Wednesday, February 24, 2021

An Interview with Barbara Ross by E. B. Davis


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 industry.


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 a female?


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 investigate?


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 the oysters.


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 to things?


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?

Lobsters shed 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 around again.


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).


  1. Congratulations on your newest, Barbara.

  2. Congrats, Barbara. This series gives so much pleasure to your many readers. New episode, lots of excitement.

  3. I love mysteries where I can learn a lot. Finding out how the oyster farming industry works is intriguing.

  4. Congratulations, Barb, on another book in your excellent series. You've become quite an expert on seafood/fish in your area. Thanks for the great information. I've learned a lot from the interview.

  5. Congrats, Barb, on another book in your wonderful series! They're starting oyster farming near us in CT and I was fascinated to learn more about it.

  6. Wonderful interview, Elaine. This is one of my favorite series and I’m looking forward to reading Shucked Apart. The thought of death by shucking knife is chill worthy.

    Although we have oysters in our larger fire pond, I had no idea how they “did their thing.” We frequently find shells in the early spring and summer. Can’t speak to the Golden Gate, but growing up the George Washington Bridge was painted continuously. One of our games on trips to visit New York relatives was to find the workmen. There was never a time they were absent.

  7. I didn't know that about the GW Bridge, Kait. I love this series. It is a pleasure to read and she keeps the plot moving while giving memorable backstory.

  8. Congratulations on your new release! I worked in a Cape Cod seafood restaurant kitchen during my college years. We served lots of broiled and fried fish right out of the water, clam chowder, and lobster bisque, but not oysters. Not available locally in large enough quantities would be my guess.

  9. Congrats, Barbara, on your newest book! What a wonderful long-running series! I found it fascinating to hear more about aquaculture.

  10. Thank you so much, everyone! I always look forward to my interviews with Elaine because she really makes me think. Even when the book is written and published it's fun to look back on what I did consciously and unconsciously.