hang out at the bar with Ming and Polly Tsai. After lunch and a few naps, we reconvened on the roof of Skip's condo, another legendary tradition that this year, was quickly put to rest when the cops told us to come down. We blame our neighbors for the tip off.

From there, we scurried over to Straight Wharf Restaurant to help Chef Gabriel Frasca and his crew open their bar for the season. It was insanity from the start with free oysters and wine but we all crunched in behind the raw bar and kept the oyster loving people happy.

Saturday was our first day at the tents where we once again set up shop on the lawn. We were blessed with three perfect Nantucket days -- sunny skies and warmer than average temps -- as well as a fun crowd of fans dressed, naturally, in their Nantucket finest.

During our lunch break (a quick Lola burger and fries), we started a new tradition by powering up the tandem bike. It went with us everywhere, from the lawn to the Pearl and back again.

After another respite, it was over to The Pearl where Shore booked the private dining room for our crew. Big bottles of wine and shenanigans ensued but as usual, the meal was an incredible display. And, as you can tell, the scallop ceviche won my heart.

We somehow made our way downstairs after dinner to shuck for yet another restaurant party, wrapping things up sometime after 1 a.m. Sunday, of course, was a tough morning to tackle but we started off on the right foot with brunch at the BoHo Patio. (crumbed eggs! frites! the most amazing yogurt with Nantucket honey on the planet!)

That was, of course, followed by the final day at the tent where we were joined by Dave who arrived in time for the first glass of wine.

With hugs, we said goodbye to our weekend friends like Nicole Kanner and Lisa Baker but carried on with our final raw bar stop back at the BoHo Patio where Angela broke out the L.P.

And that, my friends, is Nantucket in a nutshell. Whew.

Of course, I came back, regrouped and got myself together because this was my first week back on the farm. The crew is back (Maggie! Pops! Quinn!). The farm is back to life (we're hand picking, putting in big hauls, and culling in the sunshine). And yes, it truly is summertime again since yesterday, we put our first seed into the upwellers (cue my summertime stress) just as the Opening of the Bay tall ship came into the harbor.

Skip got his seed from Maine in the afternoon which went right into a few silos. It's much bigger this year so we were able to put some of it onto window screen which will give it more water flow to start.

[vodpod id=Video.3729438&w=425&h=350&fv=%26rel%3D0%26border%3D0%26]

more about "YouTube - Skip gets the seed settled", posted with vodpod

After this weekend, we'll have one upweller completely full (Skip's filling the rest of the silos today) and another one fired up by Tuesday. As Skip and I finished up, we looked at one another shaking our heads. Just like that, we're at it again. "Ok," he said grinning. "Day One is behind us."

Looks to be yet another crazy summer of seed. You ready?

Virginia is for oyster lovers

A week ago today, Skip, Chris, Shore and I were cruising across the waters off Cheriton, Virginia checking out Cherrystone Aqua Farm, a huge producer of littleneck clams who, in the last three years, has gotten heavy into growing oysters. Their facilities sit on Virginia's long, spindly peninsula that separates the Chesapeake from the Atlantic. Though the company was started as an oyster business back in the 1890s, the wild supply in that area has since been decimated. So the Ballard family started farming clams. Now run by Chad Ballard III, they've become one of the country's biggest and best clam farms. But a return to oysters was inevitable: The growing conditions are pretty near perfect for turning around 10 to 14 month old oysters at market size. They tried their hand at it a few years back and got up to speed so quickly that they'll have millions of Misty Point oysters on the market this year.

Our quick overnight trip introduced us to some of the characters that pepper the Cherrystone world, like Bubba (the Berg equivalent - though his bicep is probably rounder than Berg's head) who manages the early stages of the oyster growth on the bay side as well as Mike McGee, an oldtimer from Chincoteague Island who monitors the final oyster growout. As his colleagues told us, "The Mayor of Chincoteague" has probably owned every single business on the island at one point and now owns just about every shellfish lease there, too.

