Oyster Men: Bender & Son
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
We are sitting in Steve Bender’s kitchen, eating oysters. That is to say, I am eating oysters. He is talking about the specific natural elements that have lent his oysters a sense that they know where they are from. They are happy to tell you, as you slurp them out of their shells.
Terroir is the word often used by French winemakers to evoke the sense of place that is found in their bottles of
Bordeaux or Burgundy. It has to do with an almost mystical combination of earth and sunlight and rain. That sense of the French countryside, of centuries of farming grapes. It has to do with the minerals in the dirt and how a wine made from those grapes might reflect a certain moment in time when all those elements come together.
It is one of those ideas that can seem overly grand, but which becomes understandable in that moment when you take a sip and let certain wines roll around your palate.
The term for what Bender is describing, the word for that mysterious way a sense of place can echo in the taste of a local delicacy from the sea, is called meroir, “mer” being French for sea.
“The abductor muscle on the oysters is sweet like a bay scallop. I’ve never found that anywhere else,” Bender said. “That is superimposed on the salinity.”
All oysters give you that briny taste, of course, that primal hit of the ocean. If you shoot an oyster down like it was a shot of tequila, you will miss anything past that first taste.
“A really good oyster is an attraction to your entire mouth as you chew it, as you let it roll around your mouth,” Bender said. “The only thing oysters lack is a citrus taste. That is why you squeeze lemon on them, or spoon on a bit of vinegar-based mignonette sauce.”
In 1982 a man named Martin Ceely got the first lease to farm oysters in Nantucket waters. He eventually sold it to another islander, Richard Holdgate.
“Richard was a young guy then and a hard worker, and he turned the farm into something good,” Bender said. “We had a catering business and Anna (Bender’s wife) and I would buy his oysters for catering and buy some to eat ourselves. We both agreed they were the best oysters we ever ate.”
The farm was called Pocomo Meadow Oyster Farm. It was lo-
cated right at the exit of Polpis Harbor and the mouth of Medouie Creek.
“Before you come into the harbor there is a big old steel barge there on the left. It’s been there as long as I can remember,” Bender said. “All that area from the shore to the channel is known on the old maps as Pocomo Meadow.”
It includes a fresh-water swamp. One boundary is Medouie Creek and there is another creek on the other end.
“I once saw the name of it on a 1789 map, but wasn’t really paying attention and never saw it again. I spent a long time in the Fair Street Research Library trying to find it on a map again. So, I really don’t know what the name of that stream is,” Bender said.
The presence of those two streams adds to the sense of meroir, the fresh water and the things that grow in what are essentially tidal pools.
“The oysters are so intense in taste, because of all the detritus of that swamp,” Bender said. “Whatever is in the water in the harbor, they eat. But in that little harbor, near these fresh-water creeks, you have all the beneficial activity of a tidal pool. That adds a lot of minerality and sweetness and saltiness. All kinds of taste.”
Bender offers the best argument that meroir is more than just a culinary myth. There are a handful of farmers raising excellent oysters in Nantucket waters, and they all bring their own special presence to the table.
“It’s amazing, because oysters grown just so many hundreds of yards away taste different,” Bender said.
The last of the oysters are gone. The empty shells sharp on the front edge where they grow, ivory up the shell, then a green/blue color at the very top. Bender was right. They were delicious, although another plate might be needed to appreciate the full depth of their flavor profile.
Steve Bender moved to the island in 1970. He had been a physical chemist back on the mainland, whose field of expertise was X-rays and electron beams. He worked on the original re-entry vehicle for NASA in the early 1960s. When he came to Nantucket he opened a downtown breakfast place on Main Street called The Sandpiper.
He has retained the accent of his Bronx boyhood. The words come out sharp and fast, and sometimes they sound like an invitation to an argument. He sailed a little when he was a kid, but other than that he was not on the water very much.
“I came here and bought the restaurant in ’70 and in ’71 I asked some guys what they did in the winter. They said they went scalloping,” he said. “They showed me how to do it. These days it’s a mere shadow of itself. Even a good season now means it’s good for 15 guys. When I went, it was good for 80 or 100 guys making a living.”
Bender scalloped for 43 years.
