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Cold Smoke and Baby Steps

You’ve got to have hobbies. During the ever-shorter low season it is important to have things to do, especially for Yohos. Idle hands being the devil’s workshop (aka the Box on a Tuesday afternoon), you’ve got to keep those hands busy with productive endeavors, otherwise what keeps them occupied could easily turn out to be games of Threes with the bartender, Shake-a-Day, and a workout regimen that consists solely of lifting generous pours of bourbon. This was the starting point of a dialogue I was mapping out one autumn afternoon, “You know how it is this time of year. You gotta have hobbies…”. As I cast about for some kind of defense which I could lay out to the Fire Department for having to respond to calls precipitated by the backyard inferno which had earlier engulfed the beautiful edifice that had once been my smokehouse. I figured if I came up with something really good I’d get that nod of understanding working guys give each other after an understandable fuck up and maybe a small fine. Have I lost you? If you don’t know me well enough that I share my embarrassing stories with you then I probably have, so let me go back in time oh let’s say, maybe a decade.

There I was surrounded by meat with no idea how to proceed. If you are a vegan this probably sounds like the fifth level of hell, or at least a revolting predicament, but in my case this was something I had quite willingly brought on myself. A friend’s mother-in-law had a dairy farm up in Maine where she made cheeses. So as to not waste the leftover whey from the cheese production, she had taken to getting piglets every spring and feeding it to them, and then as autumn came, supplementing this diet with acorns and apples. This is a fairly common practice on many farms. After all, why waste unsalable produce when you can turn it into tasty pork? On a summertime visit to Nantucket she let it be known that when slaughtering time came in October, we could buy whole butchered animals direct from her. Yes and yes. So my friend and I made the long drive to Maine, gathered our very reasonably priced bounty, and oh man was it good! The meat came from the slaughterhouse butchered and packaged, and that was where the trouble-I mean hobby-began. You see in addition to all the cuts you get at the store (chops, spareribs, shoulder etc.) there was also a good deal of ground meat, fat back, leaf lard, and organs, all of which I had no idea how to use. Although “surrounded by meat” is a bit hyperbolic, I did have a chest freezer with a lot of packages that needed using up. Enter my wife.

charcuterie-book

The book that started it all…

If there is one person who knows the full measure of my ability to make time idly vanish, it is my wife. Just this fall I knocked out a few projects around the house; building a gate to the backyard, trimming the unfinished peak of the ceiling in our bedroom. Good stuff, right? Yes? No, you see I’d been looking at that unfinished ceiling and its $2 porcelain light fixtures hanging from exposed wire, for the last 18 years. The inertia which an incomplete project can develop is an excellent topic for an essay, which I know for a fact other much more talented writers have tackled (see waitbutwhy.com, The Procrastination Monkey). Where was I? Oh yes, so my wife bought me a copy of Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Pocelyn, and suddenly I had a new hobby: processing and curing meat.

salumi_book

The second of my two bibles.

Baby steps. They are called that for a reason; it is of course literally what babies do when learning to walk, but also it is a metaphor and caveat to those who think that they will somehow revolutionize a thousands years old art form the first time they try their hand at it. I’ve been that guy enough times to now know better so I started simple; curing bacon, and duck Prosciutto, then advancing, using a combination grinder/stuffer attachment for our Kitchenaid mixer to make fresh sausages. I already had been smoking bluefish and making barbecue for years and soon I was hot smoking my bacon and certain varieties of sausage. Instead of having the hogs cut and packaged at the slaughterhouse I began taking receipt of the whole animal and doing the butchering myself according to the Italian method described beautifully in

Fresh pork sausages.

Fresh pork sausages.

Charcuterie’s companion tome Salumi. Having turned down that avenue, I began producing dry cured meats and fermented sausages. The back hallway of my house turned into a middle-aged man’s Franco-Roman wet dream; a variety of salamis hanging with coppa, lardo and lonza, and below on their own rack the king of them all, proscuittos. Two rows deep, whole hams which having been buried in salt for a month dried for two years in the cool, drafty air of the stairway.

