‘Tis the season for seaside cookouts and beach reads, clams and mussels and pulpy paperbacks in quantity. We’d recommend Bren Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Co. as a source of the former and Lucky Peach issue 4 for the latter. We’re longtime fans of Lucky Peach (especially since co-founders Peter Meehan and David Chang came speak at Yale this past spring), and this issue, which focuses on American food, features YSFP alum Nozlee Samadzadeh writing about the invasive species now making their homes in our country’s fields, lakes and streams. Of course she interviews another close friend of the Project, Chef Bun Lai, whose inventive recipes make use of the abundance of invasive Asian shore crabs in the waters near New Haven. Nozlee’s piece, like Bun’s cooking, offers an innovative way of looking at a seemingly insoluble problem— by recognizing that so-called invasive species are here to stay, and that integrating them into our vocabularies and diets might be the best way to handle their presence on our shores.
Last Saturday I sat outside of Miya’s with Bren while members of his Community Supported Fishery program came to pick up their shares. It could have been a pretty tough series of encounters; there had been no August delivery, as heavy rainfall triggered state-mandated closure of his acres, and the September boxes contained only clams, since his oyster beds were still closed. There had been a disclaimer when we signed up for the program, letting us know that farming was unpredictable and there would be no refunds, but it had been easy to ignore with visions of freshly-caught, freshly-shucked oysters beckoning— now came the test of just how Community Supported the program really was.
And you know, everyone who came by was lovely. This was likely in part, Bren pointed out, because Irene was an understandable catastrophe that had affected all of us in one way and another; people were still in disaster-relief mode, eager to be helpful. But it was also a mark of the kind of economic and social community that CSFs and CSAs can build: Bren was not just an oysterman but also a businessman, and a neighbor whose livelihood was being threatened; the threat of a month without oysters was subsumed by the threat that the CSF might end entirely. We weren’t just dissatisfied consumers; we had become, in the language of Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food, co-producers, without whom the business of good food was impossible. I’ve explained CSAs countless times: farmers need money at the beginning of the season, and it’s far less risky when they don’t have to rely on the success of a single crop to make a living. Now I watched it in action: it was that money that I’d paid out in advance that would help keep Bren and Thimble Island Oysters going after nearly 80% of his beds had been wiped out.
I’m always a little wary of the “co-producer” model— there’s so much more work to being part of the Food Movement, whatever that is, than buying things— but it is important, and I think expresses a particular piece of what this thing is for me and why I care about it. If I’m going to spend money on food anyway, I want it to go to Bren and men and women like him, people I know, people in my community, who literally and figuratively weather the same storms. It encourages me to be sympathetic to them; it reminds me that food is not produced in a vacuum. If I want someone else to grow my food— a difficult and risky business at the best of times— then I should know all of the costs, and be prepared to pay for the privilege.
80% of the oysters of CT’s first Community Supported Fishery, Thimble Island Oyster, was wiped out by the Hurricane but our members will still be receiving clams in the interim; we are all trying to think of ways of helping oysterman Bren Smith rebuild in the aftermath. The best way way we can help is by signing up for a 2012 CSF membership. Help out and get the freshest seafood back in return! http://www.etsy.com/listing/75395775/thimble-island-oyster-csf-share The above photo is of Captain Ben Kerzner and I with seaweed that we had dived for on the grounds of Thimble Island Oyster. The invasive seaweed, deliciously called Dead Man’s Fingers, is used as a soup base at Miya’s.
We’ve written a certain amount about sustainable seafood, so yesterday the YSFP crew went out with Bren Smith, of the Thimble Island Oyster Co., to try our hands at oystering and see firsthand what it takes to get those mollusks from sea to table.
Bren leases 60 acres of deep water near the Thimble Islands, which are located off the Connecticut coast in the Long Island Sound. The waters there are a natural spot for oyster beds in terms of salinity and temperature, but overfishing combined with environmental degradation mean that the native population died out long ago; now Bren brings in oyster cages to farm his crop. He fills them with tiny oyster spat and then lets them mature over a period of months, checking the cages regularly to clean off debris and remove starfish and other predators. The oysters help clean the water around them and absorb excess nitrogen that would otherwise cause algae-choked dead zones; the cages act as reef replacements, attracting tons of tiny creatures into a robust ecosystem. Bren guesses that the water around his cages has the best fishing for miles.
We certainly saw a variety of creatures while helping to haul and clean cages: the dreaded starfish were joined by various kinds of crabs, sea squirts, and the occasional blackfish. The work was intensely physical and we ended up filthy, covered in muck and saltwater. It was a good reminder of how tough sustainable farming can be on the folks who do it: “most days I have to crawl out of bed on all fours,” Bren told us as he wrangled a cage onto the deck, straining at the effort.
He’s a freelancer who works without health insurance, but he loves what he does and believes in it fiercely; he’s passionate about advocating for the ocean, finding a way to make it a working space for human farmers without destroying the homes of its multitude native species. His methods aren’t perfect, but they’re thoughtful and considered, and certainly smarter than any large-scale commercial operation out there. This Saturday brings another CSF delivery, and we’re all pretty impatient to taste the fruits of our labor (well, actually, the labor was still mostly Bren’s)— we’ll let you now what we end up making with the bounty next week!