“The oysters go for a buck apiece and we sold quite a bit,” he said, when asked if one can make a living farming oysters. “The last four years we sold half a million. I scalloped for 43 years and there is three times the money in oysters than in scalloping.”
Emil Bender is 27 years old. Unlike his father, he is an island kid who grew up on and around the water, working on it or surfing it. He has a very laid-back personality, the flip side of his father’s.
After graduating from Brandeis University, just outside of Boston, with a degree in environmental studies, he came back to the island and realized that what he wanted to do was what he already had been doing.
“I love it,” he said about oyster-farming. “I came back every summer I was in school and worked on the farm with my dad and
Smaller oysters are returned to the water. It can take up to a year and a half for oysters to reach the right size to harvest.
really enjoy it. I would invest half the money I made back into seed. That committed me to want to come back and work on it further. We have almost 10 acres of land available and my dad was using like an acre. I saw there was such room for expansion. I guess I had a vision. We work about three acres now.”
Steve Bender acquired the farm in 2009. He bought his first oyster seed in 2010.
“You buy an oyster seed the same as a farmer buys a tomato seed,” he said. “An oyster seed is a little bitty oyster. You can buy them one millimeter, two millimeters, all the way up to 3⁄4-inch or inch oysters. Ten cents apiece.”
“That first year we went out there it was beautiful. There was eel grass everywhere. There were blue claws, there were spider crabs, there were stripers swimming around. You go out there now and it’s just sand and not a thing else, except sometimes really wicked algae blooms,” he said.
Pocomo Meadow Oyster Farm is now run by Emil. Steve is quick to admit that all he really does is the paperwork.
Despite the obvious difference that one of them is under water, working an oyster farm is a great deal like working a vegetable farm, in that it requires constant hard work to take a seed to harvest, the ability to think ahead, and an understanding of the marketplace. A little luck doesn’t hurt either. You are constantly at the mercy of the weather.
“Can you guarantee you will harvest a certain number of oysters? It is very weather-dependent,” Steve said.
“A hurricane can wipe the whole thing out. Even just a bad storm. The storm we had a couple of years ago, the temperature dropped, the wind was high, the ice formed very fast. We lucked out and saved half, but we could have lost all of them. The ice just acted like a bulldozer, but we were able to grab them so they didn’t get pushed into the channel.”
Farming oysters falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so you can buy insurance in case of crop losses.
You can grow oysters one of two ways, on the bottom or floating near the top of the water. You put the seed into a bag. If you are close to the shore, as Pocomo Meadow Oyster Farm is, you attach the bag to a piece of rebar. The oyster sits on the bottom and feeds and grows.
“The water comes in. They have a certain diet, primarily algae,” Steve said. “They have an organ that can detect if what the water brings in is edible and directs the rest out of the shell. What’s coming in the water is all kinds of stuff on a microscopic level. It pushes it to the rim of the oyster. The same with waste products from its stomach.”
Once a week or so you turn the bags over, so that the oysters that were lying on the bottom are now on top. Among other things, this cleans the oysters. It helps clear away both the elements the oysters discard and waste products.
“It can be constant, monotonous labor, turning over bags and breaking them down to remove the bigger ones,” Emil said. You can also float them, letting them sit higher in the water, on a looser leash so that they rise and fall with the tide. There is greater water flow on the top, which translates to easier feeding for the oysters. The shells also take on a smoother, harder appearance from the jostling of the tides and constant knocking into each other inside the bags.
“I think a lot of times in restaurants, they don’t really have
the best openers,” Emil said. “So if you give them an oyster with a thin and brittle shell that is not as easy to open, they won’t want to buy your oysters because it’s a chore for them to open.”
That is a point in favor of floating oysters. But he also said chefs have told him that they prefer the ones grown on the bottom.
“Most importantly, chefs can tell,” Emil said. “They tell me they like the taste of the ones on the bottom versus the floating bags. One summer day I had a day off and brought 60 to the beach and me and my buddies went through all of them and I forgot how good they taste. The floaters are still delicious but there is a cleaner taste, slightly diluted.”
He agrees with his father on the idea of meroir.