Salami curing in the back hallway.

Salami curing in the back hallway.

But there was something else, a waking dream, an idea that spent years forming in the back of my mind. I gleaned information from books that I can only describe as smokehouse porn. I studied on long dark winter sundays and the seeds of a plan were sown, a plan which I would spend the next few years gathering the materials to enact. I would build a smokehouse.

Hot smoking is to cold smoking as checkers is to chess. Perhaps more aptly, it is like beer is to whiskey; all of the same ingredients are used but by applying technique and time a far more complex and satisfying result can be achieved. Cold smoking meat has the same goal as salt curing, preserving meat and peventing spoiling but arrives there in an entirely different manner, by using smoke rather than salt to create an environment inhospitable to the formation of bacteria while the meat cures. Methods of preserving meat arose in every region of the world out of the need to keep the meat from large animals which could not be consumed immediately or smaller, more abundant ones edible for the times when such protein sources would not be available and they vary drastically according to the local climate. Smoking meats in the desert would be as much a disaster as attempting to dry cure in the northern latitudes. I am fortunate to live in a region where, if done carefully, it is possible to use either method.

A mix of fresh pork and chicken sausages.

A mix of fresh pork and chicken sausages.

The Platonic ideal of a smokehouse is a wooden structure but it can also simply be a barrel or if you are really ambitious, masonry. There must also be a place separate from the smoking chamber where a fire can be kept. These two elements must be connected by a pipe or tunnel of some sort that allows the smoke to travel and, most important, cool on the way from the firebox to the chamber. You don’t want the heat of the fire to cook the meat and that is why it should never, ever be less than eight feet from the chamber. If the temperature in the chamber exceeds 90 degrees fats in the meat will begin to liquify, which in addition to spoiling the finished product, can also, as will soon be revealed, have catastrophic results. I use an old airtight wood stove and because of the excellent control over the rate of burn one gains from such a device, it only raises the temperature inside the chamber 5-10 degrees above ambient outdoor readings; thus I can use my smokehouse even when the daytime temperatures reach as high as 75 degrees.

For the Germanic, Slavic and Magyar peoples of Northern and Central Europe cold smoking is what dry curing is to the Spanish, French and Italians. It is inextricably a part of their cultural identity so as I began to gather building materials I took my design cues from the photos I had seen of beautiful Polish, German and Czech smokehouses. Following the baby steps rule I did not attempt to construct anything too grand but I did want it to look cool, so when I got a carpentry gig replacing a deck I carefully removed and saved all the 1×4 cedar decking for use as sheathing. The firebox (the previously mentioned wood stove) had been cast off by a friend because it had broken hinges. I drilled out the old hinge pins and replaced them with modified 12 penny nails and had myself a nice firebox made of pure obtainium. The smokehouse had a 3’x4′ footprint and I set it on cinderblocks in the upper part of my yard. I framed it using old staging posts and planks, then sheathed it with the cedar. I sited the firebox on the patio in my lower yard and connected it to the chamber with 4 inch furnace pipe purchased at the Home Depot. Beside the furnace pipe, the only cash I laid out for the whole project was for 1 bundle of asphalt roof shingles, a 3″ exhaust chimney, hinge and latch hardware, and a thermometer which I set in the door to monitor the temperature inside the chamber. All told I spent less than 100 bucks and damn I felt clever.

Old Smokey. Made almost entirely of obtianium!

Old Smokey. Made almost entirely of obtainium!

What my mother calls “clever” is analogous to what the Greeks called hubris.

