What did I know about oysters? In retrospect, next to nothing until I read Shucked, by Erin Byers Murray. In fact, my only experience with harvesting shellfish was limited to a couple of hours spent digging clams at a beach behind my sister’s apartment in Winthrop, Massachusetts. The only thing that I remember was the pain in my lower back and the relief that I felt when the tide finally rolled in and we had to call it quits for the day. It’s hard work! Yet the author of this book left her comfortable 9 to 5 job at Daily Candy to work for an oyster farm in Duxbury, Massachusetts for 18 months! Not since George Plimpton has a writer been this “imbedded” to cover a story and learn all that there is to know about delivering oysters from farm to table.
During her work at Island Creek Oysters, Murray did everything from separating and sorting oysters according to size and shape, a process known as culling, to washing and bagging oysters, to even working in the company’s front office. She was also responsible for managing the “seed” or baby oysters that would be nurtured until they were big enough to be planted in the company’s leased oyster beds in Duxbury Bay. A mistake made during this phase of her assignment could have cost the company its future crop of oysters, an error that could have been devastating to the company financially. Despite the mental and also physical challenges that came with this undertaking, Murray was able to capture a unique insider’s view into oyster farming and its place in the growing farm to table, slow food movement.
I’ve read this type of story many times before and each time I read it I love it even more. The Hero’s Journey, when an unlikely hero faces daunting physical and mental obstacles. With perseverance and a little help from mentors along the way, the hero becomes a master in their own right. Through the course of the book, the author takes this journey from oyster culling novice to “momma-seeda,” master of the “seed” to confidant of the company’s founder. Against this backdrop, Murray gives us an inside look at what it is actually like to work on an oyster farm – from production to marketing to customer relations. She also provides a historical account of the company itself from its modest beginnings to one of the most sought after brands of oysters today. In addition to having its oysters on the menus of marquee restaurants such as Per Se and The French Laundry, Island Creek now has its own restaurant in Boston, a venture with Boston-based Harpoon Brewery, and a philanthropic arm raising money through its annual Island Creek Oyster Festival for a business development project in Africa.
Murray has masterfully recounted this story along with her own experiences to create an intriguing look at what it takes to get oysters from farm to table. And if this were not enough, the book also includes an oyster or clam recipe at the end of each chapter. We tried one, Berg’s Baked Oysters, and it was fantastic. We give this book four out of five stars.