Raw Bar Yoho

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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My Piece of the State Plate

Last spring I was contacted by an individual claiming to represent the producers of a new food show which would be airing on the INSP network. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in making clam chowder for one of their segments. After Googling INSP to make sure it actually existed and was not being drawn into an elaborate prank, I responded and requested more information. They told me that the show was to be called State Plate, the gimmick being that every episode would feature one of the 50 states and highlight the dishes that best represent it. The host was to be some guy named Taylor Hicks, who I was later told won American Idol despite being way too old. They were not daunted when I informed them that my chowder had never placed higher than second in the premiere local chowder showcase, the Tuckernuck Chowder Battle, nor were they alarmed when I ranted for the better part of an hour about the elaborate and very real conspiracy which year after year deprived me of my rightful crown. They also mentioned that I would be paid $400 to appear on camera making chowder. Naturally I agreed. The following video is a clip of what resulted.

Thanks to INSP, Taylor Hicks (who turned out to be a good guy), the whole State Plate team and to Jonny A for editing out my segment.

PS: The quahog is NOT a soft shell clam.

The Pig Of The Sea

For quite a while I’ve wanted to write something about quahogs but haven’t felt properly inspired. I’ve had clams on the brain. To paraphrase James Taylor, in my mind I’ve gone to Rhode Island. This is not hyperbole. For me the quahog is where my recreational pastimes have intersected with my professional life and where my soul-sustaining love of being on the water meets my physical need for sustenance. The quahog is many things. These days we just think of it as a food animal but in the past it was a currency; it was used in an art form that told the history of the first peoples of New England; it was the foundation of Pre-Colombian trade networks which reached far inland to people who never saw the ocean; it saved the Pilgrims from starvation (maybe); and even today, the quahog gives Rhode Island a reason to exist. It is a beautifully efficient creature, turning the tiny organisms it has filtered from the sea into an ever expanding, self-sustaining fortress; living and growing and multiplying in defiance of its many enemies who seek the delicious salty flesh hidden within.

Clam_Diagram

Try not to think about this diagram when eating clams.

The etymology of the term quahog is the subject of some dispute. If like me you have access to the Google machine, the kernels of factiness that follow are at your fingertips as well. The earliest citations of the word date to 1643 when Roger Williams, religious non-conformist, free thinker, abolitionist, student of native tongue and ultimate bad ass, made reference to the Naragansett word poquauhock which literally meant “horse fish”. In 1758 ur-taxonomist Linneaus dubbed it mercenaria mercenaria which he derived from the latin for wages, as a reference to the use of quahog shell-derived wampum beads as a means of exchange. Fun fact for all you parents who face having to pay tuition at a private college: Harvard University at one time accepted wampum in lieu of tuition! Suck on that Sallie Mae! I mean, I thought it was pretty cool paying half of one year of my daughter’s tuition by cashing in whisky futures but could you imagine rolling up to the comptroller’s office with a wheel barrow full of quahog shell? All kidding aside, woven belts of wampum beads contained pictorial icons and messages which had social, spiritual and historical significance far beyond its value as a currency. Thank you Google.

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Yeah, it is that easy…

At my raw bar people often ask me, “Did you catch these clams yourself?”, and because of my juvenile sense of humor (that even catholic school failed to beat out of me) I invariably respond with something like, “Yes, but it was hard. They are lightning fast and if they pick up your scent the whole herd will be galloping away in an instant.” I will grant you, it is amazing I don’t get punched in the face more often. However, no-one who has been clamming would ever make it sound as if it was more of a hunting activity than one involving gathering. There is no stalking, cutting for sign, or sitting on stand when hunting clams, getting downwind is not an issue and there will never be any need to mask your aroma will that of quahog urine, which whether it exists or not, is perfect for my raw bar shtick. “What makes these clams taste different from others?” “Well ma’am the local quahogs are unable to process (a fake but real sounding mineral) in their urine so it builds up in their flesh creating the unique flavor profile you’ve noticed.” Anyway, the clams aren’t going anywhere, at least not very fast. They do have the means to self-propel with what we call their foot but not so much that hot pursuit is required, unless hot pursuit is what you do while drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. It’s all about figuring out where they live and then telling everyone they live somewhere else.

Off-shore dragger boats dredge up quahogs and their cousins the sea clam (artica islandica) in massive quantities to satisfy the needs of Red Lobster, Legal Seafoods, Dinty Moore and virtually everywhere else you will ever be served a dish purporting to be clam-based. It is necessary. It is hard to imagine a the number of guys who would have to be out with rakes to satisfy demand of the great mass of hooples out there. It wouldn’t make sense economically and most likely all the good spots in the shallows would be depleted. Thus the continued existence of Rhode Island.

Rakes

A secret spot fills the rake.

