While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois. The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.
I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.
I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen. I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.
When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.
Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”
Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.
Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.
The last two weekends of February were surprisingly warm on Cape Cod so what’s a person to but go clamming and paint boats? It was 60 and sunny when I decided to squeeze into a pair of uninsulated waders and scratch around for some quahogs off of Lowell Point. My lower extremities turned into popsicles but I wanted some chowder and would not be denied. A pair of beach walkers cocooned in their down coats took a seat on the stairs leading up to the old Lowell estate and watched me pull one clam after another out of the hard bottom.
A clam warden appeared out of nowhere. The relay off of the point is next to the town dock so it’s not hard for the department of natural resources staff to swing down in their truck and see if anyone is out there. A few years ago there was a lot of pissed off clammers after some local Wampanoags cleared out the beds under the cover of their native riparian rights so that stretch of beach tends to get a lot of scrutiny. The town with the help of the volunteers of the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishers “relays” clams from high up in the bays where the water is a little more stagnant and polluted down to the lower harbor and so-called relay bed where they can flush out in cleaner water until they’re safe to eat.
The warden called out to me, asked how I was doing, asked me to show him my basket and to give him my license number. I was too far out to feel sociable and it was too cold to wade back ashore and then out again, so we conversed through shouts for five minutes before he was satisfied I was legit and only grabbing three dozen quahogs for my dinner.
It was quite nice to stretch out on the back deck with a knife and open said clams and then turn them into a winter chowder. Something about the smell and taste of plain clam chowder makes me realize the “terroir” of Cotuit is the particular smell of its antidiluvian black mud which comes through its clams and chowder.
The following weekend was just as warm, and with temperatures in the mid-60s I turned on the outside faucets, dragged out the house, and set to work on the motorboat and the sloop. Nothing like the lung searing fumes of hull cleaner to get one awake, but in eight hours of non-stop work I was able to paint a total of 51-feet of bottom with antifouling paint, right down to a fresh boot-top of red on the motorboat.
I left the motorboat in the middle of the lawn, daring to think for a moment I might launch and be on the water in February when the usual first launch is in April. But no. Hubris is a bitch and now the boat still rests in the middle of the lawn covered with a half-foot of cold, cold now and another foot is predicted tonight and tomorrow. At least they’re painted and I can cross that off the list — the first time in my memory I’ve checked off antifouling paint day in February.
With the crocuses buried and the tulips and daffodils utterly confused at this point, next up in the harbinger list are the arrival of the ospreys and the planting of my peas on St. Patrick’s day. With tomorrow’s yet-to-be named blizzard on its way, I doubt either will happen this week.
Sean Driscoll in the Cape Cod Times reports today that the Popponesset oyster farm application approval has been upheld in court. This doesn’t clear the way for the applicant, Richard Cook, to start operations. Oh no. The greedhead property owners fighting him can appeal to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Judicial Court (which their bottomless pockets almost guarantees they will, at taxpayer expense to defend I might add). According to the Times the property owners have another suit pending against Mashpee’s ZBA and building commissioner.
“The court stated the homeowners’ claim that the Cape Cod Commission must review the project because it is a commercial development was incorrect. The commission’s regulations include neither agriculture nor aquaculture in its definitions of a commercial project, the court stated.
The Appeals Court also found myriad other issues raised by the homeowners to be without merit, including claims that Cook had failed to adequately address the safety concerns of his gear potentially washing away in a storm and that the Conservation Commission reached its decision without enough deliberation or consideration.”
Today the Globe published a jaw dropping story out of Mashpee. Read it. I am almost too pissed off to type. I am so pissed off I shouldn’t type but when I heard about it on a Boston public radio talk show during a drive to Boston today I did something I’ve never done before and I actually called and vented (my venting begins around 1:09) like that old guy at town meeting who rants about how the fluoride in the water is causing him to have erectile dysfunction and who smells a little bit like pee in his dirty cardigan and who writes long letters to the editor.
Here’s the sordid tale of midnight legislation snuck in the back door on behalf of the rich and mighty. It’s the latest in a saga I’ve been blogging about for a while now.