I finished the smokehouse in the fall just before it was time to butcher my Moors End Farm pigs so days after completion a fire was burning and meats were smoking. Salamis, sausages, salmon, duck breast, even a pork shoulder; whenever I finished processing something I couldn’t resist giving it a little time in the cold smoke because, you know, smokey flavor good. Cold smoking is, however, a slow process, especially when smoking large cuts of meat and three weeks along that pork shoulder was far from finished. This only mattered because my nephew Kevin was coming to visit and I wanted to roll out a special dinner for him that included said shoulder and that was when I committed the sin of pride. I had been so clever building the smokehouse on the cheap and everything I’d been making had been turning out so great that I decided to ignore the baby steps rule. If the shoulder wasn’t ready, I thought, I’d just speed up the process with some more heat. I couldn’t make the chamber hot enough to cook the meat, because of course the fire was eight feet away, so the solution was obviously to bring the fire into the smokehouse just like no-one had ever done.

A peek inside Old Smokey.

A peek inside Old Smokey.

I put a small charcoal grill inside the chamber and set some coals to burning. Soon the thermometer was reading a steady 200 degrees. Problem solved! I monitored the first batch of coals closely and when they burned down I added more to maintain the temperature. When the next batch burned down I felt that I had the situation well in hand so I added more charcoal and figured it was safe to go run some errands. Just before leaving I decided that I’d move a guanciale (pork jowl) which was also in the smokehouse to a position that was a bit closer to the coals in order to hurry it along to completion as well. That done I closed and latched the door and went about my errands.

One hour later my first floor tenant called to let me know that my chickens had escaped the yard and were out in the road. This was a fairly common occurence at the time because all the events described here pre-date the completion of the gate project I mentioned in the second paragraph. I rushed home and looked for the chickens in all the places they usually would go after escaping. They weren’t eating the tomato plants across the road, nor were they tearing up the mulch in the neighbor’s flower beds. After twenty minutes of searching and not finding them in any of their usual hideouts I figured that maybe they gone home of their own accord, so I went to check my backyard. Walking up the alley I began to notice some things that should, in retrospect, have registered as odd. There was charcoal scattered in the alley. The alley was wet and seemed as if water had recently rushed down it. The spare bits of fence and plywood I used to block the alley I lieu of a gate had fallen over. This last bit wasn’t actually odd, it happened on almost every breezy day but it did afford me a clear view of the upper section of my yard. Something was wrong but I couldn’t quite put together what it was until my gaze fell to the lower yard and I saw, smashed to pieces, the wet and charred remains of my smokehouse.

Um, yeah.

Um, yeah.

Looking back I know it must have been the guanciale. A pork jowl is almost entirely composed of pure fat and when I had moved it over the coals the fat most certainly began liquifying and dripping on them. The fat would have begun burning creating a feedback loop that was akin to adding two pounds of napalm to the small pile of charcoal. This basically unleashed a firestorm in a smoking chamber sheathed in 20 year-old sun dried cedar. Strangely though, despite the fact that the fire department had responded to a neighbor’s call, pushed over the fence, and bashed the shit out of the smokehouse with axes; they had then left the scene as soon as they’d finished dousing the blaze with their hoses. Not more than an hour and a half had elapsed from the time I left to run errands until I was standing in the alley realizing what I moron I’d been. Even stranger, or providentially if you go for that stuff, I found the pork shoulder, a bit charred but not much the worse for wear resting on the wall of the upper yard. Some fireman, who’s hand I’d like to shake, had removed the pork shoulder from the burning smokehouse before setting about his fire suppression duties.

Prosciutto for all! At the infamous Brendan Behan pub in Jamaica Plain.

Prosciutto for all! At the infamous Brendan Behan pub in Jamaica Plain.

This brings us back to the first paragraph where I was trying to think of things to say when the fire department, justifiably angry, returned. But they never came back. I expected to be issued a citation and charged a well-deserved fine in conjunction with a general what-kind-of-fucking-idiot-has-a-smokehouse-inside-the-city-limits verbal reprimand. It never happened. So I took the pork shoulder inside, trimmed off the charred bits and, as I should have in the first place, finished it in the oven just in time for dinner. We had a fine meal and after we ate I took my nephew, who’d been the first of many people to have a good laugh at my expense when I told the story, out to the backyard to see the debris. It didn’t bother me a bit that upon viewing the destruction he laughed his ass off again, I totally deserved it.