When I talk about clamming I mean the kind that takes place near shore. Whether using a rake to scratch them up or finding them by feel with your toes and pulling them up with your hands, the satisfaction felt after filling a basket with clams is hard to beat. If it’s a warm summer day, digging up a bunch of quahogs with friends and eating them immediately builds bonds that making a bunch on bologna sandwiches could never match. Afterwards, cooking on a nearby beach, whether making chowder, linguine and clam sauce, deep frying in oil, it just tastes better and it never hurts to pop a few small ones to eat raw while doing so. It’s always good for the soul even when it’s not the nicest day. For every time out getting the vicarious thrill of digging up those first ones with newbies and kids there are an equal number of times when it’s windy and cold or the tide is wrong but i I’ve got a gig coming up and pride dictates that if possible I will be serving something I got myself and so I go.

One time, near Thanksgiving a friend and I decided we would treat our families to clams casino in the evening. We set out from Hither Creek on his boat and arriving at our spot discovered that not only had we gotten the tide completely wrong but it was in fact unusually high. After using science (touching the bottom with a clam rake) to determine the depth we judged that the spot was still clammable. Because it was cold we both had neoprene chest waders to wear, so we geared up and my friend went in first. The water level seemed well shy of his armpits but unfortunately it was choppy and water was immediately began sloshing over the top of his waders, filling the inside. Now if you’ve ever worn chest waders you know this is the worst case scenario, it’s like wearing a really cold  waterballon, you become like that girl in Willie Wonka who chews the gum that’s a meal, except instead of being a giant blueberry rolled away by Oompa Loompas, you’re brown and in danger of drowning. After I’d helped pull his waterlogged ass back on the boat, we had a drink of rum because, you know, boats and, thinking caps firmly fixed in place, both agreed that my additional few inches of height would keep me from meeting his cold, soggy fate, (which in retrospect he was a suspiciously strong proponent of) and having come so far loathed the idea of returning home empty handed. Kids, don’t drink rum and clam, at high tide, when it’s cold out.

my other car is a...

The Quahog is the pig of the sea. That’s the phrase that’s been knocking around in my head since this time last year. If the point of comparison is the sheer culinary versatility of the food animal, it is indisputable that none on land match the domesticated hog and that in the ocean, the humble little neck clam has no rival. It is a sure sign of my fading juvenile spirit that the best I can do anymore to make light of their similar names is this phrase; too much hog, for any one mouth , which completely lacks the winking, adolescent while still slightly transgressive charm (or so I thought until recently) I have always been fond of employing. But while distinct traditions of hog butchery and preparation have rich histories from Europe to Latin America, across the US to the Pacific Rim into Asia and well okay, everywhere, each making use of the animal in countless preparations; there is, due to the fact that the Quahog only exists in abundance on the Northeast Coasts of the US and Canada, only one Quahog cuisine.

Certainly there are sea creatures who can deliver a taste, one taste, more sublime than any individual quahog preparation, (the belly of the bluefin tuna springs to mind) but none come close to matching its versatility. Did I just mention toro sashimi? Well dammit a small littleneck clam served raw on the half shell is pretty good too. Squeeze a little lemon on there and maybe a drop of your favorite hot sauce but please, keep that cocktail sauce away! That clam didn’t spend years filtering thousands of gallons of sea water, turning itself into a robust flavor bomb for you to ruin it with ketchup. If you must have tomato and clam make a Clamdigger, a bloody mary with Clamato instead of tomato juice and shucked liitleneck floater. Bliss.

chowder

Chowder!

Clams can be baked in the oven. Shuck a mess of cherrystones add a pinch of chopped bacon, some bread crumbs and a nice compound butter then broil. When you bring out a tray of these tasty clams casino be sure to warn your guests against scalding their mouths by gulping them down to quickly. Not that someone won’t ignore you and turn the roof of their mouth into string cheese but at least you will be protect from litigation. What about stuffies? Remove the meat from a bunch of large quahogs and chop it, add bread crumbs and minced onion, celery, red pepper and whatever other veggies you like, stuff back in the shell and bake until brown. Two of them and you’re good Cap!

clamdigger

In a perfect world, booze and clams are as one.

Do you like Italian food? Few pasta dishes are as simple or classic as linguine and clam sauce. Boil your linguine to a firm al dente and put it aside. Get a good pile of quahogs and shuck them, reserving the liquor. Make a large saute pan really hot and cover the bottom with olive oil, add a good bit of minced garlic to sizzle but don’t let it get brown. Pour in half of the clam liquor. Let things get bubbly. Add a couple sensible portions of linguine and stir allowing the linguine to absorb some of the liquor, adding more if needed. It should be able to bubble without swimming in liquid. Add the chopped clam meat, stir for 30 seconds, throw in a handful of chopped parsley. Done. Serve topped with a nice parmesan cheese.