So there’s been an ongoing stink for the past couple of years in Mashpee as a bunch of waterfront-owning McMansion-squatting greedheads have filed lawsuit after lawsuit to block a commercial oyster grower named Richard Cook from turning a two-acre stretch of Popponesset Bay into an oyster farm. The town, the state, the courts — all have given the guy the go ahead, but in a classic piece of scumbaggery by a hack State Rep from Newburyport (easily 100 miles away from Mashpee) an amendment was tacked onto the state budget last week that would declare a “marine sanctuary” not in Mashpee specifically, not even on Cape Cod to read the amendment, but at some undisclosed location defined by frigging GPS coordinates. The coward didn’t have the spine to actually name the town — he thought he could cloak it with some frigging latitude and longitude numbers. I’m sure it was an honest mistake. Here’s the offending amendment.
And the crowning indignant play by the esteemed Representative Michael Costello is that he further lacked the balls and courtesy to tell the Cape Cod delegation who were actually elected to represent Mashpee — State Senator Dan Wolf and State Rep David Vieira — that he was dropping the little turd of an amendment affecting their districts onto the budget. Thank god the Globe got curious and punched the numbers into Google Maps. (Thanks to reader Aaron Welles for checking the numbers in Google Earth and sending this screen shot below)
Costello was recruited to do the deed by ML Strategies, the lobbying arm of the Boston law firm of Mintz Levin, the pettifoggers who represent the abutters who live along the shore where Cook’s submerged farm would go.
Costello claims he did it for the environment. Who he did it for was a bunch of pricks who include the owner of the New England Patriots. Who wants to bet Costello gets spotted quaffing a frosty Sam Adams in the owner’s box with Gisele at Foxboro Stadium this fall? What Costello really did when he committed his ethical breach was try to preserve a million-dollar waterfront view, a great view indeed — across the bay at Cotuit’s pristine Ryefield Point courtesy of the Barnstable Land Trust.
Stand in Cotuit and look back at them and what you see looks like a row of tacky beached ocean liners, lit up to beat the band, their chemical lawns, big piers and cesspools poisoning the very bay this guy’s oysters might actually help clean up.
These people have no souls. None. They remind me of the time as a Cape Cod Times reporter covering the waterfront when I watched in amazement as a Lily Pulitzer-wearing ehisshewle of a grand dame (btw: great job missing this story Cape Cod Times, yet again the Globe has kicked your butt in your own back yard) tell a Barnstable shellfish committee in 1980 that commercial quahoggers in Osterville’s Eel River were a blight on her view and worked close enough to her house that she could “hit them with a nine-iron shot.” She wasn’t the last of the Littoral Leeches. Then the Ostervillians of Imposterville went after the aquaculture guys in West Bay for daring to float bags of seed oysters in front of their houses. “A menace to navigation!” They lost that fight too.
If I only possessed a Mashpee clamming license I would do my level best to invite all my clammer friends to join me in sitting on these jerks’ beach on Popponesset Bay every afternoon around cocktail hour in front of their guests (in a pink Speedo of course) and dig their goddamn clams. I would fish nowhere else. I would fowl nowhere else. I would do everything in my power to get that now sad but familiar sight of some poor policeman trudging down the sand in his brogans, towards me, telling me, “Please buddy. I know what the law says, but can you just do this someplace else? Please?”
I used to say “yes, sure, don’t want to cause a problem.” But never again. Take back the beaches and give Mashpee back to the original wampum tycoons, the Wampanoags. They at least took decent care of the place and appreciated a fine oyster.
Cook said it all to the Globe:
“All the way along through the process, I’ve done what the agencies and regulators have asked me to do in filing for permits and et cetera,” said Cook. “And I don’t understand how at this point someone can come in the back door from off-Cape and without any knowledge of local authority and residents, try and create something like this in order to stop my proposal from moving forward.”
