Oysters, with their briny flavor and phlegm-like texture, are something of an acquired taste. You either hate them or love them.
I had my first oyster last March at The Mermaid Inn, a trendy spot in the East Village, with every intention that it would be my first and last. But when I held the shell up to my lips and let the oyster slide over my taste buds, my preconceived notions and reservations about seafood forever changed.
It turns out I was living a life of deprivation. So to make up for lost time, I made it a point to go out for oysters and cocktails at least once — sometimes twice — a month.
When Kris, a colleague of mine, born and raised in Maine, told me of oysters back home the size of credit cards, I needed little other reason to travel up the eastern seaboard to sample them.
The drive between New York City and Maine yields a sense of repose. This past August, when summer city temperatures peaked in the high eighties, I drove up the eastern seaboard with my friend, Hannah. Gridlock traffic and honking horns were replaced with open asphalt strewn with moose crossing signs that stretched north. In five hours, we reached Portland, Maine, our first destination of a week-long trip.
That night we took an Uber from our Airbnb in Scarborough, about seven miles from downtown Portland, to the Port City Music Hall. There, performing in front of a sea of flannel and fringe, Yellow Ledvedder — a Pearl Jam tribute band whose name plays off one of the band’s popular songs, “Yellow Ledbetter,” and frontman Eddie Vedder’s name — stirred up my emotions and took me back to those highs and lows of my adolescence. The cravings, rebellion, losses and newfound loves that molded me at a time when I barely understood anything, yet understood everything I needed to know — seemed to represent Pearl Jam’s discography.
In between songs I went to the bar, ordered a tequila soda and took note of the absence of straws. Inside the bathroom, on one of the stalls, I took a picture of a sticker that declared “Plastic is Poison.”
After the show we went outside and lingered in clouds of cigarette smoke and found similar interests in strangers we’d never see or talk to again. I met people who were interested in the oyster story I would be writing for Public Goods.
“You can’t leave Portland without going to J’s!” one woman in a “It Doesn’t Get Eddie Vedder Than This” t-shirt insisted on.
Portland is the largest city in Maine. From South Portland to the city proper, we cruised with the convertible top down across Casco Bay Bridge, a bascule structure with a pivoting section that allows barges and tankers to carry freight along the Fore River.
On a sunny and breezy Sunday afternoon, Portland’s Waterfront Historic District and Promenade, dotted with fishing wharves, lobster boats, creameries, shops and seafood restaurants, was crowded with people — their varied accents indicative of summer vacationers.
Near the lot where we parked our car, a sign read, “May you have fair winds and following seas.” Two thick slabs of the Berlin Wall made passers-by stop in their tracks to read. “A time for peace” and “Forget not the tyranny of this wall and horrid place. Nor the love of freedom that made it fall — laid waste.”
J’s Oyster, a white stucco building with blue lettering, located down a narrow alley, garnered popularity, judging by the wait time. We put in our name, walked along the Promenade and an hour and a half later, our reservation was called.
The Atlantic Ocean breeze, despite the bright sun, made me shiver, and to be reaching for a jacket in August felt strange. Still, we decided to have lunch outside, overlooking the water. We ordered a Baker’s Dozen of Virginia oysters, raw and nude, served with lemon and cocktail sauce. Hannah ordered the clam chowder and for the second time this year, I tried —and enjoyed — a type of seafood that for decades, I had harbored an antipathy for.
Seeing overturned empty shells on the silver platter, our waitress came to clear the table but stopped when she saw me take out my phone and to snap a picture of the empty oyster shells.
“See that right there?” she asked pointing to what I perceived to be a barnacle. “That’s a baby oyster.”
She encouraged me to throw it back in the water. These tiny oysters, she described, would grow for the next few years until they were big enough to eat.
“We do this all the time,” she said.
Throwing the shells into the water like mini frisbees, we must have looked childish to the surrounding diners.
Oysters, evidently, should only be eaten during months that contain an “r.” This local advice has little to do with whether or not oysters are safe to eat but more to do with the flavor and texture of the oyster.
The reason oysters should only be eaten between September and April has to do with their reproduction cycle. Oysters naturally begin to spawn, or release sperm and egg, when oceanic temperatures get warmer, between May and August. Areas like the Gulf of Mexico, however, where temperatures remain relatively temperate all year long, can spawn outside of the May-August window.
When oysters spawn, their texture and flavor alter. The meat takes on a fatty, mushy, watery, and less flavorful composition. After spawning, a strenuous act for them, oysters become lean and languid, once again altering their structure.
An ideal oyster is plump and meaty. To achieve this quality, years of cultivation are needed.