Years ago I got one of those cheap turkey fryers they have on sale at Home Depot for thirty bucks. Thanksgiving that year was a great success. A fully cooked turkey that is juicy on the inside and has crispy skin in a half an hour? Genius. The next summer another genius (I believe it was my wife) suggested that we fry a turkey on the beach. This was also a big hit. Later, while digesting, the obvious became clear, just because it’s called a turkey fryer that doesn’t mean you can’t fry other things in it as well, after all this is America! Soon enough that can-do spirit led to a brave new world of beach cooking: the fry up, and one rather obvious candidate for frying, the quahog, was both abundant and close at hand. My favorite way to fry clams is to roll them in flour, then drop the doughy nuggets in buttermilk before finally coating them in panko. The downside of this boom in frying was that it left our non-gluten tolerant amigos standing around wearing plaintive drooling dog expressions on their faces and no-one needs that. The arrival on the market of a gluten free baking mix called Cup 4 Cup has remedied this sad inequity and now all can enjoy the beach fry.

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The quahog can grow to a size almost as large as a child’s head.

As I pointed out earlier the clam is the shape shifter of the sea, a bivalve Zelig, its only culinary limits being those of your imagination. I’ve eaten tasty thin crust pizza with a white clam sauce. You can put whole clams on the grill until they pop open and serve with melted butter for dipping or if you’re too lazy to light a fire steam them in a pot. It’s all good and for once that is actually true. Face it, any really good seafood stew whether it’s cioppino or bouillabaise or some weird portagee concoction from Rhode Island, it needs clams, but if you were going to pick the definitive clam dish it would have to be chowder. Making chowder on the beach is easier than it sounds, there apparently are even competitions where this skill is put to the test, where so-called chowder kings are crowned but it is hard to imagine that one could find a group of judges with the ability to discern a true championship chowder from the great unwashed mass of wannabes.

In any place that experiences a hard winter, summer is the indispensable season. A time to soak in the Vitamin D. A time to shake off the seasonal affective disorder, to put aside that suicide note you’ve been composing and get outside. In Hawai’i you always know, more likely than not, tomorrow will bring another beautiful day but when it’s summer in New England there is a sense of urgency, we get two months when, if we’re lucky, it might be nice out and so dammit, the forecast might say cloudy with a 50 percent chance of rain but we’re going to do something outside. For those of us who live on the coast the beach is our summer playground; surfing, sunning, swimming, volleyball and other sports, some too lame to mention like that one with the trampoline and the ball; a day at the beach is about all those those thing and more. It’s about cooling out under an umbrella having food and drink with the people you love. It’s about the secret spot, the place that you go with your family and your friends, the families with whom you form a tribe by consent. Sure, other people can go there too, there’s no stopping them, but because you’ve made it yours you’ll laugh amongst yourselves, while you sing and drink and prepare your meals, watching them flounder around with their shiny rakes and baskets 20 feet from where you just scored, knowing that enough clams to last the summer still lie there in the sand, silently filtering.

Bluefish: The Nastiest Bastards of the Seven Seas

Bluefish are nasty. I could stop there. Really, I could. If you’ve ever had much cause to interact with Pomatomus Saltatrix,  then you know what I mean. If, like a scientist, you refer to Bluefish by their Latin name then you’ve probably never been covered in a slurry of regurgitated sand eels and blood, while removing a lure from one of their frothing, snapping mouths of teeth. Nasty. So nasty in fact that they are the only member of the family Pomatomidae. Think of the second nastiest fish you can. Ok, that fish doesn’t even want to be the Bluefish’s second cousin. Now obviously, they are fun to catch. Anglers spend countless hours on shore and in boats on the water fishing for them, some people even claim to like eating them, but if one were allowed only three words to describe the Bluefish to a farmer from Topeka, they would be the first three words of this paragraph.

The extent to which Bluefish are distributed around the globe is stunning. Their nastiness is experienced firsthand by fisherfolk from a broad sampling of nationalities and ethnicities. Few are the places where a fisherman has never cursed these nasty bastards while scrubbing slime off the deck of his boat and tackle. Simply put, you can’t say where they might strike next. Bluefish are like the threat of Islamists imposing Sharia law in Oklahoma, terrifying, in every way like Rush Limbaugh’s most fervid nightmare, except Bluefish are real. They range the seas from New England to Florida, skipping the West Indies entirely (this is perhaps a result of an innate aversion to rum and reggae music) before re-appearing, in slavering hordes, on the coast of Brazil, leaving, as evidence of their presence, a slimy trail down the South American coastline, all the way to Patagonia. The Bluefish is a sneaky bastard too, not above the use of alias; Aussies call them Tailor, in East Africa they are known as Shad, and on the West coast of the US they are called Elf. You can find them slipping through the Dardanelles, seasonally migrating between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. South East Asia? Check. Gulf of Mexico? Si Senor. If Mayor Quimby from the Simpsons mentioned them in a speech he would salute their vigor.

Note the disdain on the face of the young Yoho.

Note the disdain on the face of the young Yoho.

