In one of the great opening passages of American literature, Herman Melville revs the mighty engine of Moby Dick with this:
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
A few swooping flights of his broad-winged pen later, he answers his own question. People flock to the sea, and stare at it because…
It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Marcel Proust, another inexhaustable genius with the quill, had his madeleine. In his epic In Search of Lost Time, an innocent bite of a tea biscuit transports him suddenly back to the first link in a long-forgotten chain of interlocking childhood episodes, which he subsequently unspools in exacting detail across a galaxy of a million and a half words.
They were both onto something. And what better marries both the bewitching nature of Melville’s vast briny reaches and the nostalgic supernova of Proust’s taste of something good than the ever-enchanting oyster, slurped, freshly shucked, from the half shell? Melville had the sea. Proust had his madeleine. The rest of us have oysters.
In search of a deeper understanding of the simultaneously simple and profound mysteries of the oyster, we visit Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts, an oyster farm on the Cape that supplies many of the city’s finest restaurants, to chat with ‘Oysteress,’ Dana Hale. Then, we fly south, two feet above the blacktop, home to Brooklyn, to talk Crassotrea virginica with Brian Leth, chef at Vinegar Hill House and its sister wine bar Hillside, just next door, where Island Creek’s oysters are always on ice.
From the sea: At Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachussetts, with Oysteress Dana Hale
So Dana, oysters. For a lot of people, oysters are held up as something somehow special. They’re thought of in a different way than other shellfish or other seafood in general. What do you think that’s all about? What is it that makes oysters special?
I think part of it is that oysters are both simple and complex. In one view, oysters are just a simple shellfish. You open them and you eat them. But what’s fascinating about oysters is that they take on the characteristics of the place where they grow and live, perhaps more than just about anything else. There are only five species of oysters grown in the United States, and only one in the Northeast – the Crassostrea virginica. What’s amazing is the degree to which the flavor, quality, size and everything about oysters of one species can vary depending on the place in which the oyster grows.
With wine, we talk about terroir – how the sun and wind and soil and slope and all of those things determine the flavors of the grapes growing on the vines and ultimately the character of the wine. With oysters we talk about merroir – all of those natural environmental factors specific to the place where an oyster grows in the ocean have a huge impact on the flavor and quality of the oyster.
The temperature of the water and the salinity of the water play major roles. The oysters filter massive amounts of water every day, up to fifty gallons each, to eat by filtering algae and nutrients out of the water. The amount of sunlight and the water temperature and salinity and bottom surface qualities all affect the amount and types of algae you find in the water, which in turn affect what the oysters are eating, which affects their flavor.
It’s easy to think of the sea as this huge, uniform, monolithic thing. It’s not. Water temperature, salinity, algae and nutrient content vary considerably even in places that are very close together. Our oyster farm is on Cape Cod, and we sell about ten other varieties of oysters from the Cape. They’re all the same species – virginica –but each variety is completely different.
We sell an oyster that grows four miles from our own farm in Duxbury. It’s called a Rocky Nook. It has a completely different flavor than our Island Creeks. It’s way sweeter and less briny. Why? Rocky Nook has the Jones River feeding into it, so the water is warmer at times and has a lower level of salinity. There’s less salt in the water and that’s one reason they’re sweeter.
There are a lot of reasons. All these little nuances. Which way the wind blows? That actually matters. In Duxbury we have a wind that almost always blows to the east, which blows all the warm water off the surface. We have a huge eleven foot tidal flow, which also brings in a lot of cold water, and allows a lot of algae to develop. Those things all affect the oysters.
If you grow oysters in Rhode Island, there’s kind of a way your oysters are going to taste because of the place in which they grow. There’s going to be an essential taste that you cannot manipulate or control. You can’t try to grow an oyster in Rhode Island that will taste like an oyster from Maine. It’s impossible. And that’s good. That’s sort of the beauty of oysters.
So there’s this merroir, which really determines the flavor of the oyster. And there’s another factor involved in the quality of the oyster, which is the intention of the grower. The intention doesn’t have as much of an effect on the flavor, but it can have a pretty significant effect on the appearance and the quality of the shell.
If an oyster shell is so strong that no one can shuck it? Not good. If it’s so weak that it cracks and crumbles when you try to shuck it? Doesn’t really work. So good oyster farmers do a lot of work to control that part of it. They clean the oyster cages, shake them to knock the oysters together to stimulate shell growth and strength, carefully monitor how much space and room the oysters have to ensure they’re not too densely packed…
There are a lot of variables in the intent. Some people are really actively involved and some people let them go. The conditions specific to the place where you grow the oysters come into play too. Some oyster farms are on soft sand and some are on hard sand. Some have both, in different areas. That affects how you do things. In one case you might have to use cages to keep the oysters from being swept away or buried while they grow. In another place you might not. At Island Creek we can plant oysters directly on the ocean floor and not think another thought about it. That’s not always the case.
