tuckernuck

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.

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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.

The Chowder King

My name is Brian Cullen and I, like many Rastafarians and that weird Hasidic kid Matisayahu, am a king without a crown. Over what realm does my suzerain extend? Simply put the boundaries of my realm contain all that is known to man as chowder. Full disclosure: the foundation of everything I know about making chowder I appropriated from my wife. That’s not to say that she invented chowder or that she didn’t just learn it from her Grandmother, because she didn’t and she did respectively; it’s just that as I begin this story I feel that credit should be given to those who came before me and created the basis of something that I have now perfected and taken to a level of Zen equal to that of the Buddha or even the Dude. And just as Phillip of Macedon paved the way for Alexander the Great so have others blazed a trail for me in the making of this sublime creamy soup. (more…)