“I think if you have a pretty decent palate, there is a huge difference even just between my oysters and somebody else’s, even though they are in close proximity. Medouie Creek flows into my farm, it gives them a completely different flavor profile. It is close enough (in taste to the others) but still very different,” he said.
“They come on with a really strong brine and salinity and then as you chew it you begin to taste all the minerals that come from the fresh water, then a slight vegetal taste from being on the bottom near the eel grass, and the muscle when you chew that is really sweet, almost like a bay scallop. I think that is just the Nantucket harbor flavor.”
The demand is often between 1,500 and 2,000 oysters a day, delivered to restaurants or served by Hang Ten Raw Bar, which Emil owns and operates. Steve had a decade-long history of relationships with both restaurants and chefs, before his son got involved.
“I try to see what events I have during the day and what restaurants will need,” Emil said. “On such a small island, it is the relationships you build with these people. I have pretty good connections with a lot of industry people now.”
At some point, work on an oyster farm is divided between growing the oysters and harvesting them. In order that fullygrown oysters are continually available, the seed is ordered every month or so.
“This year we bought 500,000 in April, May, June and July. So maybe just over 100,000 each month,” Emil said. “You have to plan three years in advance. A 3/8-inch seed will not be ready to harvest for two years or so. We’ll buy a mix of seed between one inch and 3/8-inch. The inch ones, if you get them in April, you can sell close to half in the first season. But those cost more money to buy, so it’s a tradeoff.”
Oysters go for $1 each wholesale on Nantucket. On the mainland, they are generally around 60 cents. In addition to selling
them to restaurants and opening them at parties and one day a week at Cisco Brewers, you can buy Pocomo Meadow oysters in a more direct way. This year the Benders began selling oysters out of their back-yard shanty on Orange Street.
“We never even wanted to deal with this in the past,” Emil said. “But I marketed that and we sold like 15,000 just out of my cooler, which is amazing. I ask for a little more than a wholesale price: $1.50 per oyster, which is still lower than retail.”
There are five oyster farms in Nantucket waters. Three of them work together, their farms located more up-harbor, in front of The Wauwinet hotel, in deeper water. Steve estimates that there are well over a million oysters growing in Nantucket Harbor on any given day.
Steve Bender has been a voice of warning about the declining water quality of the harbor for more than a few years, driven by gray water from visiting pleasure boats in the summer, and nitrogen from septic systems and fertilizer used in the pursuit of green lawns.
He is very well-versed. He is opinionated. He has few good things to say about how town officials are handling the problem of the decreasing health of the harbor.
Emil Bender sees his father’s arguments played out every day he is out on the water.
“I just notice on the farm there is always less and less eel grass, more algae blooms that coat the whole bottom. There have only been a couple of instances where the algae caused issues with the farm. One year there was a red tide. Oysters ate algae and it interrupted their feeding mechanism and stopped their growth from September to November, and two months of growth is a lot,” he said.
“There is less sand and more mud. When I began there was a solid layer of sand. It is fine when the oysters get into the sand. But once they hit that solid layer of mud there’s no room for them to breathe or filter so they just get suffocated. That mud I think is just organic decay. That makes me think there is more and more organic matter floating around in the harbor and dying and sinking to the bottom.”
Environmentalists sing the praises of oysters as a way to help clean up the harbor. And indeed, an adult oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day.
Asked about oysters and their role in cleaning up the harbor, Emil shrugs.
“They help more than anyone else is helping. But it is not like the amount of oysters out there now is going to cure the harbor. Still, it’s better than nothing.”
When an oyster gets close to market size, anything just over two inches, Emil and his workers spread them into a 50-by-50foot area they have marked off. For the last month or so they grow in these areas. Eventually they are raked up and ready to serve.
Work on an oyster farm usually begins in late March and shuts down just around the first of the year. Island restaurants are mostly closed by then, so demand takes a serious dip.
“You could do oystering year-round,” Steve said. “But it’s a pain in the cold ass to do it in the winter. I never did it in the winter. I just watched them maybe bring stuff back that got washed up onto the shore.”
As for Emil Bender, there is plenty of surfing to be done someplace warm. ///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker, writer and story editor for Nantucket Today. His work appears regularly in this magazine and The Inquirer and Mirror.