While so many things about their oyster farm reminded me of ICO (same surly, lovable crews; same lovely, waterfront landscape), there were a few really interesting differences. The first was how much space they had. The operation sits on three massive sites, miles away from each other and each has its own hatchery (hatchery!). They all sit right on the water, giving them access to a fresh supply which they use to pump over their seeds and to store their algae. It was incredibly impressive to see that they'd dedicated one whole hatchery, on the seaside of the peninsula, to oyster seed. They also have a ton of acreage for planting. We probably only saw a fraction of the clam beds, which are everywhere, but even the oyster sites seem to be pretty generous. As we kept saying during the visit, "imagine what we could do with all that waterfront space." Oh, to dream.

They have an on-water barge, like ours, but theirs is topped with their newest piece of equipment: A tumbler. This puppy is louder than anything but really treats the oysters well. They get tumbled through the chambers and sorted by size, just like our hand cull, and get a small beating in process. (Not a bad thing. Oysters need a little tough love at that age. It helps strengthen up their shells.)

Cherrystone starts its oyster seed in Cheriton in a rack and bag system similar to ours, only laid flat on the ground. As Bubba shook bags and talked about blue crabs, I realized that despite our resource and space differences, oyster farmers everywhere have the same concerns: oyster poop and predators.

Once the oysters are ready to be "finished," they're transferred up to Chincoteague Island, famous for the wild pony population that has existed there for years. Now 200 horses strong, the herd is monitored by the Chincoteague fire department but are completely wild and feed off the salt marshes (good eats but surely their doctors would take issue). When we found them, the new baby colts were acting pretty playful -- and though they're very much wild beings, clearly, they don't mind some company.

Down at the growout sites, we found more trays of oysters that were being finished and were near perfectly sized. The site was beautiful, nestled amongst flat, green marshes. This particular site sits right beside McGee's old duck hunting cabin set above the water on stilts. After checking out the finishing oysters, Mike gave us a quick lesson on how he shucks. The guy is definitely a classic (notice the way he chips off the shell, goes in the lip, serves it on the flat side of the shell, and never loses the stogy -- a true, Mid-Atlantic method).

[vodpod id=Video.3664879&w=425&h=350&fv=%26rel%3D0%26border%3D0%26]

more about "Mike McGee shucking oysters", posted with vodpod

We also got a peek at his cabin (another treasure built as sturdy as Mike himself). While inside, Mike gave us the invite to come back for hunting season this fall. Don't be surprised to see another post on those adventures down the road.

Of course, we wouldn't expect a guy like to Mike to ride around the bay on just any old boat. Nope, his is another relic, called the Grenade, and he drives it at one speed: Fast.

Chris, Shore, and I, who were on the other boat, got a huge kick watching Skip, Mike and Cherrystone sales guy Tim Parsons zoom off leaving us in the wake. Skip barely got out alive but we made our way back more slowly, taking some time to stop and check out a wild oyster bed, of which there are several, set on one of Mike McGee's leases. I'd never seen a wild bed before (they're a dying breed) but Mike picks oysters from them daily, getting a couple dozen bushels each time. Harvesting is tough work and requires a tiny hammer and a strong back. Plus, wild set oysters grow with their environment, which means they're usually misshapen and elongated, like this guy.

Our tour guide and host, production manager Tim Rapine, wrapped up our trip with a stop at Sting Ray's for some barbecue. Afterward, we spent the rest of our long ride back to the airport sharing tips and ideas. Between swapping crew stories and discussing how to source a grading machine (a serious but worthwhile investment), our time with Tim was packed with information and new ideas.

And that was the best takeaway, really. Since every second of the whirlwind trip was filled with images and ideas, we can carry it all with us and maybe apply them somewhere down the road. Big thanks to Chad, Tim, Tim, Mike, Bubba and everyone else at Cherrystone, for opening up the doors and showing us around.

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!

Flirting with restaurants, fish, and Virginia oysters

Thanks to our friends at Food & Wine as well as the Boston Globe, word got out last week: Island Creek is opening a restaurant. While I have to admit I've known about the project for awhile, it didn't sink in until I heard people talking about it publicly. Finally, the announcements have been made and I can breathe a sigh of relief for not spilling the beans. (For the record, the foodie gossip in me was going bananas trying to keep that one from you guys. Consider me a vault.) Come August, Kenmore Square will have the world's first Island Creek Oyster Bar complete with a menu by Jeremy Sewall and a staff and dining room overseen by ES proprietor Garrett Harker. Of course, there are plenty of other details about the space that I'd like to share (grumble grumble) but I will hold off until the partners behind the project say it's time. Please take my word for it: Oyster lovers will be thrilled.