I launched the motorboat yesterday afternoon after two weeks of working on it in the middle of the yard. Some years the boat manages to go in early, other years it goes in late. This year was late because of the winter-that-wouldn’t-end. Some years the boat needs multiple visits to the mechanic, other years I get her running on my own. This year I tackled a few overdue projects and one nasty recurring problem which required a sledgehammer. As my Cousin Pete (who lives across the street in the western half of the Chatfield family compound) likes to to say, watching a Churbuck with an internal combustion engine (lawnmower, pressure washer, automobile, chainsaw, outboard motor) is like watching a monkey with a hand grenade. I know he likes to sit on his front porch with a cocktail and laugh at my best efforts to destroy anything that lives on gasoline and I am sure he noted my application of a sledge hammer to my Honda 40 horsepower outboard for future retelling.
Back in March, in a fit of optimism, I dragged the boat out from behind the garage, cut off the useless blue tarp that collapsed during the first snow storm, noted that the trailer’s ten year-old tires are still hanging in there (which is good because the wheels are rusted onto the axles forever), and started the familiar recommissioning process which is becoming second nature now that the boat is twenty-two years old and on engine #3.
The battery went onto the charger. I grabbed a broom and swept out the sticks and leaves, sand and shells, dragged out the clam rakes and baskets, and winced at the beard of dried slime along the waterline and the crust of barnacles on the keelson — proof I didn’t do much of a job last fall when I yanked the boat for the season. I had a feeling my neglect would mean the boat would bone me so I drove up to see Dow Clark, my mechanic and asked him if he could tune things up. He pointed out that there was a blizzard coming (this was last month), and he wouldn’t work on the boat if the temperatures went below freezing because he needed to run a hose through through engine’s water intakes in the parking lot and didn’t want to turn it into a skating rink for the other tenants in the little row of garages behind Peck’s and the Domino’s Pizza place.
The blizzard came and went, I returned to the boat (glad I hadn’t launched her in time for an evening of 60 mph gusts out of the north), replaced the battery, and lowered the engine. The first boat problem of 2014 emerged immediately: the steering was frozen, a common occurrence which meant the push rod system that pushed and pulled the motor on the transom was seized. Inside I went to Google and YouTube, read about the problem, watched about a dozen different possible solutions, and returned armed with a propane torch, a hacksaw, a length of rebar, a cold chisel, a ball-peen hammer, a mason’s hammer, a grease gun, and a spray can of white lithium grease, another can of “PB Blaster, and finally, a can of carburetor cleaner. I disconnected the motor from the steering assembly, got rid of all nearby gasoline, lit the torch, and started heating the steering tube. For the next six hours I feebly tapped at the end of the stainless steel ram with the hammer, tried a 2″x4” lever, reapplied heat, sprayed various fluids, and finally, in a fit of total despair and destruction, broke out a sledgehammer and started whaling away at the end of the pernicious steering gear.
That did it. If it is stuck, whack it. A couple applications of the precision tool and the ram started to budge a tiny bit with every smack. I finally drove the thing all the way into the tube, then continued the brutal repair with a piece of rebar, clocking my knuckles so hard when the sledgehammer missed that I was convinced I’d broken my hand. After countless attacks on the piece of precision Japanese machinery, the steering ram popped out and I performed a little Dave Dance of Happiness on the brown lawn. I reamed out the tube with brushes and carburetor cleaner, cleaned the ram piston off and regreased it, then reassembled the whole mess until the steering wheel spun back and forth with silken, greased ease. Success. I spared myself a new $125 steering cable and a trip to the mechanic.
Then to the greasy manual for a refresher in changing the engine oil and lower unit lube. I siphoned whatever water I could find out of last year’s gas and drained the fuel lines, changed the fuel-water separator, and tightened the drain holes on the three carb bowls. New spark plugs followed, a change in the fuel filter and I was ready to test it. Professional mechanics use these “headphone” sort of clamps that attach to the water intake of the motor and then run a hose through them so they can work the running motor on dry land. The last time I did that I melted the water pump. This year I hooked the trailer up to the car and drove the boat down Old Shore Road and backed the trailer in deep enough to lower the motor without launching the boat (I have learned that launching prematurely always means the boat will not start and will need to be paddled back to the trailer, winched back on, and taken up to Dow Clark two miles inland on a trailer with no lights and an expired registration that is one flake of rust away from collapsing.