And then there’s the decision of when to harvest oysters. For some it’s tempting to pull them up as early as they can to sell them, but the best growers wait. They let them develop. They wait until the oysters are perfect.
When you look at an oyster that’s just been shucked, right before you eat it, it looks like the simplest thing in the world. And in some ways it is. But in other ways they’re very complex.
But aside from all the complex nuances that factor into what an oyster tastes like and all that, there’s another kind of fascination with oysters, and I think there are a few reasons for that.
One thing is the lowbrow/highbrow aspect of oysters. On the lowbrow side, they’re a food that reminds a lot of people of a lot of things, maybe more so than anything else. Oysters make a lot of people think of time they spent near the ocean growing up. They can really stir up memories, or feelings based on memories. It’s amazing how many people feel this connection with the ocean through childhood memories. And the ocean is inside each oyster. They’re the most oceany thing you can eat. So they really transport a lot of people in a strong way, which is really interesting.
And the highbrow thing? Nothing feels more baller than a glass of champagne and two dozen oysters. It’s celebratory and fun. It can feel decadent. So oysters inhabit both those worlds simultaneously.
Another thing about oysters is that it’s always fun to geek out on something and you can really geek out on oysters. You could spend days talking about all the merits and shortcomings of the hundreds and hundreds of varieties out there. People like that.
And then of course, there’s the aphrodisiac thing. I think it’s definitely true. There’s a little bit of a sense of risk because they’re raw and we don’t eat many raw things. There’s a wild element because the ocean is like the ultimate wild and they taste and smell like the ocean.
There’s something in the oyster too. They’re loaded with minerals. There’s more zinc in an oyster than in just about any other thing. But they’re not heavy. You can eat a lot of them without feeling full, so you get loaded up with things like zinc and you can feel that.
But the big thing? Like, the really big thing? Oysters are alive when you eat them. When you open an oyster and eat it, you’re eating something that’s alive. Eating raw seafood or meat is one thing. Eating something that’s alive is a whole different thing. I was a yoga instructor, so you can take this with a grain of salt, but come on – when you are eating something that’s alive, there is a life force present in that creature and you are consuming that life force. You may not feel it if you have just two, but when you eat a few, you feel it. There’s a really present electric feeling that I think is definitely due to the fact that you’re eating a living thing.
That really grosses some people out. But I think it’s beautiful. You’re feeling the life force of another living thing. Why would you want to eat it dead? A lot of people prefer not to think about it. They just think it’s raw. But it’s more than raw. It’s alive. Which is amazing. Karmically, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be reborn as an ant. There’s probably some karmic variance in eating something that someone else has killed for you rather than eating something living and literally consuming its life in the act of eating it. But I’m willing to take that risk. [laughter.]
So oysters represent both the ultimate in sinful extravagance, and something very positive and sustainable and beautiful in many ways at the same time. It’s both. And that’s beautiful.
Another thing I love is eating oysters at home. Part of the beauty of eating oysters with friends is that they require some work. I was at a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago in Manhattan. We were shucking oysters. Of course, I cut myself. So at six a.m., I found myself in a tub at The Standard hotel in this fancy dress with my bleeding hand wrapped in a towel, shucking oysters with my friends. And that’s what we were doing. We were all focused on it, sharing that experience. It’s a vortex. Shuck an oyster, eat an oyster, shuck an oyster, eat an oyster, with a bunch of friends. It’s this totally consuming experience.
It’s one of those things…it can create this sense of meaning and purpose in a time when it’s hard to find meaning in life because everything is canned and standardized and pre-packaged and efficient. We have to seek out hardships and inefficient ways of doing things to feel the fullness of our lives. And there’s something beautiful in that. Shucking oysters is one really good way to accomplish that. [laughter.]
So how do you actually grow oysters? How does it all work?
From beginning to end, it takes about eighteen months for us to grow our oysters. Like with any other farmer, the story starts with seed. Oyster seed comes from a hatchery. There are about three hatcheries supplying all the oyster farmers in the northeast. That can be a problem. Seed isn’t always easy to get. It’s not always available.
Skip Bennett founded Island Creek about twenty years ago. He recently decided to start our own hatchery at Island Creek. It’s a very Skip Bennett thing to do, to start his own oyster hatchery. It’s this highly complicated, incredibly difficult, expensive, totally not lucrative sort of harebrained project, which is exactly the sort of thing he can’t resist. [laughter.]
