For my son’s birthday last year, I was finally able to book his oyster farm tour at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury. My son loves oysters on the half shell. It’s not surprising that he’s also the best shucker in the family.
The oyster tours were all booked last summer, so I made sure to book early to get three tickets as his sisters were traveling in Europe. They were bummed to miss out and who can blame them?
It turns out that my kids all love Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel, particularly Brad who does episodes on fermentation. Brad also visited Island Creek Oysters and took the same tour. We recognized some of the staff on his video when we visited.
Island Creek Oyster Farm is a historic 11-acre farm that now covers the food chain from producing baby oysters from mature oysters, growing the babies to full edible size, and then selling their gourmet oysters both wholesale and retail. They also have a growing chain of restaurants. Not bad for a group of Duxbury natives who started out as lobster fishermen, pursuing this crazy thing that no one else did back then.
Their own oysters are the Island Creek Oysters, the Row 34’s, and the Aunt Dottys; each distinct in their own size and flavor profile. Our tour included a 27-foot Carolina Skiff tour boat and ride out on Duxbury Bay where we shucked and ate oysters to our hearts’ content.
We learned a lot about the process of raising oysters starting from sperm and egg, but I wanted to go further back into the history of oysters in that area and that starts with Native Americans.
“Most early civilizations enjoyed the oyster in some form or another. Shell middens (mounds used as ancient kitchen scrap dumping grounds) have been found on every continent except Antarctica. Some of the largest and oldest on the East Coast of North America appeared along the Damariscotta River in Maine. The Whaleback midden at Glidden Point, Maine, was formed over an estimated 1,000 years between 200 B.C. to A.D. 1000.” from The Oyster Companion: A Field Guide
Here’s a photo of the Whaleback Midden.
image from Maine.gov
There is archaeological evidence that early Indians lived, hunted, and fished on the upper Damariscotta River at least five thousand years ago, if not earlier. The people who built our great shell heaps came later, however. Archaeologists think they were ancestors of the Etchemins–who were here to meet the first European explorers in the early 1600s–and that they migrated northward into this part of the Maine area sometime between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago. from Maine.gov
That’s pretty amazing how far back humans have been eating oysters on the half shell! I have two adult books on my book list below that include different angles on oysters and Island Creek Oyster Farm, but now let’s learn a little about raising oysters. It turns out that eating oysters is both healthy and good for the environment! Oysters are not bottom feeders, rather they purify the water as filtration systems while they feed on plankton.
The name of the game, I’ve learned, to raising oysters is to keep them off the ground because their own feces can end up suffocating and killing them. Keeping them well fed is also important and similar to fattening up a goose for its “foie gras” liver.
Island Creek Oysters has merrior (like terroir for wine but water vs. land) that is unique to all other oyster farms because they raise their oysters with a short stint in a brackish river which gives their oysters additional flavor. Their oysters are like the “Kobe beef” of oysters.
Brad takes a trip to Duxbury, Massachusetts to visit the folks at Island Creek Oyster to see what it takes to be an oyster farmer. He observes all the stages of oyster development, gets put to work on the farm, and learns the proper way to shuck an oyster!
A Book List for Oyster Lovers
Sadly I could not find any oyster farming or fishing children’s books. Island Creek Oyster founder, Skip Bennett, started out as raising clams, so this is the closest that I could find.
One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey
Sal digs for clams at Buck’s Harbor as part of her adventurous day that starts with a loose tooth. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm by Erin Byers Murray
Erin Byers Murray ditched her job as a writer for trend spotting Daily Candy to work at Island Creek Oysters. She started out as an oyster sorter and graduated to raising the baby oysters in Upwellers, a kind of open sea oyster nursery. She also did sales and marketing for the company right as they launched their first restaurant in Kenmore Square.
We had the opposite experience with Island Creek Oysters. We first learned about them by eating at that Kenmore Square restaurant, Island Creek Oyster Bar, for my son’s birthday. It was from this experience that we learned about their oyster tours.
This book is part memoir, part cookbook, and part “How To Run an Oyster Farm.” It’s a fun read into the delicious world of oysters! [nonfiction, adult]
Oysters: A Celebration in the Raw by Jeremy Sewall
The chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar penned his own oyster resource for afficianados who want to know about the oyster farmers and the oysters that they raise. Since this is about raw oysters, there aren’t many recipes beyong Jeremy Sewall’s mignonette sauce, but he does share two versions. This is for the oyster on the half shell obsessed! [nonfiction, adult]
Oysters: Recipes that Bring Home a Taste of the Sea by Cynthia Nims
This is a small-sized book but it is packed full of information beyond just mere recipes. With color photographs, it’s also a beautifully designed book. Cynthia covers oyster varities including raising oysters. Hers is a west coast perspective. [nonfiction, adult]
Oyster Companion: A Field Guide by Patrick McMurray
A catch-all for all things oysters, this field guide has a history of oysters, recipes, and a list of most of the oysters being farmed throughout the world. And, of course, there is plenty of information on shucking oysters and oyster shucking competitions. The author, Patrick McMurray, holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest oyster shucker! [nonfiction, adult]
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