The Story of an Oyster

Chef and author Michael Ruhlman travels from a New York City bistro to the briny breeding grounds of the world's most extraordinary bivalve.

By: Michael Ruhlman

I stood on a barge off Cape Cod in a cool May breeze, the oysterman's muddy hand extending a shucked offering, the white interior of the shell pure and rimmed an emerald green, the flesh of the oyster itself floating in clear ocean brine. It was mine.

Some men follow women, across continents, across oceans. I had followed an oyster—from Le Gigot, a tiny bistro on Cornelia Street in Manhattan's West Village, to this floating shack on Buzzards Bay—to taste, at its source, one of the most delicious oysters I've had, a Peter's Point.

I tilted the shell back, taking in the brine, my front teeth tugging the flesh onto my tongue, a sharp and heady salt water bracing my mouth, opening it to sea-plant flavors and then a sweet finish. I slowly chewed the resistant, supple meat.

The oysterman smiled and shucked another.

What is it about the oyster that so beguiles? It's a food like no other. It initially repels; who would want to eat their first oyster? It's the only food we consume that's still alive. It's food that tastes distinctly of its place. And that taste is lovely and intriguing, a strange mixture of salty and sweet, with flavors that range from the sea to fruit to butter. But I think the writer Rowan Jacobsen, in his book A Geography of Oysters, best explains its mysterious allure when he writes, "At some level, it's not about taste or smell at all. Because an oyster, like a lover, first captures you by bewitching the mind."

And so it did mine, in that West Village restaurant, to the point that, having eaten my first Peter's Point oyster, I had to ask for details. The server explained that they were from Duxbury, which wasn't precisely true but was enough to get me on my way, 250 miles northeast to that little town on the Massachusetts coast midway between Boston and Cape Cod.

There, on a Duxbury Bay dotted with skiffs and high-school rowing teams and oyster barges, is Island Creek Oysters, started nearly 20 years ago by Skip Bennett, now a tall, boyish 50-year-old, sunglasses resting on the visor of his ball cap and ready to smile, especially if he's talking about oyster farming.

The mid-1990s proved to be an auspicious time to venture into oyster farming, Bennett says. The business then was opaque, with few regulations on labeling and little information for chefs on the provenance of the oysters they ordered from distributors, or how long they'd been out of the water. "Chefs couldn't put them on their menu because it was a total dice roll," he says.

In the fall of 2001, when his first sizeable crop peaked, Bennett had to hand-sell his oysters in an industry suspicious of them. He drove his truck north to East Coast Grill, one of the best-known and respected restaurants in Boston. The chef, Chris Schlesinger, happened to be in the kitchen when Bennett showed up. He tasted the oysters Bennett opened for him and said, "I'll take every oyster you can bring me."

The business had begun, a harbinger of an oyster revolution in America.

My own oyster history is a little embarrassing. A Cleveland boy raised on the coast of Lake Erie, I wouldn't eat them, period, until 1988, when my girlfriend told me I must (and girlfriends can get a guy to eat almost anything). She took me to a rustic shack in Jensen Beach, Florida, near where we lived. She scoffed as I poured hot sauce all over my first one (wanting simply to swallow it like a pill to avoid tasting it). Over time she did her best to educate me in the ways of oysters, insisting they were best simply with a few drops of lemon juice. I conceded, and with that, the true allure of the oyster took hold of my soul.

Twenty-five years later, having become ensconced in the food world, I began writing Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello's Bouchon cookbook. In the name of research I would sit at Bouchon's zinc bar, order a glass of Schramsberg sparkling wine and a variety of Penn Cove oysters from Washington State, some of the freshest and best oysters available. Shortly thereafter Thomas, Jeffrey, and I traveled to Lyon, the French city where the bouchon, a style of casual bistro serving communal food, originated. At one restaurant, Thomas ordered a dozen oysters, European Flats. He explained that these would be very minerally and finish with a cucumber flavor.

"Right," I thought. "Cucumber, sure." But I kept my mouth shut. Until the oysters arrived. Cucumber! It astonished. The mysteries and the pleasures of the oyster would continue to grow for me. And that oyster in Lyon would be the best oyster I'd ever tasted. Until I set foot into Le Gigot.

Reaching island creek oysters is only the first step of the journey to the source of the oyster that had enchanted me. Island Creek doesn't grow the Peter's Points; a seafood collaborative, it ships them, along with those from other small farmers, a total of 220,000 oysters weekly. The actual source is a half-hour's drive south to the home of Bob Tourigny in Onset, Massachusetts, a small town at the northernmost tip of Buzzards Bay.

Tourigny's Onset Oyster Corp.—a dock, a barge, a skiff—grows oysters on about seven acres of Fisherman's Cove. The cove at high tide is about 6 feet deep, and at low tide, when they hand-harvest the oysters using rakes, it's about 2 feet and the oysters are easy to reach.

By day, Tourigny is a reverse mortgage banker. His partner, longtime quahog farmer Dennis Pittsley, handles the daily harvesting, culling, and bagging. Not unpleasant work in summer, but considerably more difficult in January, February, and March, when snow and ice and wind make the hand-harvesting especially grueling.

"People ask me, "Why do your oysters cost so much?'" Tourigny says to me as he stands over a table covered with freshly pulled oysters, culling them with gloved hands to separate keepers from those that will go back into the water for more maturing. He wishes people better understood the labor involved.

One of the reasons that Peter's Point oysters taste so rich is the wealth of algae in the water where they grow, which they eat as they filter water, as much as 50 gallons daily. There is so much algae, in fact, that their shells are a vivid green when they're harvested. "Normally at low tide they're in 2½ feet of water," says Pittsley, "but if I put them in a foot of water, put them along the shoreline, they turn this beautiful green."

This is what Skip Bennett at Island Creek calls "the hand of the grower," an acknowledgment of the fact that the shape of the oyster's shell, its color, and of course its flavor are variable and in some measure directed by the farmer.

Pittsley hops in the skiff to fetch oysterman John McCarthy, along with the 500-odd oysters the near-septuagenarian has harvested this morning. Tourigny and two workers wash and cull and bag the oysters on the barge. When the 80 bags—8,000 oysters—are loaded onto the skiff, Pittsley hops in and motors off to deliver them to a waiting Island Creek truck.

Turning Left off a bustling Bleecker Street in Manhattan onto narrow Cornelia, I return to Le Gigot, to talk oysters with owner Pamela Decaire and likely to eat the Peter's Points I saw raked out of Buzzards Bay just a few days ago.

"If I have my choice, it's Peter's Point," Decaire says from behind the zinc bar of her restaurant. "I love the brininess of it and the deeper cup. Size is so important. The iodine level with all the algae, I love. That's where the green comes from; the greens are beautiful.

"There were a couple of weeks this winter when the oysters were under ice and we couldn't get them—but that first shipment that came in after the ice, God they were good."

Of course it is lovely to eat a dozen oysters on the half-shell, with a cold dry Muscadet, a squeeze of lemon or a few drops of mignonette. But frankly, I loved most slurping that muddy oyster, feet above where it grew, silt and algae from the bottom of the shell clinging to my lower lip as I sucked the oyster out. There, in the salty air coming off Buzzards Bay, to the music of lapping water against the dock pilings, I found, and had, the best oyster I've ever tasted.

Michael Ruhlman is the author of more than 20 books, primarily on food and cooking, as well as a new collection of novellas, In Short Measure. This is his first piece for Coastal Living.

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