New Smokey, hard at work.

New Smokey, hard at work.

The chickens were traumatized. After all, a whole bunch of crazy shit had gone down in their little world. I found them huddled low to the ground under the shrubbery in the neighbor across the road’s yard. When I caught and brought them back to my yard they immediately ran into their coop and didn’t come out for two days. They didn’t lay any eggs for a week. My neighbors, I decided, were probably similarly traumatized and perhaps now a bit skeptical of smokehouses in a neighborhood with such small house lots. So I waited a year and a half for them to recover, for their lives to feel comfortable again, for seasons to come and go with the normal cycle of rituals, observances, holidays and anniversaries, then I built a new smokehouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembrance of Oysters Past

Short is the list of food and drink to have inspired the volume of impassioned outpourings of sentiment from epicureans back to the earliest of recorded histories as the simple bivalve mollusc known as the oyster. Poets and lovers have spewed forth streams of sensuous verse celebrating the aphrodisiac power of its raw flesh. Steinbeck penned a cautionary tale of a simple man’s fall from grace, inevitably brought on after wresting a huge pearl from the depths of the sea. When the dictator Sulla, after saving Rome, turned his back on all the power and wealth of the Republic and left public life, he was doing something that few leaders through history have done, voluntarily ceding absolute power but as Plutarch noted, he then turned to a calling where one might find the intersection of heaven and earth. Where did he find this holy of holies? Why in his oyster ponds of course. The oyster feeds by filtration and in doing so builds a hard shell, comprised mainly of calcium carbonate, to protect the soft flesh within from the depravity and greed of the world outside, where all seem to seek its end for their own sweet succor, erotic sustenance and conspicuous adornment.

The oyster is a perfect food but not a homogeneous one by any measure. As with the grapes that give wine, the terroir, where they grow, matters; the salinity and temperature of the water, and the condition of the beds, all contributing to the taste of the fish. Again similar to wine, it is of great importance who does the growing. Farming a great oyster is hard work and just being in the right place with the right conditions does not guarantee a sublime result. They must be worked; tumbled, separated and sorted, constantly checked for parasites and pests, protected from choking by silts and algae; harvested, transported and stored at safe temperatures with proper documentation. The story of the commercialization of the oyster, of its cultivation and those who work to produce it is a long and fascinating one. It is also one which has been well-documented in books and essays composed by literary masters. So why go down that road at all?

I used to own an O’Day 19 sailboat which I kept in a small inlet of Nantucket bay called Polpis harbor. Back then I was invariably surrounded by small children and the boat was perfect for a day long adventure with a gang of tykes in tow. The O’Day 19 could never be mistaken for a racing boat, it is neither sleek nor streamlined but it is simple to rig and more importantly it is easy to fix when something breaks while out on the water. It has a large cabin equally good for loading up with supplies or providing a shady, cushioned space for any sun-stroked, seasick or weather beaten passenger or crew. We investigated every corner of the bay on that boat. With nets and bare hands we collected all of the sea creatures available in the bay, holding them for further study in buckets or hastily constructed ponds. We played in the sand of each shore. We’d dive off the boat to swim or be towed regardless of high boat traffic or heavy concentrations of jelly-fish. It was cheap fun of the best kind, a cooler with food and drinks, some stryo-foam floaty toys; shovels and rakes for the beaches we’d anchor near. Many fun and memorable days were thus spent, breezy or calm, plying the achingly beautiful waters of the bay.

The passage in and out of Polpis is a sailing challenge, a winding channel with swift tidal currents and constantly shifting sandbars, the passage through almost always creating a little excitement at the beginning and/or end of a sail. The narrowest part, called the cut, is known as Quaise and in the shallows on the western, bay side of this finger of sand there used to be an oyster farm. It wasn’t very large or well tended and seemed to consist mainly of one raggedy-ass float dock. From what I had gathered the guy who ran it did so primarily as a hobby, which seemed to be confirmed by the complete lack of activity I’d seen in the area. If later, this paragraph seems to the reader to serve no other purpose than to rationalize certain actions, I would certainly not find fault with the one drawing such conclusions but would; however, note that it does aid in the establishment of certain important geographic points of reference; orienting the reader in the area discussed in this narrative segment.

