Sean Fitzgibbon grew up on Nantucket scalloping and digging for clams with his family. Local oysters weren’t really that big of a deal here back then. Fast-forward 15 years and the oyster culture on Nantucket has grown exponentially. Fitzgibbon’s farm Devil’s Creek Oysters is the newest member to join the ranks of the island’s oyster farms. I sat down with him in a small cottage overlooking Wauwinet Harbor in October and talked about the burgeoning little bi-valves.
Q: What’s the story behind the name of your oyster farm, Devil’s Creek?
A: “My godmother’s family built their house out in Wauwinet in the 1800s. Her family dates back to the whaling days on Nantucket and they had one of the few original houses out here. It was a name for the creek, which is technically the Squam brook that comes out of Squam Forest on the southside of Wauwinet Harbor here. It comes into the harbor and is really red, from all the tannins coming out of the forest. I’ve never heard an earlier recollection of that name. It’s a lesser-known creek on the island, but it’s one of the biggest freshwater creeks in Wauwinet.”
Q: How did you first get into oyster farming?
A: “I really started working for Emil’s Bender’s dad (Steve Bender) when they started Pocomo Meadow Oyster Farm when Emil and me were in high school. It was part-time work after school and then after we graduated I continued working with Steve and his wife Ana. They were pretty small-scale still, just me and a couple employees while Emil was finishing college. As Emil was coming home, I had graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and I was doing private chef work and that’s when I approached them about doing a private raw bar.”
Q: Now that you have your own farm, how does it feel to be a part of the small community of oyster-growers out here?
A: “It’s exciting having my name on 10 acres of anything on Nantucket. It’s a rare opportunity. And because there are limited acreages available and they are signed up on 10-year leases they don’t become available very often, realistically. I was definitely lucky to get the opportunity to try it out and be doing something on the water.”
Q: Did you grow up eating oysters?
A: “I grew up going clamming with my family for steamers and hard-shell clams and going bay scalloping. Both my mom and dad were really good about that. But we didn’t ever really eat oysters much until I went to culinary school. I had to learn how to open them.”
Q: How important is controlling the product on the raw bar?
A: “That was probably a big thing that pushed me toward aquaculture, first, being interested in food and passionate about sourcing good ingredients. Growing up here you get such amazing seafood. Things are fresh at hand. You just have to go out and get them. Being able to carry the freshest available products to the raw bar has always been a priority. Now being able to provide two local oysters is even better, because they are different, because of the locations and farming method.”
Q: You talk about all the fresh ingredients out here and things like bow hunting and scalloping. Is it important for you to keep up all those traditions with how quickly Nantucket has changed, even since you were a kid?
A: “It’s the real Nantucket. If you can’t appreciate that stuff then maybe it’s not your place to be. Traveling around the world, it’s rare to find a place that is so seafood rich. We are in the Mecca. You can go out and catch a 1,000-pound bluefin tuna in our back yard. You can come in with a thousand pounds of lobsters from our back yard. There is so much seafood out there and the oysters are just one aspect of that. It’s a great inshore fishery. It’s commercial in its aspect and it’s working on the water, but you don’t have to go 50 miles offshore. It’s something we can do right here inside the harbor. Which is nice.”
Q: Are you also commercial fishing for bay scallops?
A: “Yeah, it’s something I can do on my own and enjoy doing through the winter off-season. It brings in pretty good money and when the fishing is good it’s a privilege to be out there in decent weather.”
Q: Do you enjoy the slower pace of the off-season?
A: “I look forward (to the off-season) when things get hectic in August and I am burnt out on the tourist trade. I am actually looking forward to some cold weather and time on the scallop boat. Now is my favorite time though by far, the month of October. You can go bass fishing, albacore fishing, you can go diving for scallops and spear fishing. Bow season starts for deer. All the shell fishing is good. Steamers. The lobster fishing right now is on fire. I’m making another trip this week.”
Q: What’s your favorite way to eat an oyster?
A: “Just on the half shell as fresh as can be. Open it right up. It doesn’t need anything, but I do like a little vinegar mignonette. We make a good one for the raw bar. But really the best way to enjoy fine oysters is with a squeeze of lemon and freshly-cracked pepper.”