My father-in-law, Armand (aka “Cook”), is easily one of the coolest people I’ve ever met and undeniably “the most interesting man in the world.” Not only is he always primed with a valuable lesson, a fascinating anecdote or an entertaining story from his many life experiences, but at 82 years young, he’s still writing and re-writing his own story every day. We’ve just spent the long holiday weekend visiting him at his beautiful home in Orient Point, NY which is located at the very tip of the North Fork of Long Island.
In my estimation, the North Fork is the far superior of the two distinct Long Island peninsulas. Unlike the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” atmosphere of the Hamptons and the other wealthy enclaves of the South Fork, the laid-back North Fork is thankfully still in touch with its agricultural roots. Populated with lovely vineyards and farmlands, it still retains a rural atmosphere which in turn feeds the relaxed personality of the region. Peppered with family-run farm stands, farm-to-table restaurants, local breweries and very respectable wines, not to mention quintessentially quaint port towns bursting with charming coastal New England architecture, it’s easy to see why one would choose to live here.
Originally a native of northern New Jersy, Cook spent years boating all around the eastern Long Island area and in 1993 decided to drop anchor permanently in Orient Point. In 2001, he learned about a newly formed organization called SPAT (Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training) in the neighboring town of Southold and, as an outlet for his interminable energy, he elected to join as a volunteer apprentice.
“Spat” is the word for the tiniest form of shellfish that has settled onto the place where it will live out its life. The SPAT program was created to encourage community members to become stewards of their environment and to restore shellfish to the depleted Peconic Estuary after the brown tide of 1985 all but eradicated the population of clams, oysters and scallops. A brown tide, so named because of the murky brown water it creates, is caused by the proliferation of single-celled marine plants called phytoplankton which detrimentally impacts the eelgrass beds that provide safe spawning grounds for fish and shellfish. The result was a near extinction of the shellfish population in the region.
SPAT has spent the past 17 years reintroducing clams, oysters and scallops to the Peconic Bay area of Long Island. SPAT’s year-round work, in partnership with Cornell University’s Marine Program, is intensive and extensive, spanning the entire lifespan of the shellfish — nurturing newly spawned microscopic larvae until they’re big enough to be “planted” in the protected waters of the Bay where they are observed and cared for until they reach the desired size and can spawn on their own in the wild. All of this takes patience, experience and devotion, but it also takes considerable physical strength to haul the shellfish-laden cages in and out of the water in order to measure them, clean them and ultimately harvest them. Did I mention that my father-in-law is 82?
After 16 years volunteering his time and expertise at SPAT, Cook is now one of the program’s veteran workers and clearly a very respected elder member of this unique community which has grown to more than 200 member families. We’ve visited SPAT many times with Cook over the years and are continually impressed by the immense aptitude and professionalism of all of the volunteers. This most recent visit, however, was especially enjoyable. Being a holiday weekend, there were loads of volunteers and visitors at SPAT — working, educating and learning. We took two of our 20-something daughters, Alex and McKay, to literally work for their supper. As is typical for a visit to the North Fork, the girls had requested fresh oysters for dinner. Typically in this situation, Cook would single-handedly haul the oysters, clean them, shuck them and serve them. But this time, he decided to put their young, nimble hands to work.
Looking quite at home in his fisherman’s overalls and rubber boots, Cook took us into the lab and explained the process through which oysters spawn. As a visual aid, he showed us a single droplet of water under the microscope that contained an estimated 370 oyster larvae and extrapolated that the ordinary-looking bucket of “water” from which the droplet had been extracted therefore contained millions (yes, millions!) of newly spawned oysters, invisible to the naked eye. Later those microscopic “babies” will be placed into controlled tanks (below left) fed by water from the Sound to accelerate their growth process. Eventually, the oysters will grow a tiny “foot” which will adhere to a grain of sand and begin to form a shell (below right).
Over time, as the oysters grow, they will be moved to different tanks and eventually out into the protected waters of the Bay. Cook escorted us down to the dock where he pulled up a multi-tiered cage weighing around 35-40 pounds.
Inside were about 12-14 dozen 2-year-old oysters, each approximately 3-4 inches in length, the perfect size for a tasty treat. He dumped them out on the prep table and demonstrated how to rinse them, scrub them and knock off any new shell growth.
Everyone chipped in and before long we had 2 big bags of booty and a mighty appetite for these homely treasures from the sea.
Back at home, Cook asked if anyone was interested in learning to shuck, and McKay eagerly raised her hand. A kind and patient teacher, he demonstrated the two methods, helped her get her sea legs and then together they proceeded to shuck 2 dozen of the briny beauties for the anxiously awaiting crowd.
Many people prefer a dollop of cocktail sauce with horseradish, but I think the strong flavors mask the inherent subtlety of the oyster. Like Cook, I’m a purist when it comes to eating oysters — simply slurp it right out of the shell with a little squeeze of lemon. I’ll use a scant bit of mignonette (shallot, red wine or champagne vinegar and lemon juice), if it’s available, but I really prefer to taste the oyster’s own “liquor,” the mixture of sea water and oyster brine that collects in the shell. Never, ever dump out the liquor!
This time, since we had a few people in our group who don’t prefer raw oysters, Cook introduced us to an alternate preparation — grilled. And it’s as easy as it is delicious. Simply place the unshucked oysters on a hot grill and close the cover. The heat will force them to open on their own, no shucking necessary! Once they’re open, even a little bit, carefully remove them with tongs or a hot mitt (they will be hot!). Pry back the top shell and place a dab of butter and some freshly minced parsley on top of the oyster meat. Eat and repeat. Perfectly divine!!
If you’re planning a trip to the North Fork and want to try your hand at shucking your own oysters, go to Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market, located in the iconic bait & tackle shack on the waterfront in Greenport, NY, where they will set you up with lessons, gear and plenty of oysters to perfect your technique. And if you have time, I highly recommend making an appointment to tour the SPAT facility in Southold. It’s a remarkable place.
Between the oysters, the winery and brewery tours and the comaraderie, it was truly a wonderful weekend. At the end, we all had to return to reality — Mike and I to Chicago, Alex to Washington DC, and McKay, armed with her newfound skill and a big bag of fresh oysters, was excited to return to Manhattan and prepare a special surprise for Nick, her oyster-hungry boyfriend.
We always look forward to our next visit to the North Fork, and I’m sad that it will likely be a whole year before we get back there. Until then, thanks for a great weekend, Cook. We’ll see you back on the North Fork as soon as we can bust out of this place!