Every spring in New England, right around the same time the Stripers come in to our local waters, you also begin hearing that “the Blues are runnin’”. This statement could not be less true. Bluefish don’t run from anything. What is in fact running away is every organism the same size or smaller than a Bluefish possessing the means to self-propel, which has the misfortune of sharing the sea with them, including other Bluefish. Their voracity does not discriminate. Depending on location and season Bluefish are known to eat menhaden, squid, sardines, jacks, weakfish, grunts, anchovies, shrimp and the young fry of many species who upon reaching maturity return the favor by hunting Blues. Compared to the Bluefish Jeffrey Dahmer was a picky eater. What I’m saying is, Bluefish got teeth…and they ain’t afraid to use them. Sharp teeth that slash anything they get hold of like a serrated knife. A few years ago, a viral video appeared on youtube; as it begins an angler is hauling Bluefish from the surf on to the beach of Nantucket’s Great Point. Suddenly a seal charges out of the surf, grabs the fish in its teeth, rips it free from the line then ambles back to the water with its prize. Off camera we can hear the robbed angler shout, “HEY!” and some other dopey shit like, “that’s my fish!”, apparently distressed at the loss of his catch, he should of course been shouting, “YAY!”, celebrating the fact that he would not have to unhook his lure from that mouth full of nasty, snapping teeth.

One good thing about Bluefish is that they are really easy to catch. As noted above they will eat anything; they are extremely aggressive and greedy when feeding, so they can be caught using virtually any bait or angling method. Catch them surfcasting from a beach. If you need to make it difficult, use a fly rod off a boat in shallow waters. Troll for them using wire line in offshore rips. If you see a flock of terns diving into the water there is at least a 100%, if not 110%, chance that there are some Bluefish down below. Throw out some tackle, slow your boat down to 5 knots, crack a Bud can and wait. Crush that beer though, because you’ll be reeling one in soon. Fast retrieve a top water Ballistic Missile, troll a weighted parachute jig, sink a chunk of squid on a hook, bounce a diamond jig off the bottom, spend 20 bucks on a Yozuri Crystal Minnow or just throw something shiny with a hook on it in the water and they will go after it. Then after you’ve hooked one, enjoy the sinister spectacle of all the other Bluefish in the vicinity attacking their unfortunate mate. It’s like an undersea zombie apocalypse. You could even try that noodling thing that rednecks do, catching Catfish barehanded, if you weren’t needing to use your fingers any time soon thereafter. Just be sure that you have a wire leader tied on or one of those bastards will cut your line and, chrissakes Cap, have a gaff and a good pair of pliers handy to unhook them.

Bluefish don’t get the love Stripers or Bonito do. Even False Albacore, which are not just totally inedible, but are also incredibly finicky, get more respect; which neatly sums up the masochistic nature of the average sport fisherman. Maybe it is the cannibalism thing, it’s not pretty after all. Maybe it’s the coating of slime you must scrub off your hands every time you handle one or the attendant awesome smell. Maybe it’s because if they are not cooked immediately they will taste like canned tuna that’s been reconstituted with 10w40 motor oil. Bluefish are used to bait lobster traps. Bluefish are buried under plants as fertilizer, killed indiscriminately by charter captains, whose mates might even eat their still beating hearts for a ten dollar tip, and tortured by 10 year old boys on docks everywhere. They used to be, for people who grew up on the edge of the sea, what squirrel or crow are to country folk; what the poor kids had to eat when the cupboards were bare. There’s always someone at the party or on the dock or at the beach who wants to tell you about how they love to eat Bluefish; how if you get small ones or bleed them or prepare them the right way… really fresh, they are delicious. Oh really? What do you do, slather them with mayonnaise and then grill them skin side down? How did I know? Well let’s just say you are not the first matriarch of a mainline Philadelphia family who have been summering on Nantucket for 4 generations that I’ve met. There is only one good way to eat Bluefish and that is to turn it into smoked Bluefish pate.

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It’s all about the smoke.

There are many ways to smoke a bluefish. After considerable trial and not unsubstantial error I have settled on what I feel works best for my pate. First you fillet, no need to remove the scales or, if you are proficient with a fillet knife, even to gut the fish. The next step is probably the most critical: salt the fish. By which I mean completely cover the fillets with kosher salt until you see nothing but white. The salt draws moisture from the fish, which leaves the flesh firmer and flakier after smoking. Rinse the fillets with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Slather the fillets in the cheap fake kind of maple syrup, like my favorite, Log Cabin. Once upon a time I used grade B maple syrup, but on the advice of a local Nantucket fishing columnist I switched and never looked back. Something about the crap kind ( probably something horrible related to Monsanto’s genetically modified corn syrup) makes it cling better. Sometimes, like now, it’s better to not ask a lot of probing questions. Anyway, now you are ready to smoke. I use a two stage smoker so the heat is not applied directly to the fish. Using hardwood charcoal, never briquets, get some heat going, then cover the coals with the apple wood you saved when you pruned your apple tree last fall or those chunks your friend gave you when he cut his tree down or lacking my esoteric supply chain, buy some if you must. Close the smoker’s lid, keep air flow limited and wait. The best time to do this is in the evening. I have found that letting the fire burn out so the fish cools down overnight makes for a firm, nicely colored product.

