The Snowden Family Clambake Company has a
beloved reputation in Busman’s Harbor, Maine. Almost as famous is the sleuthing
ability of proprietor Julia Snowden, which is why an oyster farmer seeks her
out when she’s in trouble.
When Andie Greatorex is robbed of two buckets of oyster seed worth $35,000, she
wonders if somebody’s trying to mussel her out of business. Could it be a rival
oyster farmer, a steamed former employee, or a snooty summer resident who
objects to her unsightly oyster cages floating on the beautiful Damariscotta
River? There’s also a lobsterman who’s worried the farm’s expanding lease will
encroach on his territory and Andie’s ex-partner, who may come to regret their
split. Before Julia can make much headway in the investigation, Andie turns up
dead, stabbed by a shucking knife. Now it’s up to Julia to set a trap for a
cold and clammy killer...
Shucked Apart is the ninth book in
the Maine Clambake mystery series by Barbara Ross. It was released yesterday.
One of my favorite things about this series is how much I learn by reading it.
In this book, I learned about oyster farms in Maine. Now, I have an advantage
many readers don’t. I live on Hatteras Island, NC, and we, too, have oyster
farms. So, I asked someone I know about our oyster farms to double-check what I
learned. The someone used to be a party (not with balloons, but most definitely
with beer) boat captain turned oyster farmer, not unlike one of the characters
Barbara has created, but without his financial problems. That in and of itself
tells me Barb researched aqua farming and the changing times of the fishing
There’s tension right from the
beginning of Shucked Apart, but the
source is surprising. Please welcome Barbara Ross back to WWK. E. B. Davis
Julia isn’t the jealous type. She
likes boyfriend Chris’s friend Andie right away. The problem is that Julia
thought that Andie was Andy. Why didn’t he mention his poker playing friend was
Chris keeps a lot of secrets. Julia had thought they were
through the worst of his disclosures, and arguably they were. But in this book
she’s surprised to find he’s been keeping quiet about things both large and
small. The question is, why?
Do two buckets of oyster spat really
cost thirty-five thousand dollars? Really?
Like agriculture, aquaculture requires investment. Two
buckets of oyster spat, if properly cared for, have the potential to turn into
hundreds of thousands of babies, so the potential to make money is there. Also,
breeding those babies is highly specialized and not done in a lot of places, so
there is demand.
Do oyster spat look like quinoa (or
like Cream of Wheat right out of the box, small, white, round granules)?
Yes! That’s how everyone I talked to described them. I
did get to see them for myself and I don’t have a better description.
Although oysters clean the bodies of
water they live in because they filter it, they also give off a lot of
scat—especially the spat or oyster seed (tiny baby oysters without diapers). Is
the benefit greater than the detriment?
This is a controversial topic, especially in places where
people are fighting about aquaculture. The farms in Maine are relatively small,
owned by individuals and small groups, not giant corporations. The Damariscotta
was too polluted to sustain sea creatures of any type until the 1980s. Since
the oyster farms have been established, it has only gotten cleaner. In balance,
I tend to believe the oysters make the river cleaner.
When someone knocks Andie down and runs with the expensive
buckets of oyster seed, Andie wants Julia to investigate because Chris has
bragged about Julia’s investigative skills. Why does Julia decide to
Julia likes Andie almost immediately. They are young,
entrepreneurial women running challenging businesses in Maine. Also, it is a
time of year when Julia can help out. Once the clambake season starts, she’ll
be working sixteen hours a day every day.
I initially had problems with your
setting. Andie’s company is named The Great River Oyster Company because the
farm is in the Damariscotta River, which would be fresh water, but it isn’t
really, is it? Seals can be seen on the river? The lobstermen also have buoys
on the river, too? You didn’t make the river’s name up either, did you?
The real Damariscotta is a beautiful river in Maine. The
source, Damariscotta Lake, is fresh water, but the river is very tidal, and the
saltwater coming in on the tide makes the part of the river where the oyster
farms are quite brackish. As you mention, seals, lobsters and other saltwater
creatures live in that part of the river. I recommend the Damariscotta River Cruise to anyone who visits midcoast Maine in the summer.
You mention there are oyster
hatcheries. Not to get too spicy, but how do oysters mate?
Oysters begin life as males and later become female. The
young males release sperm and the females release eggs—millions of them. Some
of the sperm finds the eggs and they become larvae, which later become the spat
that opens our story in Shucked Apart. The release of the sperm is what
gives us the expression that you shouldn’t eat oysters in months without an R
in them. It gives the oysters a different taste and texture that some people
love and some people dislike. Some farms purchase triploid oysters from the
breeders, which don’t reproduce. This practice avoids the spawning season, enabling
all months to be R-months’ taste and without the energy spawning requires of
You mentioned that unlike clams,
oysters can’t move. Do oysters just lie on the river bottom or do they sort of
dig into the clay? Aren’t oysters a barnacle-type of critter, gluing themselves
Oysters aren’t like barnacles in that they don’t attach
to docks, boats, etc. They pretty much stay where you put them unless the
current carries them along. An oyster’s happiest place is sitting on top of
another oyster, but that doesn’t result in a pretty shell that farmers can sell
to restaurants at a premium. Another happy place for oysters is on relatively
hard bottom, which is why the clay on the bottom of so much of the Damariscotta
is so appealing.