Still, the farm is the farm is the farm and things are chugging right along this spring. We're seeing more and more growth on the oyster seed from last year and, despite a few headaches with the most recent crop (the 2008 seed hasn't been as productive as the growers hoped), the oysters are as plentiful as ever.

In fact, with summer on our heels (despite today's 40 degree temps), it's time for Island Creek to start selling fish. The past few summers, they've expanded their product line, selling locally caught, quota-managed fish directly to their restaurant customers. The guys at the farm are psyched since it means being able to show off all the great fish you can find off the coast of the South Shore. And chefs love it because it's freshly caught and they know exactly where it's coming from.

So, on Friday afternoon I picked up a call at the office from fisherman Mike Lundholm (who sells exclusively to Island Creek); he announced that one day into the black fish season, which opened on April 15, he had pulled up about 100 pounds and was delivering to the shop later that night. Were we ready, he wondered? I floundered a little, looked at Lisa and shrugged, asking, are we ready? We'd have to call him back, she said. We called Shore who was on his way out of town for the weekend: Were we ready for 100 pounds of tautog? Yup, he assured us, we'll be ready. And so, fish season at Island Creek is officially underway. What this means for the wholesale arm is that they'll be getting Mike's catch delivered to the shop daily; the guys will then pound the pavement to put it out to restaurants. In fact, I ran into CJ and Chris on Friday night at Erbaluce at the end of a long day of deliveries. They'd been talking tautog with chefs all day. And tautog is just the beginning. Fisherman Mike will be bringing us his black sea bass, fluke, and stripers as soon as those seasons open up too. It's a pretty sweet program for the farm and it's been great to see how they put it all together.

We've also got a trip to Virginia coming up -- Skip has known the guys behind the Cherrystone Aqua Farm for years and starting about two years ago, those guys tried their hand at growing oysters. We tasted the results last week and despite my loyalty (ok, obsession) with New England-grown oysters, even I was impressed. I'm partial to cold-water oysters from the northeast because the salinity alone gives them a flavor profile that's tough to match. But the Misty Points (from VA) had a lot of salinity and even a little sweetness at the end, similar to Island Creeks. They're a different looking oyster of course, more elongated and spindly but they're full of meat.

I spoke to their production manager, Tim Rapine, about how they've been growing them out and he explained that their oysters only take about 10-14 months to get up to 3 inches. The warmer waters make the oysters grow a little quicker and by the time they reach 14 months, they're about the same size as ours are at 18 months. Island Creek has started selling the oysters up here so Skip, Shore, Chris and I are traveling down to see their farm in early May -- I'm looking forward to reporting back after we see the operation.

Back to the tide... but for what?

This would be an incredible weekend to be an oyster farmer. Gorgeous weather, incredibly long tides, a million excuses to be on the water (for work, of course).

And yet, it's been a struggle. We've had one of the rainiest months in the history of Massachusetts -- we picked up 13 inches of rain in March alone. It's unheard of. Skip was interviewed about it in the Boston Globe this week:

Shellfish beds were ordered to close earlier in March, but were reopened after testing found no contaminants.

“Generally, we might see one rain closure a year, but this is crazy, back to back,’’ said Skip Bennet of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury. The closure could not have come at a worse time, he said: The full moon has created ideal tides for harvesting the shellfish.

“It’s a little frustrating because we wait for these great tides, but we’ll be closed right through them,’’ Bennet said.

We were closed last Tuesday and aren't expecting to be open until early this week. But we can still take advantage of the tides. Shore and I (just a couple of suits) went out with Skip's crew on Thursday morning -- my first time out since December -- to walk the lease and check on the seed. It felt incredible to get back out there and hear nothing but the quiet and the wind.

Of course, Shore and I got shit for only coming out on the tide when the weather turned nice. Shore got even more for arriving to work in a brand new, sparkling clean set of waders. But he quickly got them muddied up after a few hours out there.