I climbed aboard, lowered the motor, inserted the key, said a prayer, and started cranking. It astarted after 15 seconds, a feeble, barely combusting ignition that I nursed to life like a freezing man lighting a fire in a Jack London story. I let it strangle and shudder, then dared to give it a bit more gas, let go of the choke and it LIVED! Do another Dave Dance of happiness, feel like a master mechanic.
I let it run for 15 minutes on the trailer, relishing the opportunity to hog the entire boat ramp by myself on a Saturday afternoon ; a ramp that in three months would have a line of impatient boaters waiting for their turn to launch or haul their boats while some ass clown clogged things up by deciding to clean his Bayliner while everyone waited and honked their horn. The off-season in Cotuit is the season of the Townie Prerogative: when those of us stupid enough to live here from January to April get to put out our dinghies on the prime spots, get to hog boat ramps for as long as we want, drive fast in areas of the harbor usually confined to 6 mph, and then clam in places that get closed on May 1.
I let the motor run for a quarter hour because the second rule of Churbuck Outboard Failure is that a motor that runs well near the beach will fail as soon as it is about 500 feet away from the beach — generally because of water in the system, or a failed water pump that sets off the dreaded alarm sound which means a $500 repair bill is coming soon. A sub-rule of Churbuck Outboard Failure is that failure in the off-season means there aren’t any other boaters around to come to one’s rescue and the possibility of being stranded and having to swim in 40 degree water is very real. These are the lessons learned over 22 Cape Cod Springs, proof that wisdom is nothing more than the accrual of repeated failures.
I resisted the temptation to back off of the trailer and bomb around the bay. The bottom was unpainted and there was more work to do. Driving an unpainted boat would definitely draw the curses of the Gods of Maritime Failure and I only get superstitious when I am on the water.
Back to the yard and then off to the marine supply store for the annual BOHICA* (nothing will trash a bank balance faster than a can of bottom paint or any sort of marine hardware). The harbormaster nearly wrote me a ticket last August for being on the water without navigation lights. I had to invest in a new sternlight and green-and-red bow light, wire, connectors, switches, etc.. Back to the boat and my favorite liquid after a smoky peaty single malt scotch — Hull Cleaner — an evil solution that is swabbed around the waterline of the white hull which turns brown over the course of a summer like a smoker’s lungs. Hull cleaner must be washed off, so down into the cistern under the grape arbor I go — through a manhole cover into a dank dirt floor chamber under the birdfeeders to turn back on the outdoor faucets. Then back into daylight in search of the hoses, replacing washers and finding a working nozzle while the birds act inconvenienced because I dare interrupt their springtime binge diet.
Hull Cleaner magically bleaches everything away like a blessing from the Pope, but it also eats into the trailer’s galvanized frame one whiff of the stuff and the disconcerting sensation of burning lungs makes me believe it is an evil fluods. I hose it off, get the bottom wet, and drag my 55-year old ass under the boat with a scrub brush and scraper to vanquish 2013’s barnacles and slime. This results in my being crippled later in the evening, forced to lay on my back on the floor while watching 60 Minutes and moaning that I have strapping sons who should be crawling under boats on wet grass littered with stinky evicted barnacles.
The next day my son thoughtfully volunteered to crawl under the boat wearing a set of disposable Tyvek overalls to paint the bottom with antifouling paint while I masking-taped the boot top line. When we were done the boat looked about as good as it did the day in 1992 when I picked it up from the builder in Vineyard Haven (the best $7500 I have spent in my life).
The wiring of the lights was a sobering reminder that I am a terrible electrician. My first attempt succeeded in turning the new lights on, but my mis-wiring also turned the circuit into one big electric stove top that started to turn red, smoke and melt the plastic insulation off of the wire. Back to the Internet for assistance, but finally I figured out enough 12V electrical wiring theory to get the job done correctly.
