Life on a New England Oyster Farm
Erin Byers Murray
St. Martin's Press, 352pp. $25.99
When a food writer decides to become an investigative reporter, she more than likely has no idea what she's getting into. That is certainly the case for Ms Murray. A food and "lifestyle" writer for the Boston scene, she had the enviable chore of going out to eat, talking with chefs, stylishly socializing at "store openings, restaurant fetes, fashion shows", in general, partying with the trend setters. Who could complain? Well, since her passion was the food scene which was diluted in lieu of the broadly varied aspects of "lifestyle" writing, she enrolled part-time at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Although enjoyable, the experience inspired more questions than answers. "I had no understanding of the business of food, of what it felt like to watch something grow, or how my breakfast, lunch and dinner got from the ground to my gaping mouth."
She had met Shore Gregory, director of business development of Island Creek Oyster Company in Duxbury, Massachusetts at an in-town food "fete". Being charmed by a man named "Shore" and inordinately fond of oysters, she arranged to spend an afternoon cruising around Duxbury Bay, "scouting a story." That experience convinced her "to...do something real." After dinner with Shore and Skip Bennett, Island Creek's founder/owner she knew she wanted to become an (oyster) farm girl. After a long discussion with her husband, she quit her job and bought a pair of mud boots. (There may be more than one hero of this story.)
For the next eighteen months, Erin Murray would be known at her place of work by variations on the word "pain" combined with her initial. "On my first day I stacked three crates on to the truck before I was gasping...By day three, I couldn't lift my arms above my shoulders..." By the end of a year her nick-name had changed from E-pain to "E-rock". She learned the backbreaking components of oyster farming from planting "seed" in protective silos to grading and sizing two year olds, to harvesting and shipping. She survived and thrived.
The book is both fast moving and highly detailed. The world of oyster farming is intricate, backbreakingly physical, year round, outdoor work...on salt water. The Bennett family (including Skip's parents who are part of the team) are hard-working New Englanders who have no illusions about what it takes to live a decent, productive life on the water. Skip's dad is a career lobsterman. As a family, they husband their resources and embrace "do no harm" practices in their use of the natural environment that supports them. In spite of the backbreaking work, it is my strong impression that Ms Murray landed in a very sweet spot."
From the life cycle of the oyster to the final slurp, Shucked will keep you fascinated. Lightly sketched human characters are the shadows in the story of the luscious bi-valve and each chapter is followed by a world class recipe for cooking and serving oysters. See how long will it take you to dash out and buy a dozen (or two) after you finish reading this book!