Our Wednesday Morning Book Group meets once a month on the third Wednesday at 10AM. On January 20, we met to discuss the memoir Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm by Erin Byers Murray. Below is a summary of that discussion. For a full schedule of upcoming titles and discussion dates, visit our Book Group page.
We liked the book for the most part. Many of the group agreed that it could have been a long form article in a magazine rather than a full-length book, as some parts felt a little drawn out making the reader a little bogged down by too many details. Some felt the book could have included more of a narrative or story arc. The moment the author transitioned from acolyte to expert couldn’t be readily recalled, though that transformation had occurred by the end. We all agreed though that we would not have thought to pick up and read the book had it not been a selection for the book group, and appreciated the chance to read it.
A few agreed that they felt Murray was brave in her decision to leave her safe and comfy career and embark on a yearlong experiment to immerse herself in a rarely glimpsed industry and explore the reality of where our food comes from. Some commented that it was smart to do something like this while she and her husband were still young and seemingly without too much tying them down. We couldn’t agree entirely on whether she was selfish in actually carrying out the plan, or just very ambitious. A good deal of time in the beginning is spent describing her early mornings, late night arrivals, exhaustion and the level to which she was immersed in the culture of the company, adding up to create a growing chasm between her and husband Dave. Some definitely felt she should have been more cognizant of her husband’s feelings earlier on, especially since, once she did include him in her new lifestyle, his attitude toward it improved. It’s up for debate whether we would be feeling the same way about her feelings had her husband been the one to leave his well-paid job for a year and become totally immersed in a strange corner of the food chain. At any rate, including this intimate account of her and Dave’s struggle improved the book as a whole because it brought the reader closer to Murray’s life, and many commented that she did a great job weaving it through the rest of the story.
We agreed that Skip Bennett was a great manager, probably because of the passion (obsession?) he exhibited – he certainly could do no wrong in Murray’s eyes. It must have been the reason so many talented, bright students came every summer to work for him, some staying on as more permanent staff. But perhaps a summer full of free oysters and beer helped too. It seemed to us that the crew was frequently headed to or hosting a new lavish food and wine festival, where famous chefs, (many of whom Murray mentions having previous relationships with as a food writer) gather to drink wine and dish out their best and in wealthy destinations such as Nantucket, Portland, or Miami. In one perhaps overly long section of the book, Murray is invited to join Skip, and his cool, subdued, appropriately named assistant Berg to a free meal at Per Se, because of their relationship as vendors of the very oysters featured in Thomas Keller’s famous Oysters and Pearls. This is exciting for Murray as not only does she receive one of the most famous (and expensive) tasting menus in the world for free, but she gets to spend the day in the restaurant’s kitchen as a guest intern. She is undoubtedly impressed by this chef and his restaurant, as she devotes the longest chapter in the book to the experience. Several in the group, however, having not received a free meal from Mr. Keller, referred the group to a recent New York Times review describing the eleven year old restaurant as overpriced and tired. See below for the link.
Overall, the group enjoyed learning about oysters and the Island Creek Oyster operation in Duxbury, having never really thought about it before. A few look forward to pulling out oyster facts next time the opportunity arrives, such as the beneficial impact the creatures have in the waters where they reside. Many thought the recipes included between each chapter were a nice touch too, and the book inspired at least one reader to try oysters for the first time. A few of the group members had visited the restaurant located next to Fenway Park in Boston, and one member mentioned a new branch of the restaurant is coming soon to nearby Burlington, MA. There were several magazine articles and books mentioned during the group meeting, and they are listed below.
Join us on Wednesday, February 17, to discuss Before I go to Sleep, a psychological thriller by S. J. Watson.
Related articles and readings:
Island Creek Oysters homepage : Connect to the site for the farm in Duxbury and the website for the Oyster bar from this main page. Check out the many images of the farm’s process described in the book.
Erin Byers Murray’s page : The author’s blog. Connect to updates on her life after writing this book as well as other work she has produced
Sanders, Michael. “Oysters: A Truly Miraculous Creature.” Yankee Magazine Nov.-Dec. 2016: 88+. Print.
Wells, Pete. “At Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Slips and Stumbles.” New York Times. New York Times Company, 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.
Damrosch, Phoebe. Service included: Four-star secrets of an eavesdropping waiter. New York: William Morrow, 2007. Print.
Fisher, M. F. K. “Consider the Oyster.” The Art of Eating. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1990. (123)-184. Print.
Greenlaw, Linda. The Hungry Ocean: A swordboat captain’s journey. New York: Hyperion, 1999. Print.
Greenlaw, Linda. The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a very small island. New York: Hyperion, 2002. Print
Keller, Thomas. The French Laundry Cookbook. New York: Artisan, 1999. Print.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007. Print
Kurlansky, Mark. Big Oyster: History on the half shell. New York: Ballantine Books. Print.
Sewall, Jeremy and Erin Byers Murray. The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes. New York: Rizzoli Press, 2014. Print.
Chef’s Table: The complete first season. David Gelb, creator. Netflix. 2015.