One fairly calm day while returning to Polpis after some sailing adventures, the tide on the low side but rising, I decided to anchor at Quaise and see if there were any steamer clams to be had in the still exposed flats. This is a fairly easy thing to do because at the western tip of the cut where the current runs its fastest, the shore drops away sharply into deep water, allowing a sailboat, centerboard still down, to run right up on to the dry land and set anchor. Shortly after doing this very thing, the kids and I got busy digging holes with our hands seeking out the tasty, but out of season, bivalves. Finding little at the bottom of our holes, other than worms, I thought that maybe I’d have a look at the surrounding area.

The point at Quaise is an entirely nondescript mound of sand, small round stones, bird shit and shells, a hangout for seabirds including gulls, egrets and oyster catchers. There were though some unnatural objects on the beach and in the shallows of the bay side which caught and held my attention. Partially exposed in the sandy shallows were a number black plastic mesh bags. Approaching and looking more closely at a completely stranded bag, I saw that it was full of shells. Oyster shells. Upon examining a semi-submerged bag I discovered that buried under a midden pile of their expired brethren there were some still living oysters within, clinging to life in the inter-tidal zone . Quick as I could, I retrieved a plastic bucket we had intended to fill with out-of- season steamers and began instead piling in an illict bivalve of another kind. I felt the thrilling fear of being caught poaching, as if I were hunting deer in the King’s Wood, for although the oysters were on the beach and seemingly left to die without apparent concern, I knew full well that others, with similar notions, had in the past been given cause to reflect sourly, later, on such foolhardy assumptions while being stitched up in the ER. Nothing even remotely dramatic ensued on the short sail back to the mooring and soon I found myself back home with a few dozen shellfish which I didn’t know how to open.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, or so begins the analogy of some very twisted fuck. The oyster’s shell, to make use of my own depraved analogy, may be penetrated in as many ways as a porn star. Finding my wife’s shelf of cookbooks conspicuously lacking in any adult titles I instead turned to my old friend Jacque Pepin for a tutorial in the mysterious art of liberating the succulent fleshy interior from its prison of shell. Pepin favors the method which I still use to this day, namely the rear entry.

People often ask, while I’m shucking, if I cut myself a lot or like to tell me how scary what I’m doing looks, that I must be nuts for not wearing a glove (I do put duct tape on my left thumb) and I then generally answer with one of several dry, sardonic (can you believe it?) stock responses I’ve come up with over the years. The gist of it is that if one were in constant danger of severe laceration then it is unlikely that anyone, even one so clearly mentally challenged as myself, would open oysters. So I’ll tell you how I do it with the one caveat that any wounds the reader may incur are not the responsibility of the author. If you are new to this wear gloves for safety’s sake!

Knife in one hand, oyster in the other. Hold the knife by the blade exposing only the last inch from under your thumb if you hold it further back you are merely creating a longer self-stabbing tool. Finding the hinge of the oyster, (it’s the little black nubbin on the pointed end of the shell) work the tip of the blade in by rocking the oyster onto the knife. WAIT! STOP! DON’T MOVE THE KNIFE! Goddammit, listen to me! I SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING! Ok, ready to listen? Maybe you should just watch an instructional video, wrap everything in towels and light a candle to St Jude instead.

No???

Alright.

So once you’ve gotten the tip into the hinge in the manner described above, lever the blade up while twisting it slightly toward yourself. At this point the oyster should pop. Victory, although assured, could be pyrrhic if you fuck up the next part. Have you ever ordered a plate of oysters and been served something that looked like it was dried, stuck in a blender and chopped to bits before being put back in its shell and served to you? I have, many times, and seeing oysters treated in such a way always makes my blood boil. Silently I repeat the occult and ancient shucker’s litany to calm myself so that I don’t rush the perpetrator upbraiding him for his philistine butchery. Instead I just send it back and say something very diplomatic like, “you’re charging me $36 for that, asshole?” .