Andie is on the verge of expansion.
A meeting is set in which her expanded farming territory will be approved or
rejected. Why are a lot of people against her expansion?
People are often frightened of change, period. In
addition there are competing interests on the river—oyster farmers and
lobstermen who don’t want more river leased to others. Homeowners and pleasure
boaters who don’t like the look of the floating oyster cages.
One of Julia’s aunts lives on the
river with her lobsterman husband. She gets information about the attack on
Andie from her uncle, but it also puts her in an uncomfortable position. How
does she handle that?
Julia loves her aunt and uncle. Though she knows that fights
among lobstermen can be absolutely vicious, she doesn’t believe her uncle could
be guilty of murder. Though she investigates every clue that comes her way, Julia
has to trust someone and decides it is her family.
Julia finds out that Andie used to be
a romantic and business partner with Mack, who went into the restaurant
business and is now married with children to someone else. Mack explains to
Chris and Julia the similarities between wine’s terroir and oysters’ merroir.
What’s all that? And are oysters a trendy menu item?
Just as wine
grapes take on the unique taste of the soil, weather, elevation, etc. of the vineyard
where they are grown (terroir), oysters take on the taste of the unique
composition of the water they grow in—minerals, temperature, and so on
(merroir). That’s why all the different oysters on the east coast can be the
same breed but look and taste so different from the Canadian Maritimes to New
England to the Chesapeake to the Carolinas, where you are, to Florida.
Oysters are having a moment. They were a major source of
protein at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s New Yorkers ate an
average of six hundred oysters a year. Then the Hudson got too polluted to sustain
the oysters and the techniques for shipping from other places and farming were
not yet in place on the east coast. The oyster fell out of favor. Many chefs
attribute the current oyster craze to the sushi craze because it got Americans
into eating raw seafood again. Of course you don’t have to eat oysters raw. I
include recipes for baked oysters and oyster stuffing in the book.
Andie’s next-door neighbor, Pinney
Kirwin, doesn’t like oyster farming, especially close to her house and her
river. During the 1800s and early 1900s, her family owned a shipbuilding
business and owned the entire river front area. But Pinney’s family outvoted
her and sold off land and a smaller house to Andie. Why does Julia see a
comparison between Pinney’s family and her mother’s family?
Julia’s mother and Pinney are both descended from
families that made fortunes in Maine when there were fortunes to be made there.
Julia’s mother’s family was in the ice business and Pinney’s in shipbuilding.
Both families left the state when those industries collapsed, and became summer
residents only. Julia’s mother, however, now makes her life among the locals,
while Pinney, who appears to live in Maine a lot of the year, moves exclusively
in summer people circles.
What’s an abutter? Someone you
share a property line with.
What is a chandlery? A place where
ship provisions are stored and sold. It could include items specifically for
ships, like sailcloth, rope, and so on, or also fresh food and water.
You include a recipe for lobster
mash—but what is it? Lobster mashed potatoes—and they are delicious!
There are such a thing as soft-shelled lobsters? When
do they do that?
their shells as they grow. In Maine typically this takes place in early summer.
During the period right after lobsters grow their new shell they are considered
soft-shells. Some people think the soft-shells are the best, others prefer hard-shells.
This is a frequent source of lobster-related arguments.
What are alewives?
They are a species of herring that lives in saltwater but
spawns in freshwater. In Damariscotta, there is an Alewife
Festival, which takes place when the fish come and climb the fish
ladder in town to get to fresh water.
What kind of fresh tuna is used in
the Sous Vide Spicy Tuna recipe?
The instructions say fresh tuna cut 1 ½ to 2 inches
thick. You’re cooking it, so it doesn’t have to be sushi grade, but if you want
sushi grade and are willing to pay for it, by all means go for it.
You say that having a house on the
water is constant work. Do you have first-hand information about that? Do they
really continually paint the Golden Gate Bridge? (And why is it orange? My
six-year-old self was so disappointed.)
I’ve heard that analogy to painting the Golden Gate
Bridge all my life. (As soon as you work from one end to the other, it’s time
to start over again at the beginning.) I have no idea if it is true, but it
makes a nice point.) My mother-in-law had one side of her house on the water
painted every year. Once all four sides were completed, it was time to go
So, Le Roi was right, huh. Should
have known. What’s next for Julia?
In “Scared Off,” the Snowden Family Clambake novella in Halloween Party Murder, Julia gets
a panic call from her niece, Page. High school kids have crashed the little Halloween
sleepover party Page is attending at a friend’s house. They’re trashing the
place and the friend’s parents are nowhere to be found. I’m currently working
on the tenth Maine Clambake Mystery novel, as yet untitled. It takes place
during Mud Season. (In Maine mid-March through April).