The first time I ate an oyster it was swamped with a tangy mignonette to avoid any hint of unpleasant squishy sea-creatureness. The second time, it was naked, secretly passed to me through the garde-manger at the restaurant where I waited tables. I slurped it in hiding, tossing the craggy shells in the trash before a manager came around the corner. It was a Wellfleet — a sharp slap of salinity upfront, with a mellow, mossy finish. I felt like a badass, and the line cook who handed it to me looked impressed.
This was the extent of my relationship with oysters before I read Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm, by Erin Byers Murray. The memoir tracks Murray's one-year hiatus from her job as editor of DailyCandy.com, during which she joins the crew of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury to gain a better understanding of just where her food — and oysters in particular — comes from.
Murray's writing is honest (hauling oyster crates and splashing around in icy water is no picnic) and personal (sometimes a marriage takes a few hits in the pursuit of personal dream fulfillment), and consistently maintains an elegant balance between oyster facts and Murray's musings and observations. There's no need to skip through pages filled with academic, encyclopedic background info on the biological processes of bivalves; I came away from each chapter learning something about one of the fastest growing industries on the East Coast (home to at least 11 different oyster hubs), and also feeling as though I'd slogged through the mud all day alongside Murray and her Island Creek crew.
The premise is at once glamorous and not. A precious few can never have claimed to daydream about busting out of the cubicle and picking up a completely foreign job — even one that requires a rigorous schedule and backbreaking physical labor. The idea that even after years embedded in one career, the possibility to up and change is intoxicating. But, as Murray explains, there are both pros and cons to following through on that dream. Oyster farming is not all sunsets on the bay, five-star meals with all-star chefs, and enjoying a beer with your feet in the water.
Shucked is an undeniable excuse to get your ass down to the nearest oyster bar (Island Creek Oyster Bar in Back Bay will do — and will bring you closer to the subject of Murray's book) and soak up the atmosphere with a dozen or two oysters on the half shell. (As A.J. Liebling used to point out, you can always eat more oysters, because "They have no bulk.") But it also grants a renewed appreciation and understanding of the farm-to-table concept that, thankfully, is becoming more of a way of life in our fair city.
DIGGING IT Murray says she misses the camaraderie of oyster harvesting — but not the sensation of not being able to feel her hands.
TALKING THE TALK
I caught up with Murray before her recent appearance at Boston University's Barnes & Noble and talked kitchen gangs, her new baby, and finally being free to knock back two-dozen bivalves on a weekday.
, Book Reviews, oysters