Shucked

We were in the West Winds Bookstore in Duxbury looking for a gift for a friend.  Actually Annette was buying the gift, and while she made her choice, I browsed the small but well-chosen stock.  I picked up a book in a blue and white jacket with a picture of an oyster on the dust jacket. The title was .  The subject was the Island Creek Oyster Company right there in Duxbury.  Some years ago I’d interviewed the Island Creek owner, Skip Bennett for a food column.  I was impressed with him and especially with his oysters, of which I’ve been a fan ever since. 

The book was by Erin Byers Murray who was a Boston food writer.  The photo inside the back flap showed a girl with a bored smile that implied she was way too beautiful and sophisticated to try to impress a prospective reader like me, but a larger picture on the back of the book showed a beaming woman wearing waterproof clothes and a Red Sox baseball cap sitting on a float next to a crate of oysters.  She was holding a plastic foam coffee cup and her cheeks were rosy as though bitten by a cold wind.  She looked completely happy, and more like someone I wanted to hear from.

Annette and I have pretty much gotten out of the habit of making impulse purchases, but she saw me regarding the book with a wistful eye and bought two gifts that day.  The difference between the pictures was one of the many stories I found in Shucked.

Erin moved from the classy world of big city restaurants to the hard physical toil of oyster farming.  In the beginning it so devastated this stylish city girl, she could hardly drag herself out of bed in the morning. At one point she says, “I’d gradually gotten used to living with the endless throb in my lower back from lifting the boxes which were all fattening up to about eighty pounds.” The nickname her coworkers gave her, which lasted for her entire time at Island Creek, was Pain. 

This working class labor was in contrast to the Deluxebury milieu. The oyster farmers got their morning coffee at French Memories which they called, of course, Frenchy’s.   Erin evolved.  Her back got stronger, she got used to ungodly hours commuting from the Boston area, and she bonded with the crew. 

But Shucked isn’t just a tale of suffering. Pain came to love the job. She became a “seed girl,” meaning she was entrusted with the care of the seed oysters that arrive at the farm the size of pepper flakes and have to be carefully handled until they grow to a size when they can be released onto the bay.  The seed girls called them the babies. They excreted a sludge the growers called fouling, and the workers called oyster poop.  “It was disgusting,” she says, “but it would soon become my life.” 

It wasn’t all gross substances and heavy lifting.  Murray also became involved in the social and culinary events that are part of the promotion of the Island Creek brand.  She loved the Nantucket Wine Festival.  She describes a hostess “pouring glasses of Laurent-Perrier rose Champagne for her friends like it was water.”  But even at some of these events she suffered.  She undertook her first attempt at shucking oysters for the public.  “My fingers were covered with stinging cuts, nails caked with grime. The muscles in both hands and forearms ached from my perma-grip on the knife,” she writes.

The mood of the book changes when she travels with her boss to New York for dinner at Thomas Keller’s famous Per Se restaurant.  She gets a stint in the kitchen, which allows her to watch and help with the preparation of the signature dish oysters and pearls, for which Island Creek provides the prime ingredient.  Her persona as an anxious tyro who perseveres and grows in the job is familiar to readers by that point, and one wonders if she might not exaggerate just a bit.  The five-hour dinner that followed was sheer bliss.

Besides being the saga of her personal journey, Shucked is the story of how oysters are farmed.  It takes the process through the seasons of the year and the life cycle of the oyster.  It presents a picture of a business that started small and succeeded to the point where they opened the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston.  Murray sat in on the planning and rubbed shoulders with some of the Hub’s celebrity chefs. 

The book is a pleasant read.  Personalities and conversations are presented as in a novel.  How she could record word-for-word what was said, without taking notes is a mystery.  I imagine she may have contemplated writing the book when she took the job and fit some writing into her busy schedule, but if she did, she didn’t make it part of the story.  The reader would assume that she sat down and wrote the book when her time at Island Creek was over.  Despite any possible misquotation, I’m satisfied that she captures the world she entered and presents it in all its richness and contrast.

Shucked is a good book for anyone interested in food, but it’s particularly fascinating for those of us who are neighbors of the business it depicts. Island Creek oysters are a local product of which we can be proud, and the depiction of the people and the process by which they are grown explains why they are so good.