My Bluefish pate, winner of a Michelin star by proxy.

My Bluefish pate, winner of a Michelin star by proxy.

I make quite a bit of smoked Bluefish pate these days. I sell it on days when my raw bar is set up at the Cisco Brewers beer garden. Also, I include a complimentary bowl on the dory when my services are retained for private events. As is the case with my chowder, everyone who tries my pate agrees, in testimonials generally obtained through limited coercion, that it is the best they have ever tasted. They ask if they can get it at stores, if I will ship it to Connecticut and of course what the recipe is. The answer to all these queries is no. Unless you are the world famous Michelin star awarded chef Daniel Boulud, who once attended an event I where I was shucking and at the urging of the establishment’s GM tried it. “Is it bound with cream cheese?”, he asked. It was Daniel Boulud, so I told him the truth, yes it is, but that’s all he or you will get from me ingredient-wise. He smiled, nodded and moved on, which means I’ve been awarded a Michelin star, by proxy, on my pate. It is also like my chowder in that the recipe is one I got from my wife, which she in turn learned at the knee of her grandmother, the inimitable Marjorie Schwartz. I have modified the proportions over time but not one ingredient have I added or subtracted from the original. The recipe, known only by myself, my wife and key Yoho Joe Wyatt, needless to say will not follow. The idea of trying to get the pate mass produced has been floated and rejected at high level Yoho board meetings, so for now, if you want some for yourself, you must either show up at the Brewery on one of my days or hire the Yohos to shuck at your event.

Return Of The Chowder King

Two Tuckernuck Chowder Battles have come and gone since I last wrote on the subject of how I walk the Earth like the last king of a dying race, no crown upon my head, a chef’s knife and a ladle clutched in either hand the only signifiers of my displaced suzerain as I stumble unbent through a world lacking culinary enlightenment. It must be noted that in this case, of course, the “dying race” is comprised of those individuals blessed by a preternatural grace who know what an award winning chowder should taste like, namely mine. Two more times the planet has made its circuit through the dark, cold void of space during which time my soul has felt a numbing desolation similar to the one found in that vast Stygian vacuum, as if my spirit in reaching to touch the eternal face of Jehovah, lord of the bivalve, had instead brushed against the blank visage of the unnameable one from beyond the curve of space and returned a gnarled, blackened vestige of itself; incapable of hope, devoid of joy, like an infinite culinary Mudville. Despite the heaviness of my heart I will attempt to now give a full and 100% fact checked, peer reviewed account of just what transpired in these last two epic battles upon the strand.

An emotional clambake proposal.

An emotional clambake proposal.

Barely do I now even remember the summer of 2013. I do know it had started with tremendous promise. My raw bar and clambake business had been reinvigorated by the addition of Joe Wyatt, a Wisconsin-bred musician and chef, who had come to Nantucket from his base in Boston for the summer and had fit right in with the scene, from the first earning plaudits for his good food and sweet singing. July began with a tremendous clambake weekend highlighted by the marriage proposal of Bill Brown to Patricia Sheehan Ph.D, GYN, as she emerged from swimming the jelly mile. The remainder of the month now seems a blur of beach parties, fry ups, hootenannies and raw bar events. It was a time of business and pleasure, the quotidian days slipping away hardly noted while the long awaited, highly auspicious date of August 17th fast approached. This was the day scheduled for the 4th Tuckernuck Chowder Battle, my redemption.

There are many who commonly refer to the Tuckernuck Chowder Battle as “the chowder fest” or “the chowder-off” or “the contest Brian won’t stop fucking whining about losing every year”. Well, it is none of these things (even if the whining characterization does have a grain of truth, what is the problem with standing up for one’s self when one is continually wronged?); it is a battle. Because I ask you, what kind of self-respecting king wants to be crowned at a festival or worse a fair? The answer, King Richard, speaks for itself. Furthermore there are no suburban moms dressed as harlots or systems analyst larpers (Google it if you don’t know what I am talking about) playing out revenge fantasies on their bosses with sticks in the lagoon on Tuckernuck when we convene. No, we are bivalve warriors and we have not come out to play-ee-yay.

The 2013 line up.

The 2013 lineup.