With Portland in our rearview mirror, we journeyed a few hours north and passed fresh blueberry stands, as well as a seafood restaurant with an enormous inflatable lobster perched on its roof. We drove down a winding road lined with evergreens and the perpetual buzzing of cicadas. The setting sun hung in the sky like a jewel and flickered through the dense woods. Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” faded in and out of the FM radio.
Fifty miles from Portland, we arrived at Westport Island, a sleepy New England backwater that is home to some 720 residents. Isolated from the mainland by two coastal salt water rivers that cascade on either side, the island maintains its economy mainly by fishing.
Here, fishermen primarily trap lobsters and crabs to sell in local fish markets. Across the bridge that carries you to Westport Island stand Sarah’s Cafe & Twin Schooner’s Pub and Red’s Eats, the latter a little old shack where throngs of people — at any given time of day — line up for $25 lobster rolls.
We had booked our stay at a teepee under the stars. A tree with a sign tacked on read “HIPPIE HOUSE THIS WAY” and a long gravel driveway ascended before us. We parked in front of a garage with a peace sign painted on its front. On the right of us, a psychedelic bus that saw its share of Grateful Dead tours — judging by the amount of Dead Head paraphernalia on it — sat on the property.
I looked at Hannah and said, “These Airbnb hosts can hang.”
Cary, our host, greeted us, barefoot, and gave us a tour around the property. Her partner, who went by Huggie, a tall man with kind eyes dressed in a Grateful Dead T-shirt, shook our hands. After learning where we lived, he told us about an earlier period in his life living in Brooklyn.
We lugged our luggage up a slate of boulder, to a summit where a telescope and teepee lay positioned. The moon hung in the sky and shone through the surrounding pines.
We hadn’t eaten dinner. Huggie recommended we cross the Sheepscot River and go to Sarah’s Cafe where you could get a bowl of haddock chowder for $6.50 with $1.50 refills. But by the time we arrived, a young hostess said they were closing soon. Moved by our long faces, she made an exception, seated us and gave us full range of the chowder bar. With an assortment of breads, rolls and croutons, we satiated our appetites.
I hadn’t eaten haddock, let alone haddock chowder. Hunks of flaky white haddock swam among soft potato wedges in a creamy white broth speckled with little pools of oil. The flavor was phenomenal, searing imprints on the meat of my brain.
Come morning, after eating baked eggs and a vegan blueberry streusel Carey made from blueberries she had picked on the mountain earlier that week, Hannah and I drove thirty minutes southwest to Edgecomb to visit Glidden Point, an oyster farm that provides daily tours for $5.
The tour provided an exploration of oyster farming that was equal parts educational and enthralling. I find that the more opportunities I have to see and learn where my food comes from strengthens my relationship with nature, earth and our resources. I become invested in a deeper respect, in turn, looking for more ways to uphold sustainable practices.
Inside a farmhouse that houses tours and the retail shop where all of Glidden Point oysters are sold, we met our tour guide, Sarah Vanacore, a twenty-three year old who is studying marine science with a concentration in aquaculture at the University of Maine. She spoke fervently about her job and role at Glidden Point.
Aquaculture, also known as fish farming or shellfish farming, refers to the cultivation of aquatic plants and animals. Over the years, the advancements made by researchers, engineers and enthusiasts alike have broadened the role of aquaculture in both commercial and conservation efforts. Today, aquaculture is not only a popular profession, but a hobby, too.
Naturally, oysters grow in estuaries. These coastal, brackish bodies of water are results of the fresh rivers and streams that run through, coupled with the free connection to the surrounding ocean.
There are over 100 estuaries dotted along the coasts of North America where millions of oysters grow. Estuaries, laden with salt marshes and organic matter, are ideal feeding and growing zones for oysters. Oysters feed on the organic matter they cohabit with in the estuaries, eliminating the cost of food and making oysters one of the more sustainably cultivated organisms in the water.
When the waters warm, adult oysters release egg and sperm by the millions, forming a baby oyster. One of the first things these newly formed oysters do is take in nutrients and calcium to build a hard shell for protection.
Sarah then provided us with a brief history lesson of the Damariscotta River itself.
In the early nineteenth century, Native Americans ate the natural oysters that were here. The many middens — little oyster shell burial grounds that appear on the banks of the river — indicate their presence.
Around the late 1800s a change in the environment took hold. The Damariscotta River changed to 20 parts per thousand and above (what is it now). A bunch of predators came in and destroyed the river’s natural oyster beds, killing off this sustainable food source.
“There were probably some oysters in the river” Sarah said, “but not as many that there used to be.”