Where was I?

Oh yes, the oyster is popped. Now, carefully hugging the top of the shell with the blade, find and sever the muscle on the front right side. Can’t miss it. It’s the only muscle attached to the top shell. The shell is now loose for removal. Remove it. Turn the oyster so the hinge is facing away from you and in one scooping motion, cut the bottom of the muscle away from the shell and flip the whole of the meat over. You should be left with a clean, attractive view of the plump belly floating in its own briny juice. Serve it to someone else or just slurp it down yourself, because for being the type of person that would get a bunch of oysters to open for your friends and family you deserve that first one.

I mentioned before that there are other ways to shuck an oyster beside the rear hinge method. In a pinch an experienced hand can use an amazing array of objects to pry open shellfish, pocket knives, steak knives, bottle openers, teeth, other shells, you name it, the list is limited only by your ingenuity and desperation. No matter what that voice you hear after drinking 10 Bud Lights and 5 shots of Jagermeister is telling you, do not try to replicate such feats! What’s your hurry? Is there a hot nurse on duty at the Cottage Hospital who you can’t get a date with but you’re sure that if you just had a little alone time, maybe in an examination room, she’d come around? Not gonna happen! Certainly not if you stumble in, drunk, sandy and bleeding, with a not as endearing as you think it sounds story about how you impaled your hand on a gaff hook. Get in line behind the guy who fell off the moped dummy and pray that you won’t be leaving the island on a helicopter.

The fastest shuckers in the world come in through the side of the oyster. Tenacious D fans everywhere refer to this as “the side hatch” technique. Using a short, flat, pointy knife, sometimes called a French knife, you hold the oyster with the hinge facing your body. 2/3 of the way up on the left side is a spot where you can slide the knife straight in, gaining direct access to the muscle, which once severed allows for an abbreviated shuck. Because this is an excellent way to stab yourself, don’t try it until you’ve got some knife skills and, Chrissakes Cap, be sure when you do that the oyster is very cold. The last way, which you are much more likely to see in the south, where the oysters much larger and not nearly as good to eat raw, is to go through the front of the oyster. A totally different, long, skinny knife is used in this method. Turn the hinge 90 degrees away from your body and worry the tip of the knife under the lip of the oyster until you find and sever the muscle, once you have done this proceed as before to the part where you eat the still living fish.

About that juice.

There is a reason that a good shucker serves you an oyster still floating in its own juice. The reason is that the juice is incredibly flavorful. We don’t just preserve it in the cup as a neat trick to show you how skilled we are. I have many times watched as someone walks up to the raw bar, picks up an oyster, places a finger (or if more civilized a fork) over the meat and dumps that precious liquor out. Now if this happens at a big event or fancy party I almost always resist the urge to speak up, after all someone is paying me good money to shuck these things and not to be all holier-than-thou about it but if I’m out at the beer garden or the attendee at the event seems like a reasonable type I’ll tell that person to try the next one with the liquor. I’ll sing the praises of the briney liquid, explaining that this is where the most subtle aspect of an oyster’s flavor lives, that you must taste the sea to taste the fish, I’ll quote the Joseph Mitchell’s essays on the subject but if I were to see you dumping cocktail sauce on it I’ll shut up about the liquor and try instead to save you from an even graver wrong.

Back to the free oysters.

On the sailing trips that followed if I was returning on a low-ish tide I began to make a habit of stopping at Quaise on the way back in to Polpis and checking around for any other bags that may have washed into the shallows or the tidal estuary near-by. Finding bag after bag was the reward for these efforts and sometimes when I found myself questioning the ethics of gathering up these shellfish, I’d tell myself that they had been abandoned and left to die there in the mud and silt of the shallows, which had the ring of truth, I just never bothered to confirm whether or not the proprietor of the oyster farm saw truth the same way.