The 2013 line-up was tight and tough. No dead weight, dilettantes or first time cooks, only grizzled veterans all seeking one prize, the Chowder Cup. When reigning King, Dane DeCarlo, unveiled the trophy there was universal acclaim for the alterations he had made. Following the lead of previous king Randy Hudson’s fine metal work additions, he had removed the original white plastic bowl and replaced it with a large abalone shell, its iridescent interior beckoning with siren song to all those who sought to be king. In addition to DeCarlo, the previous year’s fluke winner and Hudson, who’s reign was tainted by rumors of a boozy quid pro quo; the other competitors were island newcomer and kitchen pro Joe Wyatt; Clambake veteran and reputed one-man party Arty; highly trained private chef Greg Margolis; wildcard local farmer and Tuckernuck mainstay Sam Slosek; my wife (the original chowder king) Dani Coleman, who only the type of fool who cares not for delicious food or good lovin’ would dare cast aspersions at; and of course the people’s choice and Vegas’ odds on favorite to win, me.

The Yoho makes off with the Wardens' young boy, Theo, in true pirate fashion.

The Yoho makes off with the Wardens’ young boy Theo, in true pirate fashion.

Good friends Andy and Cory Warden were visiting from Colorado with their son Theo and we all had the good fortune to be spending the week after the battle at Sam and Rachel’s ultra luxe Tuckernuck “camp”. Handling all the logistics involved in simultaneously mounting a Chowder Battle and preparing to spend the week on Tuckernuck is a monumental task best not left until the day of the Battle so Andy and I had ferried the bulk of the needed supplies for both over to the island the day before, thus, the morning of the battle I was there in the lagoon early and well prepared. Unfortunately many others were not such paragons of military precision as I myself was. Excuses for delay included such trivialities as hangovers, businesses and even children, who apparently need more regularly scheduled meals and rest today than when I was a boy, all relayed by the malingerer’s favorite method of communication, the text message. Eventually, all the competitors, finished with whatever poorly prioritized tasks had needed their attention arrived, only to find to their great dismay, that the quahog fairies had not visited the beach overnight. Clams being an important, some may say critical, ingredient in clam chowder, a reasonable person might have expected that these contestants would be unable to compete but nooo. We live in a soft age of “going with the flow”, “no worries” and “it’s all good” or so I’ve heard on Glen Beck’s radio show, and so, unsurprisingly, the start time was delayed so the unprepared “takers” as I will call them could rally all available hands to gather the clams which they themselves should have already obtained. Once this exercise in socialist, nanny state Obamanomics was finished we were finally ready to begin. There was one thing however, which caught in my Objectivist craw; while certain “makers” who had with diligence previously acquired an adequate quantity of mollusks for their own chowders unselfishly went back to the clam beds, a certain chef used the time to begin reducing a large amount of heavy cream gaining an edge which later may have proved critical.

The umbrella lineup.

The umbrella lineup.

Finally, cooking, our shared and avowed purpose on this spit of sand, began. I removed myself from contention early due to my all too intense focus on shit-talking which lead to a catastrophic lack of attention to my bacon. Which is to say I burned it. Blackened. Cue the “you’re screwed” theme from a Warner Brothers cartoon. As I have stated with tremendous eloquence in the past, the foundation of a great chowder is the bacon, thus I was fucked and this time by myself. Students of the classics probably would say something like, “situation normal” but you know, smarter. Oh hubris! Tragic flaw of heroes and kings! Never again I vowed, would I turn my gaze from exalted immortality to throw shade at my fellow cook. Not at least until next year.

Soon the cooking was finished and the time for judging was upon us. Our ad hoc event staff (big ups to Katie Davis et al.) organized bowls, ladles and cups and were in no time doling out a taste from each of the steaming submissions to all comers on the beach. Most of the cooks gathered off to the side keeping a respectful distance from the tasting area and sprawled in the sand exchanging war stories, pouring well-deserved libation and enjoying the camaraderie of their fellow contestants. All but with one notable exception who appeared to be making unseemly attempts at lobbying the adult tasters, messing with chowder service and (although no evidence of it was uncovered) possibly, maybe adding gummy bears to the cups of the more youthful members of the judging community. Finally, the tasting complete, the judges stacked their cups before the bowls of chowder, indicating their preference by the cup’s placement and we had a winner.

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The two runners-up, Dane and Big Joe.

Another new tradition was born this particular year with the creation of a second place prize. My ever crafty wife and a number of the kids took a t-shirt left over from that year’s Ozone Surf Classic and gave it a full 1980’s make over. If Jennifer Beals and Pat Benatar had a three-way with David Lee Roth and then let Jimmy Buffet adopt the resultant lovechild and raise it, this shirt would be the one that child would wear while rollerblading. DayGlo green, with the sleeves and collar removed, the midriff section slashed into strips each with a shell or chunk of beach debris tied to the bottom-no set of steak knives was this second prize. Naturally second place turned out to be a tie between the reigning King Dane and newcomer Joe. Photo opportunities abounded as the shirt was modeled in a manner that would have done GQ or Tiger Beat equal disservice. A pact was made to split custody of this amazing garment six months each with Dane taking possession first.

