A few years ago, Erin Byers Murray, then the food editor at Daily Candy Boston, found herself with a great job that allowed her to work from home and visit all of the new restaurants she could ever want. Still, something was missing.
After a fortuitous meeting with a sales rep from Island Creek Oyster Farm, which provides oysters to some of the country's top restaurants, Byers Murray decided to quit her job and spend a year harvesting, hauling, and counting oysters with a crew at Island Creek who were willing to accept a newcomer. The hard physical labor done mostly outdoors, often in the cold and rain, challenged her in ways she never expected, but she lived to write a book about it. We got in touch with Byers Murray, whose book "Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm" is out this week, to ask how she dropped everything to pursue a passion, and what she learned about herself along the way.
A lot of people with fast-paced urban lives feel something missing but don't do anything about it. What enabled you to take the leap?
I have to give most of the credit to a very supportive husband. When I came to him with this request, he very easily could have alerted me to the idea that this wasn't going to work that well for us. It wasn't about getting permission by any means but more asking, "Can we, as a couple swing this financially? Can we make it work time-wise and emotionally." He brought up the reservations, we worked through them in conversation -- many times -- and he just said, "Why not?" The other element of it was the ease of the situation. I met a group of people who were really open to this idea and very supportive. I think those two elements really made it work for me.
Have you ever done anything like this before?
Nothing to this degree. I did move around a lot when I was growing up, and I think that primed me for a life of change, adjusting and adapting easily.
What was the hardest part of the job?
I think just understanding my physical limitations. I started out trying to prove something to myself and then I had to prove to the people around me that I could do the job. I think you can do that physically to a point, but your body tells you when you've hit your limit. And that was something I had never felt physically before.
It was frustrating when I was not keeping up with the rest of the crew because I was not physically prepared for it. Or when I was out in the freezing cold and all I wanted to do was go inside and sit by a fire and I still had like 8 more hours of work outside to do under 30 degree temperature so, that was frustrating. I had never been pushed to my max before, and it really took its toll on me.
What did you love most about working at the oyster farm?
The people were the most special part of it. I just met some incredible people who were really passionate about what they did, and they did it with so much dedication and they put their whole lives into it. And the location and the environment I was working in. I had never worked outside, and being out on the water everyday, it really gets inside you. You end up becoming very connected to a place, to a location. I really felt bonded to that place after I left.
When you quit your job at Daily Candy and started working at Island Creek, you went from an all female work environment to what sounds like a mostly male work environment. What was that like?
It was fascinating. I've worked in many offices that were female dominated, and the flow of communication happens very differently than it does in a male-dominated working environment. I think with women information gets disseminated out to the masses a lot more quickly, whereas with man it trickles down linearly. Beyond that, men can be a little looser. Sometimes the younger guys would just goof off, and sometimes it was the women that were putting the men in line on a day to day basis.
It sounds like you developed pretty close bonds to the guys you worked with and your bosses.
I don't have any brothers, so they became very much the brothers I never had. They all have sort of taken on the big brother role and still are in a lot of ways. [My boss] Skip especially became like an uncle or a mentor that could -- we have a great working bond that I think I've never really had that with any male. He taught me so much, not just about oysters but about enjoying your work and really doing something that you love and doing it with everything you can put into it. He taught me a lot about being able to enjoy my work.
Why oysters? Why not do heritage meat or dairy farms or lobster?
That might come down the road. I think oysters because of the willingness of the people that I met to allow me in. This particular group, this particular farm was open to the idea. And I do love oysters -- I've been eating them since I was a kid. There was also the fascination with a food that I had no understanding of. I had no knowledge of how they were grown before this. I can understand how an animal farm works or how a vegetable farm works, but with a seafood farm I was basically starting from nothing. So I was fascinated to learn about it.
Why is it important to you to know where and how your food is made?
I was a little tired of it being so easy. I was a little tired of going to the grocery store and just being able to pull fruit off the shelves. I knew there was more to it. I just wanted to know what that was. Food is what drives our world, it's what drives us on a daily basis, it's what drove me personally and emotionally. For my career I was surrounded by it and immersed in it, always in love with it -- I just didn't know how it all started. So I was really hungry for a deeper understanding of where it all starts.
Where do you think your interest in food came from?
I have to give credit to my mom. She and I cooked when I was in high school and she brought me up cooking. She's and I have always, even when we're far away from each other, been able to get through things when we're talking about or eating food.
[And then my mother has] anosmia. She can't taste or smell anything because of an accident she had when I was in high school, and so I had to start cooking for my dad and I. She wouldn't cook because when she lost her sense of taste she lost her appetite and everything else that goes with that. So a lot of it came down to me helping her prepare meals, and she and I ended up cooking a lot together. What's amazing to me is that she's still a phenomenal cook. It's a lot of intuition and food memory.
I think that food has always been a part of my background and it's who I am and she was a big part of that.
You write a bit in the book about the toll working at the farm took on your marriage. How did you and your husband get through it?
Our marriage during the time on the farm was strange. I was focused on something that wasn't my husband, and I think we suffered a little because of that. I left the farm about October 2010, and we got pregnant a couple of months after that, so there was the "Oh my god we're pregnant!" moment after we'd just had this really kind of stressful year and a half. I think we both freaked out a little bit -- it was sudden and obviously exciting, something we both really really wanted, [but] definitely a little, "Okay, we've got to get ready for this."
I've realized that having the baby made me fall in love with him all over again. And we really needed that. I needed to fall in love with him and with us again and our son really helped me do that. It brought it to a whole new level and the last several months has been just incredible. We're stronger than we've ever been. And I think the reason is also that I went and did this. I took a risk and was able to focus on something for a little while and then come back to him and come back to us and come back to our partnership, and it made it stronger in the long run.
Heading out for a hard day's work.
My boss, Skip, on the Oyster Plex around sunset.
The upweller, set inside a rectangular hole in the dock, is a system of screened boxes attached to a trough which runs down the middle (I'm standing inside the trough). Skip is about to put seed into one of the silos; a whole "pulled" silo sits on the dock to the right.
Once the oysters are counted into these yellow mesh bags, they're delivered to the Shop where they'll be shipped off to restaurants around the country.
My first day on the tide with acres of oysters around me.
A light-hearted moment aboard the oyster ship.