But seriously, it does make sense. I didn’t get it at first, but I do now. If you have your own hatchery, you have a lot of control. We can pick our best oysters and breed them selectively. The conditions here, just like in every other place, are unique. Certain oysters will thrive here in ways they might not somewhere else. It makes a lot of sense. When Skip has a vision, we trust his vision. He has never led us astray. [laughter.]
So the hatchery makes babies. They put oysters in warm tanks and put on sexy music and get the algae levels just right, and let them do their thing. Oysters don’t make out. They just get really nice and confortable and exude eggs and sperm, which mix and become seed.
So you start with your seed in May. You get like a million seeds in a ziplock bag. They’re tiny – about the size of a flake of pepper. We put the seed into something we call upwellers to grow. Every farmer does it differently. Our upwellers sit in the water under the docks in Duxbury Bay. They’re suspended underneath the docks, and you get at them through trap doors in the dock. The upwellers are wood boxes lined with fine mesh screens at the bottom to contain the baby oysters – to keep them from washing away as they grow. They have small pumps that pull water through the boxes continuously, so water and algae are constantly circulating through.
The seed spends a month or two growing in the upwellers. By the end of July, they’re about a quarter inch in diameter, and that’s when we start grading. The oysters grow at different rates, so some are ready to move out to the next stage – something we call nurseries, before others. To separate the larger ones that are ready for the nurseries from the smaller ones that need more time in the upwellers, we sift them on screens with a quarter inch weave. The smaller oysters fall through back into the upwellers and the bigger ones are moved out to the nursery.
The nursery area of the farm is out on the water. Out there, the baby oysters go into mesh bags, which are secured inside wire cages. The cages sit on the bottom of the bay. The bags and the cages keep the small oysters safe while they continue to grow. We’re pretty careful at the nursery stage about the number of baby oysters that go into each bag, and the positioning of each cage. You don’t want to overcrowd them. You want as much water as possible flowing over and around each oyster. This is one of the stages at which decisions made by the farmer affect the quality of the oysters. Some farmers are tempted to fill the bags and the cages to increase their yield, but that’s going to result in a poorer quality oyster. They need a little breathing room to develop in the best possible way.
The bags get changed out three times during the summer. As the oysters get bigger, we switch them out to bags with larger and larger gauges of mesh to allow as much water as possible to flow through without losing any oysters. It’s a lot of work.
The oysters stay in the nursery for two or three months, until they’re about two inches long. Then, usually in late August or September, they’re big enough for planting. The way they’re planted varies a lot from farm to farm. Some oysters are grown in cages. At Island Creek, we’re able to just scatter them out across the floor of the bay. They’re not in cages. We just take them from the nursery out on the boat to the part of the bay where we plant them, and scatter them far and wide with a snow shovel.
Seriously. We scoop up a bunch of oysters in a snow shovel and toss them far and wide out over the water. That’s just how we do it. [laughter.]
Once they’re planted, they’re out on the bay growing for about another year before they’re ready for harvest. It’s about eighteen months from the time we start with the seed to harvest.
How do you harvest them if they’re scattered across the floor of the bay?
The best way to do it is by hand. Duxbury Bay has pretty huge tides, and a few times a month the tide is so low that the bay drains completely. You can literally walk out on the bay into these fields of oysters, and harvest the ones that are ready by hand. We usually harvest them when they’re about three inches long with a nice deep cup. Harvesting by hand is the most efficient way to do it. You’re making decisions on the fly about which oysters to harvest and which to leave. You’re not going to damage the oysters when you’re doing it by hand.
And I love seeing that. Oyster farming doesn’t really make sense until you see the farm when the tide is out and everyone’s walking around looking at their nursery cages and harvesting from the open flats, filling baskets with oysters. That’s when it feels like an actual farm. When the tide is in, it’s just a bunch of water. If you didn’t know otherwise you’d have no idea there was an oyster farm there.
But you can’t always harvest by hand. We’re harvesting all the time, throughout the year. When the tide’s not cooperating, we harvest by dredge. The dredge is basically a small metal rake with a net attached to it. The dredge is attached to one of our boats with a line, and it’s dragged behind the boat across the bay floor, to collect oysters. When you haul up the dredge, you sort through the oysters, decide which to keep and throw back, and you throw back any bycatch.