When the Europeans came over, they wanted to reintroduce oysters, so they cultivated a European oyster. Those products weren’t commercially viable, so the market collapsed.
Then in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coincidentally when Long Island rock band Blue Oyster Cult was topping the charts, fishermen and lobstermen wanted something else to do. Their new trade was to bring back the naturally occurring species, which was the Eastern oyster, also known as the American oyster. Oyster farming took off from there: hatcheries started cropping up and pretty soon everyone was cultivating oysters.
Sarah passed around a wooden plank with eight different sized oysters in their various growth spurts, all glued on.
Oysters are born as seedlings at hatcheries. Once they are about a month old, these oyster seedlings, or baby oysters, are sent to oyster farms like Glidden Point where they will continue to grow. Larger operations, such as Muscongus Bay Aquaculture and Mook Sea Farm, own both hatcheries and farms, eliminating the need to outsource. Glidden Point buys are their seedlings from both farms.
At this stage the oysters are about the size of a grain of quinoa. Their shells are very fragile.
Next, Glidden Point employees measure the quinoa-sized oysters by the shot glass. One shot glass yields about 5,000 oysters. The oysters are then placed in one of the 250-owned fine mesh trays, with 20,000 oysters per tray. Glidden Point also utilizes upwellers, a low-maintenance method because the oysters do not have to be put out on lines.
Once in the mesh trays, the oysters are sealed to ensure none float away. They are too small to attach themselves to oyster beds (cultch) and thus need protection. These protective mesh casings float on the surface of the water at Glidden Point’s designated lease sites.
The fine mesh of the tray ensures that oyster seedlings do not escape and drift away. Nonetheless, natural selection does play a role in the cultivation of oysters. At a month old they have about a 50% chance of survival.
Sarah continued to educate us on the operations of Glidden Point. She led us down a steep, aluminum gangway. At the base, crates and mesh bags lay. In the middle of the dock were several rectangular cutouts where stacked trays of oysters sit in Glidden Edge, in the Damariscotta River.
At one year old and two inches in size, Glidden Point oysters are transported by boat to the middle of the Damariscotta River, to one of three lease sites, where they are dumped overboard from their trays, and will spend the next two to five years of their lives growing (cocktail oyster typically spend one to two years; select spend two to three years; and jumbos, three to five years). This method, called bottom planting, compared to off-bottom cultivating methods like cage cultivating, promotes slow growth because of the colder temperatures at the river’s bottom.
When oysters are bottom planted, their size matters; an oyster too small will be swept away with the current. For this reason, oysters below the two-inch requirement are kept in trays until they are large enough to be bottom planted.
At the bottom of the river, the oysters are neither attached to anything nor protected by anything, so they rock back and forth with the changing tides. The oyster’s shell, in turn, becomes hard and durable, eliminating gunk or sand from seeping in and contaminating the meat. Inside a hard exterior, the meat of the oyster gradually plumps.
A harder shell also prevents predators — sea stars, snails, crabs, sponges — from breaking open its shell. One issue some oyster farms are battling with is mussels, which are attaching themselves to oysters and suffocating them.
Others posit that the shell becomes harder at the bottom because it absorbs the beneficial nutrients in the river’s muddy bottom. When the tide comes, the oysters rock back and forth, fortifying with the tide.
The duration of time spent in the water may or may not affect the flavor of the oyster, especially when they are grown in the same areas. Older oysters tend to be saltier; their larger shells can hold a lot more brine inside. At Glidden Point, for instance, the jumbo oyster tastes saltier than say the cocktail oysters which are smaller in size.
Cage cultivating, on the other hand, is a process by which oysters spend their entire lives at the surface of the water, growing quickly due to the warmer temperatures. Various oyster farms can choose one method, or alternate between the two to achieve a specific type of oyster.
The increasingly high demand of oysters in the restaurant industry also plays a role in the type of method oyster cultivators choose; cage cultivated oysters can be harvested sooner, in about a year, but the meat will not be as plump as that of bottom planted oysters. Still, farmers can choose to keep them in the cages for a longer period of time.
When you eat one of Glidden Point’s oysters, it is about three years old. Time and patience play pivotal roles in these delicacies.
Location also affects the flavor of an oyster. Salt marshes, laden with food sources, are ideal for oysters.
Interestingly, oysters can change sexes. They reach sexual maturation at two years of age. Typically the younger ones are male and older are female. But the older ones can switch annually from male to female if they so choose.
During spawning season, male and female adult oysters release egg and sperm by the millions, creating little plectonic oysters. One of its first functions as a baby oyster is to take in calcium to build a shell for protection.
