20 Jan The Journey to St. Jude Farms
Let me describe it to you, the place. It’s best to start out for it early in the morning, before it gets too hot and the sky is a blazing, cloudless blue and the mosquitoes begin to rise up in earnest from the trees and you will be almost too warm and slow to even try and stop them from taking a quick drink. Go when the sky is still a soft watercolor, when there’s a breeze carrying the smell of the sea and the birds are starting to coo to each other from the trees.
You walk through the trees, which are mostly tall, bristled pines and gnarled, silvery oaks with tendrils of silver moss, until you come to the marshes and everything opens. You can see the swaying marsh grass for miles around. In this part of the year they are a meld of golds and deep greens, all bending when the wind blows. The effect looks like a shimmer passing over the earth before they bring themselves back upright.
Beyond the grass you can see the black mud, full of scuttling crabs, birds, oysters, mussels and snails, and then begins the creek. On some mornings you can catch it before the tide is rushing in or out and it is a still mirror of the sky, full of pinks and yellows and whites and blues, the moving images of seagulls reflected there as they go in search of food or a chosen landing place. Again, the smell of salt and life and ocean.
Unmoore the boat from the dock and jump in. Maybe you have a coffee or an iced tea in your hand, so find a place for it and rev the engine. There’s no need to go too quickly; we don’t have far, but we do want to get there before the sun beats down on us too strongly.
So we cruise. The boat cuts cleanly through the water and we wind between the two banks of mud and marsh grass, the trees standing tall enough to have their branches reflected along the edges. Look carefully, because at this time of day you are likely to see dolphins teaching their young to chase fish up onto the bank, or otters laying on their backs cracking open shellfish with a rock. People have even seen manatees here, and from time to time, you might even spot the somewhat ominous fin of a shark on the prowl (don’t worry, they have plenty to eat here and aren’t interested in you).
We come to more open water and we can see the expanse of the ocean to one side, and a series of islands and banks on the other. The wind picks up and so does our speed. Feel the wind whipping your hair, your clothes. Feel the jump and the landing of the boat on the water as it takes each wave. The landscape is going by like the reel of a movie someone pressed fast-forward on. You can watch the white spray foam flying off the sides of the boat. Perhaps lean over and let it wash over your hands, slicing into the wash of white with your fingers.
Eventually, you come to a peninsula and another stretch of marsh framing a small creek. There are a few docks here, with various types of boats. A small, slow shrimp boat may pass you on its way to seek it’s first or second catch of the day. Wave to the driver, we may be seeing him again later.
Pull into this dock, the one the shrimp boat has just left. Tie up your boat and kill the engine. This is our destination.
A dock leading up to an open stretch of land, a couple simple buildings. One is a sun-faded blue and white with peeling pictures of sea creatures on its sides: crabs, fish of various types, clams, oysters, fishing worms. The sign by the door advertises snacks, drinks, cold beer, fresh-caught shrimp, seafood, bait and tackle. You will likely be greeted by a dog our two. Don’t mind them, they’re friendly. If you take a peek inside this shop you will see a few people sitting around. They might stay like that for many hours, waiting for people like you to come collect the catch of the day.
Go beyond this shop and turn left. The other buildings you see is where the magic happens. Walk towards the biggest one where people in waders are bustling around large tables, some of them carrying burlap bags or even enormous fish.
Someone will likely come to greet you. They will lead you to see the freezer and the walk-in refrigerator, stacked high with so many different kinds of fish, bags full of oysters and mussels and clams. They will likely take you, too, to the central table, explaining which creek they came from, not too far, practically a stone’s throw away from the dock you used to get here.
On this table you see them, spread out like coins across the shining steel table. They are big, gray, ancient-looking. Someone reaches out and cradles one in their hand, inserting a knife expertly between the shells and twisting it open with a quick pop and handing it to you.
“Slurp it,” they’ll say.
You study the pale oyster, glimmering in the light, surrounded by pearly shell. You bring the shell to your lips and tip it back.
There it is. Everything you saw on the way here: the water, the trees, the fish, the birds, the deep, dark mud, the salty air, the white foam, the watercolor sky, the swaying marsh grass are all captured, contained in this one shellfish, and manifest on your tongue.