Dredges have a bad reputation. But at Island Creek the reason Skip got the lease to start farming oysters where we do in the first place was because there was nothing there to impact. It’s just sand. There’s no coral or anything. So the dredging has a lower impact in our case than it may in some others, but it allows us to harvest every week, throughout the year. If there’s ice, we chainsaw through it. Dudes on ice, with chainsaws? Not cool! But if places like the French Laundry and Per Se want your oysters on their menu, you’re going to do whatever you need to do to get them what they want. [laughter.]
After harvesting the oysters, we bring them back to what we call the Oysterplex. The plex is basically a floating garage with an Ipod hookup and solar panels. It’s a cool little place. They do the cull – the sorting and cleaning and counting and bagging – right on the water in the plex, to avoid having to take them somewhere else to do it. You always want to minimize the amount of time the oysters are out of the water. The counting is mind numbing. You knock the oysters together to make sure they’re alive, and just count and count and count. I cringe to think of the days and days of countless lives that have been spent counting oysters. [laughter.]
Then they’re bagged, put into coolers, and sent out on the truck or via FedEx, mostly to New York City and Boston.
What’s a typical day like? Is there constant work out on the bay doing stuff or does it come in bursts?
It’s everything all the time. We’re harvesting all year long. Throughout the summer you’re constantly working on the nursery. The mesh bags have to be cleaned all the time to allow the water to keep flowing through them. For that, you’re just out on the water rinsing them out. The bags get changed out three times over the course of the summer as the oysters grow, and that’s happening all summer. You go out to the bags, pull a bunch into the boat, take them back to the plex, clean them, switch them out, bring them back and move on to the next one. It takes days to get through them all. Just like on any farm, the work never stops.
What about the whole ‘only eat oysters in months with r’s thing? Do you have to be more careful about eating oysters in summer or is that all b.s.?
Ahhh, the old myth. I think I’m going to tattoo the myth and my refutation of it onto my body because I get asked about it so much.
Yes, a long time ago, before things like refrigeration, regulation, and the existence of an infrastructure that can move oysters very quickly across hundreds or thousands of miles, you might have wanted to avoid oysters in summer when the warmer temperatures allowed bacteria that could make you sick to develop faster.
Another reason people didn’t like eating oysters in summer is because that’s when they spawn in the wild. Spawning oysters? Not so good to eat. But oysters only naturally spawn in pretty warm water. In New England, oysters almost never spawn because the water is too cold. That’s why we use seed. So that’s no longer a concern either.
And the industry is very highly regulated. Somebody from the state of Massachussetts comes in every day to measure the water quality and temperature. And we embrace that. That’s great for us. We don’t want people to be scared of eating oysters.
So Dana, how did you come to be doing this?
I grew up in Duxbury, where Island Creek is located. About three quarters of the Island Creek crew grew up there and went to high school together, which is of course a blessing and a curse.
The thing I love about Island Creek and about Duxbury is that there’s a real culture that’s remained intact. That’s something we’re losing in a lot of places. It may not be the culture I’m most enamored with – namely, it’s the preppiest place on earth. [laughter.] But there’s a real community there. Everyone knows everyone else and everybody’s parents and brothers and sisters, and everyone adheres to a loose system of values. On some level, we’re all on the same page.
My grandfather was a lobsterman in Duxbury. It’s not like ‘Ye Olde Seafaring Towne’ or anything – it’s a wealthy New England puritanical town on the shore. But I love it.
About four years ago I was living in San Francisco, teaching yoga and managing a yoga studio. I was walking down the street to get a burrito, thinking, “I’ve got to do something different. This isn’t working for me anymore.” And I thought, “You know, Skip Bennett back in Duxbury is farming oysters and selling them to the French Laundry.” I wondered, “If he’s selling to the French Laundry, why doesn’t he sell to anyone else out here?”
So I emailed Skip and said, “Hey Skip, it’s been maybe ten years since we talked, but I know you’re doing this oyster thing. I like oysters. Why don’t you let me sell them out here?”
He was like, “Cool.”
So I became a door-to-door oyster saleswoman in the Bay Area. Literally hauling the oysters on my back. I’d knock on a door and say, “Oh hey, is Gary Danko here? I have some oysters for him to try.” They’d be like, “Sorry, who are you?”
Luckily, the Island Creek oysters speak for themselves. But I heard a lot of things along the lines of, “Um, so we have this burgeoning local thing happening in food right now. Maybe you’ve heard about it? And we have a really thriving local shellfish population. Soooooo….Hmmmm….”
I’d be like, “Totally! I know! The local stuff is great! These are just different. It’s like Parmesan from Italy! Totally different than the stuff they make over here, but you can’t beat it!” [laughter.]