Oysters are filter feeders, a vital contributor to the protection and longevity of our waters. On average, an oyster can filter through 100 gallons of water a day. By intaking nitrogen pollution, oysters filter and purify the water. New York and its Billion Oyster Project are currently reaping those benefits.
Similarly to the rings in a tree’s trunk, an oyster’s age can be determined by the rings or layers on the shell. Mostly made of calcium like our bones, these shells are not always the easiest to read, especially with more idiosyncratic shells like the Japanese Kumamoto oyster.
On the dock, we rocked back and forth, trying to keep our balance. “You gotta find your sea legs!” Sarah said.
We hovered around green trays, called wet storage cages, that were in the middle of the dock. Each tray can hold 300 oysters.
“In these bays you can fit six of these trays deep,” Sarah informed us.
She showed us the various types of oysters, organized by type in crates — massive jumbo oysters that grew up to seven years old, wild oysters with barnacles covering the exterior like an old ship.
The wet storage cages mark the final stage of the oyster’s cultivation process. Here, they purge or clean themselves of any grit or sand they might have consumed while being bottom planted. During the summer months, because they are in such demand, the oysters only spend a week in the cages. During the remaining months, the oysters can spend anywhere from several weeks to several months in the cages.
When the oysters are ready to be taken from the crates, about three years into their maturation, they are hosed off with a water pump, dumped out on a large table and measured. Next, they are sized out using white PVC piping.
Any oyster that falls through the pipe is labeled “RTG,” which means “return to grow.” These oysters, not fully grown, will be returned to the Glidden Point lease sites where they will finish growing.
Inside a boat house, I noticed various colored mesh bags hanging from the ceiling. Each color designated a specific count. The black bags are used for Glidden Point’s select oysters, a popular item; the white bags are used for the cocktail oysters; the red bags are used for the “uglies” of the group; and yellow bags are used for wild oysters.
To put numbers in perspective, Sarah passed around a record sheet and recited orders.
“When we do a wash and pack [every Monday and Wednesday] we count the oysters out by the hundred, so there will be 100-count bags of oysters. This morning it looked like we needed 53 100-count bags of our cocktail oysters, 23 100-count bags of our selects, 31 100-count bags of the wild oysters.”
These oysters are sold wholesale to various surrounding restaurants and markets, such as the River House in Damariscotta, Harbor Fish in Portland, The Anchor Restaurant in New Harbor, and Mine Oyster in Boothbay. The oysters can also be shipped out of state. Two men in their forties in the tour group said they had tried Glidden Point oysters yesterday where they had dined the previous night. They are also sold at their retail store.
After the tour, we all headed to the Farm Store, where the oysters are sold for retail. Inside, nautical decor and various products — Glidden Point t-shirts, cases of Maine Root soda, copies of Rowan Jacobsen’s “The Essential Oyster” and “Geography of Oysters,” shucking tools, Waldostone cocktail sauces and mignonettes in little glass jars — lined the natural, unpainted wood walls. These soft earth tones complemented the exposed beams that ran along the ceiling across the length of the room.
On one end of the room stood a large refrigerator of Glidden Point oysters, organized by type in bright orange crates. On the front of each crate little placards indicated name, flavor, shuck-ability and size.
Only two types, the Glidden Point Cocktails and Jumbos, are cultivated by Glidden Point. The various other types, like the Moon Dancers, are cultivated by neighboring coastal Maine oyster farms as part of the Coastal Harvesters collection. “We buy and sell brokered Maine shellfish that align with our standards of quality,” a representative in sales told me via email.
A chalkboard behind the counter and register welcomed us and imparted an anonymous written quote: “This be the ark where life resides. And this, tiny cradle, beaker of treasure, this be the oyster, slow rocked by the tides.” There was also a photo of a man dressed in scuba diving gear bobbing in the water as snow flakes blurred and muted the photo.
“We dive harvest for our oysters,” Sarah said. “Even in the winter months, when the water is freezing, we’re still diving for them.”
Visibility is better in the winter because there’s no algae blooms or phytoplankton spawning. Divers are able to see the matured oysters at the bottom of the river. They are scooped up into little nets that will float to the surface. Glidden Point also dredges for oysters a couple times a year. A dredge gets dragged along the bottom of the river by a fishing boat, but mainly dive harvesting is how they harvest their oysters, a process that they maintain year round.
Hannah and I decided to get a dozen each and “go on all the rides,” as my aunt would say whenever she samples a medley of foods. With each oyster priced at either a buck twenty-five or a buck fifty, Glidden Point stands out as economical.