2013 runner-up, Dane, modeling his beautiful prize.

2013 runner-up, Dane, modeling his beautiful prize.

The winner, as you may have surmised by my grousing, was Greg Margolis. By his own admission deeply disappointed by his submission the previous year he had rebounded and taken the most sought after prize in Tuckernuck beach cooking. His cloyingly sweet, super cream had overwhelmed the normally discerning taste buds of the electorate and well, there was that kid’s vote too. He raised the cup proudly and vowed to honor it and improve it for the following year’s battle.

It is the curse of aging that time seems to accelerate as it passes. That is to say each year appears shorter to the individual experiencing it than the one previous. More likely it is a function of the fact that when your are 5, one year is 20% of your life as opposed to being 40 something years old when it represents a mere 2%. Many times have I feebly waved my fist at this inexorable phenomenon, my shoulders hunched in pathetic ennui when I torment myself by considering the terrible fact of mortality but then I stop and give myself a firm slap, thinking, “well, at least the next Chowder Battle will come soon”. Unlike the Jamaican version of “manana”, “soon come” it did.

Last summer made 2013 seem like one long holiday. Yoho business increased dramatically in 2014 with both raw bars and clambakes filling the calendar to bursting and occasionally threatening to squeeze out the sweet tranquil times when friends and family gather on the beach. Yet still there was a great Clambake, replete with boats both sunk and stranded, great friends from all points of the compass, the new Brown baby for all to dote upon, and our amazing fellowship with food and music to tie it all together. Time again became a blur for the next month until, like the year before, the day came to decamp for a stay on Tuckernuck, kicked off again by the Chowder Battle.

2014 lineup.

2014 lineup.

2014 featured the most cooks ever at the Battle. A great combination of regulars and newcomers all seeking to wear the crown. My crown! This year I would wear it physically and not just in my fevered imaginings. Who could possibly beat a chowder based on the best bacon I’d ever made. Bacon home cured and smoked by me. I had made dozens of chowders for clients and all summer the reviews were the same, “BEST CHOWDER EVER”. How could I lose?

Contenders, hard at work.

Contenders, hard at work.

Well, for one thing there were some serious contestants. Greg the reigning king was back with his deep bag of tricks, which had caused the rules committee to split the kid’s vote from the adult’s to prevent any gummy related hi-jinks. The other previous kings Dani, Randy and Dane were all in attendance and despite my all my blathering there’s not a slouch among them. Joe, my right-hand man and wintertime fine dining sous chef, no less, was there ready to use all the secrets he had gleaned from two years of observing me, the master, at work. My children Oona and-more worrisome-Miles (himself now the sous chef at a boutique hotel in Boston), both first-timers were entered as a team. Then there were the wildcards, a polyglot squad consisting of an American from Rhode Island, a German and a Serb; all cooks by trade and all bound by common purpose, claiming they would produce the ocean state’s signature chowder. At the time nobody had any idea what that meant. So we all just gave them that nodding grin and thumbs up you use on people who are mentally ill or want to talk about Duck Dynasty to let them know you really sincerely are with them, while surreptitiously sidestepping away.

Spawn of Yoho, Miles and Oona, competing for the first time.

Spawn of Yoho, Miles and Oona, competing for the first time.

In a repeat of the previous year’s battles many contestants were late, unprepared, or under-equipped and though these folks were given the aid they needed (ingredients, cookware etc.) there was some grumbling from a certain crown-less caterer who was later seen conspicuously thumbing through a dog eared copy of Atlas Shrugged and later heard loudly quoting from John Galt’s climactic radio address. Spirits were high though, tables and burners were set in place and cooking commenced. King Greg unveiled a secret weapon, a whole smoked Virginia ham from which he began rendering fat and feeding potential voters. Randy beset with burner problems, recovered nicely and got his mostly home grown ingredients cooking. Joe quickly ran into seasoning problems which he was still attempting unsuccessfully to mitigate at the end. The Rhode Island chowder soon became the focal point of the day’s shit-talking as it became apparent that this was not in fact a real chowder but was instead some kind of clear Portagee clam and linguica soup with kale or some other green shit floating around in it.


20 minutes in to the competition my chowder was done.
Ready.
Serve it up!

Tasting time!

Tasting time!

Unfortunately no other chowder was even close to being finished and so while my chowder languished; potatoes getting too soft, clams turning rubbery, my fellow contestants plodded on; their feeble hands working as fast as their dim minds (or was it dim hands and feeble minds?) could command. By the time all the other cooks had finished nearly two hours had elapsed and I was forced to reheat. The result was heartbreaking, a perfect chowder now made second rate, but I am a total pro, willing, on any day to match my grade B against what all others call their best and only to kvetch about it for a short time.