I had some success, but before long I realized I just wanted to move home. Island Creek had a position open for someone who would be responsible for all kinds of things. Some might call it sales. My actual title is Oysteress. I work with all the chefs who buy our oysters. So I have about fifty or sixty boyfriends, none of whom I sleep with. I listen to their tales of woe and they listen to mine. We have really, really good relationships. Other than the fact that the oysters are so great, getting to hang out with all these workaholic kitchen trolls is the most satisfying part of doing what I do. I love them! [laughter.]
To the slurp: At Vinegar Hill House’s Hillside with Chef Brian Leth
So Brian, talk to me about oysters. What’s so good about them?
Well I guess this is kind of obvious, but they’re really simple. You just open them up and you eat them. And they’re alive when you eat them. There’s not really another food like that. They’re also more evocative than almost any other food. The taste of the ocean, the smell of the ocean, can just really remind you of an experience or a memory in a pretty powerful way.
The other thing that’s kind of interesting about them is that there are only something like five seeds for all the varieties of oysters eaten anywhere. Oysters from a single species develop into hundreds or maybe even thousands of different varieties that taste very different from one another depending on where they grow. They’re genetically the same, but every possible feature of the environment affects how they look and how they taste to the degree that those different varieties have their own names and are thought of as being completely different from one another.
So you can really directly see the effect of the environment on an oyster in a way that’s pretty unique. They take on the character of their place like very few other things, and that can be pretty interesting.
What do you look for in an oyster?
The most important thing is that they’re fresh. Assuming you’ve got fresh oysters, I personally tend to like east coast oysters from cold waters, which is one of the reasons we like to buy Island Creek’s oysters for the restaurant.
Cold water east coast oysters are just really briny and clean, which I really like. That being said, I’ve had giant oysters in Mexico that were delicious in their own way. But in terms of just eating an oyster by itself, I like the oysters from this part of the world. Although honestly, I haven’t had a whole lot of oysters that I haven’t liked.
How do you like to serve them?
Super simple. Raw, on ice, with mignonette and lemon, although I personally tend to forgo those when I’m eating oysters. I like them just as they are.
Once in a while if we get bigger ones we’ll do them in the wood oven next door at Vinegar Hill House. We do them with a tiny bit of cream and a salsa negra that’s basically a fried dried pepper sauce that’s both really hot and really sweet. It’s pretty delicious.
I’m a little addicted to that salsa negra. We make it by frying dried guajillo and chipotle peppers until they puff up and turn a mahogany color. Once they’re done frying you take them out and drain them of oil and rehydrate them in a piloncillo syrup, which is made with an unrefined Mexican sugar. They sit in that for a while, while you fry some garlic in the same oil you used for the peppers. And then you buzz it all together in a blender. It turns a bright red color. Then you put it back in the same pan minus the oil and cook it until it turns black, which is kind of amazing because it’s not burning or anything – for some reason it just turns black. We use it on a lot of things. It’s really good.
We don’t cook oysters much because it’s kind of a pain, but sometimes we can’t resist. We just shuck a few oysters, and fill a skillet with salt to hold them upright. We add a little squirt of cream and a little dab of the salsa negra, and roast them until they start to pop a little bit. You see them start to pop up, or basically inflate, then quickly shrink back down. That’s when they’re done. It’s really quick. Under a minute. But they are really good.
How did you and Dana and Island Creek find each other?
Dana just called me one day. She said, “I’m a fan. I like your restaurant. You should try our oysters. I’ll ship you one bag a week if you want.” I was like, “Great.” The oysters are always very good, so we keep that bag coming every week.
One thing I really like about working with Island Creek is that they don’t just carry their own oysters. They collect and sell really nice oysters from a bunch of different producers in New England. So they always have a variety of things that are very different from one another, and they’re always of the highest quality. We like that because people like to try a few different oysters. It’s fun and it’s a good way to kind of understand the differences between oysters from different places.
Their own oysters are very good. It’s hard for me explain why because I’m not very good at describing what an oyster tastes like. Some people are good at that kind of thing. I’m not. Dana is. She describes the flavor of each oyster they sell. She described one as tasting like turkey broth. [laughter.] And it did! I never would have come up with that on my own, but she was dead on. She’s described others as tasting like cucumber, or melon…She always gets it just right. It’s like with wine – it can be hard to describe the flavor, but when someone is good at it, it’s kind of fun.
Island Creek Oysters is located on a muddy, windswept flat in the waters of Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts.
Hillside, is located at 70 Hudson Avenue, at the corner of Water Street, next door to Vinegar Hill House in Vinegar Hill.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.