Eventually I got all the bags that had washed in from the farm. It was disappointing but I wasn’t about to complain, it had been quite a run of freebies and the feeling of having been a bit of pirate was exhilarating. The next spring; however, when the O’Day was back on the mooring and we were again sailing through the cut; there, washed up on the beach, I found the same miraculous bounty. The storms of the previous winter had restocked the larder. And so it went for the next few years until the farmer gave up entirely and the treasure trove that had washed in year after year was finally exhausted. During this period my kids developed quite a taste for oysters and had somehow got the notion that they were a free and abundant resource.

Luckily my pal and sometime co-shucker Jonny Hoota hails from Provincetown, has worked with, and is connected to some very talented Wellfleetian oystermen. He supplies them to select Boston restaurants and sometimes he will have some left that his clients didn’t need. When he has these extra oysters he always calls around to friends, such as myself, to see if we want to take them off his hands. Which was how it came to pass that on my daughter’s 13th birthday I was standing by our kitchen sink with a bag of Wellfleets (meaning 100), some lemons and a knife. I started shucking and she began knocking them back and as she did I saw a strange glint in her eye. It was vanishingly brief and yet in that moment it was as if a window had opened through which I could see all the way back to those sailing summers, and there, like Proust and with his madelines, that sense memory unlocked a place in her soul where the entirety of those days on the bay had been condensed and placed in a shell. I said nothing and just shucked away, my wife ate a few and I noted them, I had a few also which I counted but she just kept slurping them down, dozen after dozen. Finally she was done, her appetite ruined for the amazing meal that my wife had prepared, in total she had devoured 54 oysters by my count. I have worked many events, many days in the beer garden, thrown a lot of clambakes for my friends and I’ve seen some people crush a lot of oysters and I’ve heard people speak of more amazing feats of oyster consumption, there’s even this one guy we call El Doubley, for his technique of dumping one oyster into the next and slurping down both at once, who may have surpassed 54 in the course of an evening but I have never seen anyone, any size or age, eat more oysters continuously and without a pause.

People always say to me, oh you must be so sick of oysters. Truth be told, no. After the spring weddings, the beer garden days and Summer evening events, the shoulder season that now seems to flow unbroken to Christmas Stroll, you would have every reason to believe that this is true; but if I have a bag of plump Nantucket Blondes, burly Wallace Bays or sweet, subtle Pemaquids , you better believe I’m eating them all.

And I eat them with gusto god dammit!

So from the damp cold of Spring until the clear cool of Autumn I stand, my hand holding with well-practiced pressure the sharp shell, and I repeat the motions, robotic, which inevitably will overpower the small creature in my grasp, my pursuit of excellence in presentation a clumsy attempt to honor its sensual perfection. An oyster which has been made (yes made) with care and expertise stands out as obviously as a home built by a master carpenter. The regularity of shape, strength of shell and depth of the cup as much a result of the farmer’s expertise as perfect mitres and tight joinery are the mark of a fine woodworker’s craft. I know what to look for in an oyster and I seek it out relentlessly, because it doesn’t matter whether I am serving the most worldly of gourmands or someone from the inland, who has just washed ashore for the first time, I want them to eat that first oyster I shuck for them and then I want them to get the same gleam in their eye that my daughter had on her 13th birthday.

The Yoho at Cisco Brewery!

Hello and Happy Summer! I wanted to let you all know that I am open for business at Cisco Brewers on Nantucket for the summer of 2012. You can find me, along with the infamous shucker Johnny “Hoota” McNulty and my nephew (and assistant) Damian, there on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-7 pm, shucking the freshest Wellfleet oysters and Nantucket littlenecks. Freshly caught and smoked local bluefish pate, shrimp cocktail, crab legs and chips and salsa are also on the menu. Come on down and visit!

Yohos

The Raw Bar Yoho at work with special guest star shucker Johnny “Hoota” McNulty (at left) and nephew Damian from NYC! Come meet them at Cisco Brewers on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.