Kidding aside, we were put to good use and helped Skip's crew as much as we could. Of course, it doesn't really help since we can't harvest oysters until next week. But even a few hours out on the water reminded me that my time to rejoin the farm is coming up quick.

Until then, I've got my hands full with the farm's next big announcement. Stay tuned... details are on the way tomorrow.

The business of farming

And just like that, we're planning Oyster Fest again. Shore and I sat down with this year's committee two weeks ago which means the process is underway --we've got just over 5 months to pull the 3,000 person beach party together. I'm not losing sleep over it yet. But talk to me in August.

Thankfully, we're using a similar set up to last year (tent size, footprint, general schedule and set up) with a few new tweaks (new headlining band, updated list of chefs, a little more control).

But right now, I'm thinking about the pigs.

Last night, CJ and I shucked oysters for the VIP room at Cochon 555 (I went to as a guest last year). We had the good fortune of meeting a potential pig farmer as well as a number of cool Johnson & Wales culinary students who very kindly donated their time. CJ repaid them by giving them a valuable shucking demo - we even put a few behind the raw bar.

It was good to get back there and shuck for a crowd again. Sometimes I get weighed down by all that we have going on but once you're standing back there, it's nothing but you and your crew, shucking as quick as you can (and looking up now and then to see some smiling faces). We've got loads of raw bars coming up: Save the Harbor this Wednesday, CentralBottle's $1 Oyster Night this Thursday, the Nantucket Wine Fest in May. My job is to coordinate the logistics of all of our events. Well, at least that's one of them. I seem to be wearing all kinds of hats these days.

As I shape and reshape this experience, my role is constantly shifting. My time in the office has been eye-opening. Being so closely connected to the nerve center of this tiny machine and directly involved in big discussions, I've gotten full exposure to every part of Island Creek. We're having in-depth conversations about who we are, where we're going and how we stick to our core. This winter, Shore and Skip have been crafting Island Creek's purpose and core values. We've initiated a rebranding campaign (hiring the very cool and talented Oat Creative, who are a pleasure to work with) and we're pulling together a structured sales and marketing program. Though the company, Island Creek Inc. has been operating for a few years, they've been so busy getting the job done that they haven't had time to do things like put a mission statement on paper or take a closer look at their logo (the first one was scribbled on a napkin). This year, I've been lucky enough to catch them while they slow down, take a breath and figure out where to go next.

Of course, everyone pitches in wherever they can. So in between setting up events, I'm visiting restaurants for sales, ordering new tshirts and raw bars, doing quality control in the shop, and yes, sometimes taking out the trash. But so is everyone else in the office (even CJ who provides levity when he's not making deliveries).

But that's what makes it fun. It might be a small business but there's a lot of heart and soul. And plenty of work to be done.

One year and counting.

For those keeping track (hi, Mom), this week marked my one-year anniversary with the farm. My supposed end-date, in fact. I meant to give this whole project a single year. But, as with many of my big ideas, plans have changed.

Turns out, I found a place that I like going to every day, where my work and contributions are appreciated and where the people I work with genuinely love what they do. It's everything I thought I would find and so much more. So I've committed to at least another summer and maybe a little fall. Strategically, this works out well since it'll lengthen my stay to about 18 months -- and that just happens to be the typical life cycle of our oysters. Fitting, no?

So many things that started out feeling foreign to me are now natural parts of my day: commuting 45 minutes to work; driving down to the harbor just to make sure it's still there; understanding what makes a perfect three-inch oyster; hearing the chickens squawk just outside our windows; that unmistakable briny sweetness of every Island Creek.

It feels good to have these consistencies now, to know a place and a product so well that they're rooted inside me. I wouldn't still be here if it hadn't resonated so deeply. More importantly, I'm thankful I took the risk. Not once have I looked back.

And here we are, back at the International Seafood Show, getting ready for spring. Pretty soon the water will warm up and the seed we planted last fall will start showing signs of growth. I'm looking forward to hitting the tide and seeing how all our babies have handled the winter. What's better is that I'll be around in September to see the first of it come out of the water.

Whether or not that will signal some sort of exit strategy is still up for debate. But that's a long ways off. Until then, I've got seed to watch over.


Up until a few weeks ago I'd never eaten a freshly laid hen egg.

