She digs oyster farming
Erin Byers Murray
The journalist (and occasional contributor to the Globe) spent 18 months getting her hands dirty, literally, at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury. After attending culinary school, she left a job in online publishing and approached Skip Bennett about joining his crew. “Considering I had no knowledge of it beforehand, it was a full-on crash course,’’ she says. “I think I got my PhD in oysters.’’ She captured her experience in “Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm,’’ out this month.
Q. What surprised you about oyster farming?
A. There was a lot that was eye-opening for me. Most of it had to do with the fact that I had never grown food in this capacity, tomato plants aside. I had never worked on a farm, I had never produced food to this level. My initial reaction was how much hard work it takes to grow one single piece of food and how many man hours and how much physical labor and how much mental energy it takes to bring something out of the water and onto somebody’s plate. Yes, it all comes out of the ground, and yes, there are wild foods and cultivated foods, but there’s a person behind every food that gets to your plate. And usually many, many people. I think the human effort it takes to produce food was surprising to me.
Q. Did you reach a point physically where you wanted to turn back?
A. The first month was brutal, it was boot camp. I didn’t know what I was doing, I wasn’t physically made for that kind of work yet, so every day that I went to work, I was just being beat up. I had a day where it was raining and I was soaking wet and not prepared for the cold like I should have been and I was carrying a huge crate of oysters, which are, like, 40 pounds when they’re full, and I’m trying to get it into a truck. And I trip in the process and land face-first in the crate of oysters. And I ran to the bathroom to see if I was injured and just started to cry, like, “What am I doing? I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be sitting behind my desk. I’m supposed to be working on my writing career. Why am I out here with a bunch of oysters in this dreary, awful weather?’’ That was just one of those killer moments where you’re thinking, “This is the stupidest decision I ever made.’’
Q. When did it all feel worthwhile?
A. It came much later in the summer. There was a morning where it’s about 5, I’m with my whole crew, and everyone is kind of quietly getting work done and the sun is coming up. My body was up to it, I felt like I was in the best shape I’d ever been in, and looking at the work I’m doing, I’m thinking, “I work with an amazing group of people, I physically love what I’m doing all day long, I’m producing food in this incredible environment, and I go home, I can leave my work at the door. I’ve earned an honest wage.’’ And that was the moment where I was, like, “This is why people do this.’’
Q. Renowned chef Thomas Keller, who was instrumental in making Island Creek a household name, invited you into the kitchen of Per Se in New York.
A. I wanted to see where the oysters went after we got them out of the water. And yes, I could go to any oyster bar in Boston and see them on the half-shell as I had done, but I really wanted to see them as an elevated food product - seeing it on the table in the hands of an incredible chef. I spent the day in the kitchen [at Per Se], and they take such care with the oysters, preserving the liquor that comes out of them, shucking them just so, and then the belly meat, they trim them down to an almond size. Then the creation of the pudding with the oyster liquor and the plating of the dish, it’s a really involved process. They really do rely on Island Creek’s to be this consistent product so that every day Thomas Keller can put it on every table of his restaurants and do it with pride.
Q. What will people take from your experiences in the book?
A. They’re going to be able to look at the industry and understand a little bit better how an oyster gets to the table. I think the takeaway is really that this little industry that’s happening all over the coast of the United States, it takes skill, it takes a little bit of art, it takes a little bit of a sense of humor, and a lot of hard work. And it’s not just the oyster business, it’s the seafood industry; there’s a love of it. The people who do it, almost across the board, they’re doing it because they love it. They’re not doing it because they fell into it. They work hard for it and I think that passion, it comes through in a lot of foods as well, but seafood and oysters in particular. It’s a really incredible breed of people.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.