Behind the farmhouse, in an area with picnic tables and umbrellas, we learned to shuck oysters. To shuck an oyster is to lever the two shells apart. Two tools are required: a thick glove lined with rubber to protect your hand and the shucking knife.
With your less dominant hand, hold the oyster down with the bigger half of the shell on the bottom, touching the table. On the pointed end of the oyster is a little lip where the shucking knife goes in. Using your dominant hand, stick the knife in and rock it back and forth to split open the shell. Carefully, with it still inside the shell, lever the knife around to the other end, loosening the shell in the process.
At this point the oyster is still alive until you remove the mantle from the shell. Gently remove the shell and place it aside. Using the knife, scrape the meat from the shell until its completely separated and, voila, you’ve shucked an oyster.
To eat an oyster, bring the wide end of the shell to your lips, slurp it and its “liquor,” and take a couple chews to experience its distinct flavor profile.
The Moon Dancers were my favorite: briny and plump thanks to a hard shell.
On an adjacent table a man, who looked oddly like John Lennon in tie dye and a leather jacket, shucked oysters. A motorcycle helmet lay on the bench next to him. His phone rang.
“Hey kiddo,” he said. Then paused to listen.
“Well I’m at Glidden Point eating oysters, so, I’m fantastic! Yep, life is good.”
Afterward we stopped at Scully Sea Products, LLC, an oyster and lobster market just down the road. In a detached garage, a sign welcomed us and said we were free to use the honor box if nobody was there to assist.
Then, Barbara Scully entered. A trim woman with four decades of oyster cultivation under her belt, she has contributed and transformed herself into a staple in the Damariscotta region, whose copious amounts of knowledge in oysters, lobsters and clams and boating, captivated my curiosity. In 1987 she began Glidden Point, which she operated until 2015.
But before her career set off, she attended the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She was interested in the college because of its affiliation with the Shoals Marine Laboratory, a teaching and research facility on Appledore Island, one of nine islands in the Isles of Shoals archipelago, run jointly by UNH and Cornell University.
There were no college degrees in aquaculture then, she pointed out, nor classes. She graduated with a bachelors in Zoology, Masters in Secondary Science Education and Minor in Exercise Physiology.
Running Glidden Point, she said, was a great adventure, but was also the ultimate school of hard knocks.
“I was learning the lessons, by trial and error, that would spawn the Maine oyster aquaculture industry as we know it today. If I made a mistake in judgement or timing, oysters died, as did my income. But it was really exciting and fun being a part of something much larger than myself, the industry that we created, the curricula and textbooks that were spawned from our efforts.”
“I’m fairly certain all of us early pioneers here in the Maine oyster frontier of the 1980s understood that we were cowboys in one of the last wild places that could allow this type of discovery. It was wonderful.”
She went on to explain that in the first decade, the oyster farming was not very lucrative but was “worth every sleepless minute.” Once Scully figured out a formula for what would work for larger scale oyster production on the sites she had chosen, she invested everything she owned, every ounce of her energy, and every waking minute of her time to see her plan through.
“My life was a giant science experiment that was risky but wonderful. Then at age 49, out of the blue and with no family history, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I survived, recovered, and continued on in my usual role, but understood that I had to change it up. Selling Glidden Point Oyster and reforming as Scully Sea Products felt like coming full circle,” she said.
She down-sized to something that could better be managed, but also kept her involvement in the industry she loves and helped to create. Today she consults, branches out and reaches out to people she didn’t have time for before.
“It has been a really good fit for me, both then and now, and I’m pleased that I was able to semi-exit somewhat gracefully but continue to do what is so much a part of my being. Popeye said it best: ‘I yam what I yam’” she said.
“What do you love most about this business?” I asked.
“The excuse to own lots of boats,” Scully said and smiled.
Recently Scully has been experimenting with a new method: the beach oyster. These oysters are exposed to the air twice a day at low tide. Some hang in baskets; others are along the shore.
This method is intentional. When the oysters are out of water, they can no longer feed. This starvation advertently slows down their growth, altering the meat to shell ratio, becoming more plump.
This technique produces a small, hard shell, deep cup oyster along areas of the estuary that are not typically deemed as ideal growing areas — as far as traditional cultivation methods are concerned.
The oysters grown in baskets, Scully informed me, flip themselves, tumble themselves, and have natural ultra-violet and anti-fouling properties. Biofouling is an undesirable occurrence in which other organisms attach themselves and grow on equipment or oysters. These organisms then take advantage of the resources required for optimal oyster growth, limiting the amount of oysters to be produced. In more dire situations, biofouling causes mortality.
Cleaning equipment from the damage caused by biofouling takes time and money. By cultivating oysters that possess natural anti-fouling properties, Scully follows both a sustainable and economical approach.