I've bought plenty of eggs directly from farms at farmer's markets. And I've ordered dozens of dishes with farm-fresh eggs at locally focused menus (Craigie on Main, TW Food, Straight Wharf Restaurant). But fresh, right-from-the-coop eggs? Never.

And now, I'm flush. Or I should we. Our office and the crew at Island Creek are literally swimming in extra eggs. We have six lovely chickens (lead by the large black-feathered mistress, Rachelle) who have been laying like fiends. Billy Bennett checks their pen a few times a day (as do Cory, CJ, and Skip whenever they pass by) and step into the the office carefully cradling 2, 3, sometimes 4 eggs gingerly in their palms. Defying all chicken myth (I'm hearing more and more these days) that hens only lay when there are 14 hours of sunlight or with the help of a heat lamp, our girls are on a speedy daily rotation.

Perhaps its their diet. Billy feeds them razor clams, which they love. They also peck away at the oyster shell driveway picking up whatever meaty bits they find along the way. The result has been really durable shells that are actually tough to crack. And the yolks are a deep, marigold yellow - unlike anything I've ever seen out of a grocery store. As the color promises, they taste richer too. Dense and earthy. Almost meaty when cooked. Even raw, they're thick and don't ooze easily, more like a lava than a watery trickle.

The other day, Cory confessed that he picked up a faint "fishy" flavor to the eggs. Not sure I'd agree with him but I love that there's that possibility. What I love even more is that I've gotten so close to my food that I can literally pick an egg out of a coop (or an oyster off the flats) and eat it for breakfast. Can't wait to get started on the ICO garden.

South Beach 2010

Yes, it's cold out there (still). But there are some mighty wonderful perks to working on an oyster farm in the winter. One being that you're allowed to trade one beach for another.

During the insanity of the summer, it was hard to believe we'd ever get a break or that I'd ever recover from the physical (and, um, mental) exhaustion. But as with the tide and the cycle of farming, there are ebbs and flows. Now, it's clear to me why things just have to slow down in the winter. Your body -- and mind -- need a break.

After 2 months in the office, it seemed that break would never come. Sure, I'm now sitting behind a desk instead of laboring under crates and freezing temps on the farm. But that means very little in terms of the amount of work I've accomplished since Jan 1. There was the madness of the Stout launch as well as a series of back-to-back shucking events. At at the tail end of it came the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which we made our way home from late last night.

The Festival served a few purposes for Island Creek: to get the brand in front of some well-known chefs and to introduce food lovers to the convenience of our online store (ahem: you can order our oysters direct to your door). As the temporary marketing chica, I went down to show off all the things I'd learned (and love) about ICO.

The dynamic, I have to admit, was a little weird for me. In the past, I've attended these events as a member of the press, or in some cases just for fun. I would go to eat and drink, to pick up story ideas, and of course, to shmooze. I never pictured myself on the other side of it working the events as a part of the staff and dealing with the logistics of moving to and fro while catering to a crowd.

But after shucking at three events in a whirlwind 28-hour period, I'm satisfied to say, I prefer being on the other side.

A quick rundown on why:

-- Watching The Ace of Cakes cast fall in love with our oysters and our tshirts.

-- Shucking side by side with Chefs Daniel Boulud and Ken Oringer.

-- Slurping oysters with chefs Ming Tsai (Blue Ginger), John Besh (Restaurant August), and Ryan Hardy (Montagna at the Little Nell).

-- Marching the raw bar down Collins Ave at 3 a.m. behind a pair of 3-inch heels (and then sitting down to a late-late-late night dinner of pizza, hummus, and brie).

-- Setting up at The Delano (sadly, without being able to take home a Tiffany's box)

Chasing rainbows.

-- Doing the YMCA at Disco and Dim Sum with Ming, The Cushmans (O Ya), chef Tim Love (Lonesome Dove), and (a very hungry) Eric Ripert (Le Bernadin).

-- And if all that weren't enough, enjoying a million laughs with my animated, industrious crew. (Thank you thank you thank you CJ, Shore, Asia & Nicole!)

There are details I'm leaving out but for good reason. A) My wrists are tired. B) The pictures tell the best parts of the story. C) You can find some of the rest on the Island Creek website. (Pssst: We have a news blog. Guess who's writing it?)