The voting process took quite some time. Serious deliberation was required for all in attendance agreed that this was the best collection of chowders ever produced at the battle, and who wants to rush through that? Earnest discussions breaking down flavor profiles, mouth feel and other such Food Network catchphrases fortunately were not a part of this process. Even the Rhode Island entry, despite being a soup and not a real chowder, earned grudging but well-deserved praise.

And then, awards time.

Many judges weighed in.

Many judges weighed in.

Greg had carried on the tradition of each King making an alteration to the Cup by replacing the antler legs with real, bedazzled trophy posts worthy of a Little Miss Sunshine pageant. All the kids on the beach had taken it on themselves to create a prize for the winner of the kid’s choice vote, a well-crafted crown of twigs, seagulls bones, feather, shells and other available flotsam and jetsam. Greg won the kid’s vote going away and claimed their sweet crown. The adult vote was a nail biter but in the end Greg won that as well, defeating your faithful correspondent by a single vote. Raising his hard earned trophy to the sky, the first Chowder King in the short storied history of the competition to repeat. He turned his head up to face the heavens; the golden, near liquid rays of the mid-afternoon August sun flowing over his bearded chin like a chowder tsunami, opened his mouth and let loose a whoop of joy.

Reigning King, Greg!

Reigning King, Greg!

I took home my set of steak knives already scheming as to how I might better synchronize finishing my chowder with my less-efficient adversaries next year.

The trophy in all her glory.

The trophy in all her glory.

Then it was time to sing. Instruments were produced, drinks poured, many from the floating satellite of the Chicken Box known as Stella B and we sang the songs we loved that summer accompanied on guitar, mandolin and ukulele, by the cohort of fine musicians in attendance and for some reason, from Smashing Pumpkins to Lorde, every song was about Hodor. We sang and drank, laughing until we were crying and we ate more chowder; mixing all of them together in one bowl of awesome, and the sun got low and dusk came and still we sang, nobody wanting to be the first to leave that beach.

The after party.

The after party.

"Big Country" Joe.

“Big Country” Joe.

Sunshiney girls.

Sunshiney girls.

Lil' Jacqui killing it.

Lil’ Jacqui killing it.

Enjoyed until the last drop.

Enjoyed until the last drop.

Done, till next year!

Wait until next year!

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.

101 Uses for Strong Rum

Rum. Just the saying the word can elicit many intense feelings and sensations. Thirst. Pain. Want. Need. Poets, or at least poetic pirates, sailors and fishermen, through the centuries have sung its praises while under its influence, only to cry in anguish in its aftermath. Preachers have castigated its users and producers and characterized it as “demon rum”. Many islands produce rum but this is the story of only one of them, one which I have come over the last 15 years to know quite well. It goes by the name Sunset.

Sunset, by which I mean the rum which is sub-titled Very Strong Rum, is a white rum produced on the island of St Vincent in the Windward Islands of the West Indies. It is a once both a source of local pride, as it is at 170 proof the strongest rum made in the Caribbean, and national shame due to its many corrosive effects on the fabric of family and society at large. Strong rum is incredibly cheap, a ½ pint bottle can be had in most rum shops for a mere ec$5 and as noted above it is strong enough to render a grown man senseless in short order. It is a hidden dragon used as the base for signature rum punches at many reputable establishments, which only later does the now jelly legged tourist realize was masked at first by the sweet fruit and nutmeg they tasted when it hit the tongue. Mostly though it is sold at rum shops and village groceries and consumed overwhelming by men in “shotties”, small sips poured into a “plastic glass”, followed by chaser which if the men are feeling flush is a splash of a soft drink or more often water.

This is an apt description of the effects of Sunset, by nationality.

This is an apt description of the effects of Sunset, by nationality.

I first encountered it late night at the legendary nightspot Penthouse, a small cinder block shack on the edge of Port Elizabeth, Bequia. Run by a young guy with dreads, whose name escapes me now, it was the place to go when all others shut down. Whether there were 200 people outside or just 2, he would play great music and serve drinks until no-one wanted more. The place is so small that by necessity most of the action takes place outside with the street serving as the dance floor and the low walls around as its ersatz seating. Often, when attempting to describe the place to friends in the US, I would say that it was like a boombox on the side of the road with drinks coming out of it. One night I offered to buy a couple local guys that I knew a beer. They asked me instead to get them rum and chaser which, it was pointed out, would cost ec$2 less than the beers. Inside the Rasta took a funnel, poured the clear liquid into a half pint bottle and gave it to me with a bottle of Pepsi and a couple plastic cups. My two friends and several other opportunists performed the ritual of shotties and insisted that I join in for one. It smelled like paint thinner and went down like jet fuel but after the sweet splash of Pepsi there was only a warmth spreading through me. I got another and then another “quart”, assured by the locals that drinking strong rum never, ever leads to a hangover. This was just an amuse-bouche to the cavalcade of untrue claims about the properties of strong rum that I have since encountered and, needless to say, the next morning, so blinding was the pain behind my eyes, that I wished I were dead and swore never to drink again.

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