“The savings in labor cost are huge,” she said.
Scully’s oysters naturally clean themselves from biofouling parasites on a daily basis. Each tidal cycle, or 24-hour period, Scully’s oysters are removed from the water and exposed to air and sunlight, for two or more hours. The natural breeze coupled with the sun’s UV rays from the sun dry and kill off some of the biofouling organisms.
“The areas of the Damariscotta River estuary suited to deployment of the hanging baskets are largely underutilized, so the potential for growth of the industry utilizing this or similar methods is huge,” she added.
I bought three Damariscotta-grown oysters for $1.50 a piece: Appledore, Norumbega and Dodge Cave, the largest. Scully scooped ice cubes from a cooler into a plastic bag, placed the oysters on top and tied a knot.
I was free to enjoy the oysters on the picnic table where a game of corn hole was set up.
There were shucking tools at a station, but no toppings. Cocktail sauce and lemons were BYO, though most people typically pick up oysters and bring them home.
After shucking two dozen oysters at Glidden Point, I was a pro. I opened the first oyster with quick precision. The meat, cupped in mother of pearl, was plump and meaty. A few bubbles were present in the oyster liquor, the natural oyster juice that keeps the oyster alive once it’s out of the water, which meant the oyster was still alive. In fact, oysters are alive until you eat them.
This is a good thing. Nobody wants to eat a dead oyster.
With a knife, I severed the meat from the shell and gulped when I felt the girth of the meat. “Don’t gag,” I thought to myself. “Don’t gag.”
Hannah watched with amusement as I held the oyster to my mouth in trepidation. The slick meat slid off the shell and tasted as briny as the sea, the oyster liquor a sweet, natural ambrosia.
Without the cut of an acidic agent like lemon, the subtle notes of an oyster train the tongue and its taste buds to be more gastronomically adventurous.
For Scully, the future of oyster farming, and aquaculture in general, looks bright and promising.
She anticipates that it will continue to become increasingly difficult to obtain lease sites and permits, with more stringent standards, and more intensive review processes. She generally supports these regulations as good and necessary to weed out the unqualified who unknowingly pose a risk to themselves and other industry members.
Warming water temperatures due to climate change will likely pose obstacles to both growers and regulators. Pathogens that target shellfish, as well as the health of the consumer, will become more prevalent.
Ultimately she remains optimistic that the industry “will continue to attract intelligent, ambitious members, who will be up to the task of meeting new challenges with new solutions.”
The oyster world, remodeled by the same impetuses of industrialization that altered farming — be it land or sea — can hurdle certain obstacles in the 21st century. Waters temperatures can be controlled in tanks when farmers want to promote spawning and reproduction. Various machinery, such as hanging bags, hurdle their own set of issues with region and tide.
Long lining, for instance, an off-bottom method, enables oysters to grow suspended on lines that are attached to a pipe. This method is ideal for regions where the river’s bottom it’s too soft for the heavy machinery of cage culturing sit without sinking.
An auspicious day of sun and cool winds accompanied us the next day in Newcastle. Hannah and I parked on a side street, in front of a mint green colonial with pink perennial flower beds around its perimeter like a moat.
“In another life, I had a grandmother named Winafred who I spent summers here and had a best friend who also stayed with her grandparents,” I said.
A single road cuts through town where on either side, quaint shops and charming restaurants with outdoor seating conveyed a sense of old-world familiarity. A hanging RX sign looked very ’50s and standing underneath it made me feel like I was about to run into the Fonz at any moment.
In one shop I picked up a framed photograph of a beach, with the ocean’s sea foam rolling to shore. Written in the sand were the words, “WANTED: A BAD BUOY.”
A few hundred feet away stood the Skidompha Second Hand Bookshop. Inside, on meticulously curated shelves, faded and cracking jackets of works from the greats — Melville, Yeats and Poe — displayed aesthetic antiquity. In one room towards the back of the library, a wide window facing the Damariscotta River let the sun pour in.
A drawing easel with an assortment of crayons, markers and colored pencils spoke to my creative mind. I sat down and sketched the scene beyond the window: tall pine trees perched along the edge of the Damariscotta River.
Working up an appetite, we stopped at Newcastle Publick House for lunch. Two words: lobster quesadilla. Wedged between crispy, flaky tortilla, hunks of sweet, tender lobster claw and melted cheese had Hannah second guessing her soup. Accompanied with chips and vinegar, the lobster quesadilla set the bar for the seafood I would continue to eat as I explored the Maine coast.
Hannah, the one with the athletic bone in her, suggested we go kayaking, which I was all about until she said she wanted to ride solo.
