Author chronicles the life of oysters

March 2, 2012 10:47:17 AM PST
If you've ever wondered how East Coast oysters are grown or harvested, the author of a new book has all the answers.

She spent a year-and-a-half working on an oyster farm.

When Erin Byers Murray decided she had had enough of editing the Daily Candy site in Boston, she did something pretty radical.

"It was a good life but I was a little unfulfilled. I was looking to get my hands a little dirty and tell a story about food," she said.

So she talked to the folks at Island Creek Oysters nearby, asking them to let her work there for 18 months - the typical life-cycle of an oyster; the result is "Shucked: Life On A New England Oyster Farm."

"I wanted to get to know where our food comes from and to really understand from beginning to end how it gets from the starting point to our plate," said Murray.

Her book tour took her to Shaw's Crab House recently for a lunch featuring oysters, of course. First, served simply raw, then cooked three different ways - based on recipes from the book - including baked with spinach, fried and topped with cheese and grilled with garlic and black pepper sauce.

The year-round harvesting though, took a toll on her.

"Physically, it took my body a long time to get up to speed to do the work. And it was like boot camp," she said.

In Shaw's Oyster Lounge, she showed me what workers looked for when "culling."

"Island Creek sells a pretty consistent, round, teardrop-shaped oyster, so one of our jobs was to just make sure the oysters we were about to put into bags for restaurants were the perfect size and shape," she said.

Murray showed how to jam an oyster knife into the hinge, then twist to open, finally, separating the muscle from both sides of the shell, keeping the juice, or liquor as it's called, intact.

"Slurp it but take a bite of it so it releases all the sugars in there. That's what oysters live on; when they're closed and out of the water like this, that's what they're surviving on so you gotta make sure your oyster has a lot of liquor and make sure that it's healthy and alive," Murray said.

Now even though a lot of oyster platters come with horseradish and cocktail sauce or mignonette, Murray says the best way to enjoy them is naked, with nothing on them, just the pure oyster, a little liquor - the juice inside - to really get a sense for what the taste of the East coast is like.

You can also find freshly-shucked oysters at shaw's other location, in schaumburg, at the streets of woodfield.

Shaw's Crab House
21 E. Hubbard St.
(312) 527-2722
1900 E. Higgins Rd., Schaumburg
(847) 517-2722