“The only time I ever tipped in a kayak was when I was with someone,” she said.
The teenage employee, overhearing our conversation, tried to reassure me.
“I just sent out an eight-year-old a half hour ago,” he said.
But was this eight-year-old athletic, good with hand eye coordination? These were skills I lacked.
“Besides, you came at the perfect time,” he said. “The tide will be carrying you down and then will change and carry you back.”
It turned out that the tide was not going our way but instead making the journey more strenuous. Hannah kayaked with ease and glided along the river, the sun above glistening down on her. I gripped the oars until my knuckles turned white, lifting each one alternating.
I had trouble getting into a rhythm. A blister had burst on my thumb just as quickly as it surfaced on my skin. The bright raw flesh stung from the salt water.
Kayaking south down the Damariscotta River, where the water becomes more brackish, dozens of oyster cages floated at the surface. This surface layer of the water, known as the photic zone, receives the most sunlight and is vital for photosynthesis. Phytoplankton and other organic matter provide a feast for the caged, growing oysters. This process, an off-bottom method of oyster aquaculture, is preferred for various reasons, be it to harvest geographical flavor profiles or shell shapes.
I thought about the restaurants where I had eaten oysters and their accessibility. But to see the process in this capacity — in an oyster’s most natural state — moved me.
I remember the river rippling. My kayak bobbed back and forth and, because I thought I was going to lose balance and fall into the river, my heart raced. The thought of my phone sinking in the deep dark waters here in Maine consumed me.
My phone was locked up back at the store, though. The absurdity of feeling so attached to a piece of technology — I had to laugh at myself.
Hog Island, with its muddy banks and dense trees, was our next landmark. There, on the bank of the island, I spotted an oyster. Having learned how to not only shuck an oyster but also how to eat it without any lemon or mignonette, I was determined to have this snack.
“Crack it open like the Native Americans did,” Hannah yelled over to me when she saw me hold it in the air.
Challenge accepted. Though I did not have the tool or glove to open the oyster, how hard could it really be? I found a rock with a sharp edge, positioned the oyster on a slab of flat stone, and began to shuck. The sharp, pointed edge of the rock slipped and slit open the palm of my hand. A bright red ribbon of blood spilled from the opening.
Rowing back to shore was going to be a pain, literally.
Coastal Maine cottages, with their New England charm, inviting bay windows and wrap-around porches, sprawled over the cliffs with majestic grace. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” subconsciously played in my head: “Hark, now hear the sailors cry, smell the sea and feel the sky. Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.”
On the way back, a crane soared overhead and inside its narrow neck, I could make out the immaculate torpedo shape of a fish — tail fin and all.
“What are you thinking we do for dinner?” I asked Hannah.
“I’d say oysters, but isn’t that a bit obvious at this point?” she said.
Back at the car, we dusted sand off our feet, but the mud from Hog Island left traces of itself in the nail beds of my toes. I noticed the silver charm bracelet I hadn’t taken off was coated in crimson, the rust an indicator of the river’s salinity levels.
We strolled the historic district of Main Street, bought some souvenirs, and grabbed iced teas for the drive to Belfast, where we were spending the night.
We chose Belfast, what locals call the heart of coastal of Maine, because Hannah and I have a thing for Irish culture and literature. My grandma emigrated from Belfast and Hannah had gone and studied in Ireland 10 times over the past 15 years.
In Acadia National Park, we caught Hurricane Dorian’s trail of destruction as it whipped down the East Coast toward Florida. Come midnight, on a deflated mattress, I lay in a pool of rainwater that collected in the tent. Torrential downpours drenched the night, providing a backdrop for the lightning streaks and thunder bolts that danced across the sky.
If I positioned myself just right, and balanced my weight against Hannah’s, I was able to lift us out of the water. I’d fall asleep, thinking, “it’ll stop soon,” then wake up an hour later, almost to the exact minute, to find more water. Neighboring campers could be heard hurriedly dismantling tents and packing poles. I thought about going to the car to sleep, but found the process of getting up, putting on shoes and running to the car a taxing endeavor.
I kept hearing the sound of branches snapping, as if by foot. The sounds became louder, yet isolated. My mind went to the most logical place: I was about to be attacked by a bear. Exhausted, I slept in the rain. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” would be a fitting score if this experience were to be adapted to film.
Around 9 a.m. the rain dissipated. A grey sky muted the atmosphere and our moods. Too annoyed, I stuffed the tent in the trunk and rushed to make the 10 a.m. check out time. We drove up to the window.
“They don’t call it a tropical storm for nothing,” a park ranger told us, from inside his dry office.
On the outskirts of Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, lies Bar Harbor. Strolling the streets of this quaint seaside town, I could hear that characteristic “Mainer” accent in which the “r” gets dropped. “Bah Hah-Bah,” dubbed the “gateway to the mountains and cliffs” of Acadia, was originally called Eden in the late 18th century when it was originally incorporated. With its blend of seashore sodality and “Down East” disposition, Bar Harbor offers a relaxing respite. On our way to lunch, Hannah and I watched sailboats come and go in the harbor; the brisk, salty air of the afternoon was a refreshing change from the night’s storm we braved.
We stopped at Peekytoe Provisions, a seafood market that sells responsibly harvested local seafood and an assortment of Maine specialty products like Vitamin Sea edible seaweed and Zea Salt sourced from the Atlantic Ocean. At its entrance inside, a piece of clapboard hung on the wall with dozens of oyster and clam shells pegged on to create a charming calendar that would complete any coastal kitchen. Across the top, neatly arranged shells lay horizontally, listing the days of the week, Sunday through Saturday, in black Sharpie marker. Beneath the days, smaller sized shells listed the number of days for the current month. With an unassuming interior, friendly wait staff and delicious oysters, Peekytoe left an impression.
We ordered a dozen oysters ($2.50 each, $2.75 after the first two), the Mountain Desert Island, Hardwood Island and Flying Point, which came served in a bamboo square tray on a bed of shaved ice. All three types came from Freeport, located five miles from Bar Harbor. Out of all three, the Flying Point oysters were my favorite. Cultivated in brackish water, these were the most plump, and possessed a taste that transitioned from briny to sweet.
Peekytoe, also known as the Atlantic rock crab, or Cancer Irroratus, is a type of crab that had long been deemed as a nuisance to lobstermen for eating the bait. Renowned restaurateur Daniel Boulud and Martha Stewart began using this crab in their recipes. Soon snazzy NYC restaurants were offering it on their menus, paying up to $25 a pound. Today the price of Peekytoe crabs continues to rise, an ironic turn of events for a crustacean that was initially typified as a headache.
From Bar Harbor, we journeyed four hours south to Boston, Massachusetts. After a week of backwater burgs and isolated islands, the city — with its bustling energy and constant traffic — took some getting used to. Days before I was picking blueberries in a meadow and communing with hummingbirds and monarch butterflies as we hiked Jordan Pond and Cadillac Mountain. We had eaten in restaurants and imbibed in bars that closed at 9:00 p.m. In Boston, the nightlife, though not at the same caliber as that of New York City, felt strange and new.
Later that night, at a bar downtown, I ordered a drink. When the bartender saw me removing the plastic straw and placing it on a napkin, he nudged his bar back and said, “Hey, look, she’s too tough for straws.”
“So you’re an environmentalist writer?” he asked, to which I replied, “just a writer.”
“Don’t ever sell yourself short. It’s because of what you write about that brings change.”
The luxury hotel we stayed in, with its queen size bed, plasma television and marble-tiled bathroom, made me somehow miss the deflated air mattresses in our teepee and tent, though. It would be some time again before I would be lulled to sleep by hooting owls and the risings and fallings of birds chirping their morning song.
In the heart of the city, where an adult man was hopping on a pogo stick for money, Hannah and I stopped at an outdoor seafood restaurant. The oysters were saltier than a container of Morton. We were given not cocktail sauce to dress our oysters, but catsup, and the margaritas our waitress recommended we order tasted like the leftover liquid from a green freeze pop.
I missed Maine.
I suffered the come down that follows the end of a vacation, after we returned the rental car in Queens on Labor Day, triggered by the impressions Maine had left on me: learning the oyster trade, appreciating oceans and rivers in unprecedented ways.
Two days later, after introducing myself to a new class of students at the college I teach at, I handed out Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a nonsensical poem about encroachment: the walrus and carpenter walk along the beach, and feast on a bed of personified oysters.
Reciting each verse, I imagined a life in Maine, working on an oyster farm. It seemed ironic and almost comical for me — someone who had failed biology in the ninth grade, setting in motion a deep-rooted aversion to the sciences — to have this newfound interest in this area of study.
It was a vicarious thrill to imagine myself in a different line of work, one that was more entwined with environmental conservation and less confined by classrooms and essays and lesson plans and faculty meetings.
But to imagine another life was to desert New York, the city where you can get dollar oysters at a stone’s throw. For now I’ll be the friend in the group at the table waxing oyster poetic — how to determine an oyster’s age, the sensual notes of the oyster’s liquor, the various methods of cultivation — as we dine on oysters, the delicacies of the sea.
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