By this point in time it is noon on Easter Sunday. Easter dinner starts at four pm. I look for volunteers to join me for the maiden voyage and a quick clamming expedition to secure enough littlenecks for appetizers. No takers, everyone is occupied with deviled egg construction. So I break out the new waders, find the VHF radio, cellphone, clam license, buckets, oarlocks, oars, temporary mooring float, throw it all into the boat, insert the drain plugs, connect the gas tank, back up the trailer hitch, and off I go under bluebird skies and a nice spring day.
The boat started on the first try. I backed off the trailer, brought the boat into the beach and left it there while I parked the trailer on the side of Old Shore Road. Back to the boat, off the beach, restart, back away and head for the winter stick that marks my mooring near the yacht club’s beach to tie on a temporary painter until the mooring guy can get out there and swap the wooden winter stick for the regular rode.
The alarm horn goes off just as I pull up to the mooring. SHIT! Off with the engine before heinous amounts of destruction occur. I tie the boat onto the winter stick before addressing yet another spring launching spoiled by Honda. I turn it back on. No alarm. I note the engine “pisser” is not squirting water. Proof the water pump isn’t work. Off with the engine, find the hidden paper clip, tilt up the engine, and ream out the little piss-port under engine cover. Restart, long satisfying stream of pee and no alarm horn.
I headed off to Sampson’s Island to clam, and opened up the engine all the way as I skipped across the chop of Cotuit Bay, the wind chill plummeting the temperature and bringing wind blown tears to my eyes. No alarm horns No surges in power as the carbs drink in water. Just a well working boat on a sunny day. One month of weekends and one boat is in the water in time for the first stripers, squid and bluefish. Now to start on the big sailboat and another month of messing around.
The Cape Cod Clam Caper appears to have been solved. A spate of thefts last year from commercial and municipal oyster grants from Dennis to Marstons Mills meant someone was stealing tens of thousands of clams and finding a way to fence them. Which meant someone was selling the public “transfer” clams being grown in polluted water before their transfer and cleansing.
Now comes the sad news that one familiar Upper Cape institution, Joe’s Lobster Mart in Sandwich, on the bulkhead of the Cape Cod Canal allegedly bought the clams from the alleged clam pirate, one Michael Bryant, 38.
The owner of Joe’s, Joe Vaudo, has run the place for the past four decades (I am an occasional customer) and is chairman of the Sandwich Planning Board. He’s been fined and is at risk of losing his lease from the Army Corps of Engineers who manages the canal.
Every place has its native culinary specialties. Buffalo, New York has beef on weck; Cincinnati was five-way chili; New Orleans the Po-boy; North Carolina the pulled pork barbecue sandwich with coleslaw, and on and on and on. Turn on a food channel and there will be some overenthused fat guy on a culinary tour of the backwaters looking for the regional speciality.
Yet what of Cape Cod? What are the classic items that every tourist should seek out? Frankly the place isn’t famous for much — certainly not on the level of a Philly cheesesteak — and even within Massachusetts there are foods that get mixed up with Cape Cod but which aren’t really Cape Cod born. Take the fried clam for example — that’s a North Shore/Essex County speciality born in Essex at Woodman’s where in 1914 Chubby Woodman fried some soft-shelled “steamer” clams in batter at the suggestion of a customer. Sure, one can obsess about the best fried clams and search the Cape for the best examples (personally I used to favor Sandy’s in Buzzards Bay, but crave the ones from The Bite in Menemsha, even if you have to own a hedge fund to afford them).
Clam chowder is pretty Cape Cod, but apparently the dish came down from French-Canada and the word is derived from “chaudière” after the stove the stuff was cooked on in the Maritime Provinces. They serve Legal Seafood’s chowder at Fenway Park — frankly a kind of disgusting thought on a steamy humid day when a guy comes trooping up the stairs in the bleachers hawking what is essentially clam-flavored hot milk thickened with corn starch or flour. No one makes the clam chowder I grew up with, but if you want a sense of it, read Melville’s account of Ishmael’s dinner at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford.
One very Cape Cod dish is Portuguese kale soup, especially around East Falmouth where there is a big population of Cape Verdeans, Azoreans, and other descendants of the Portuguese sailors who settled on the Cape after sailing on New England whalers in the mid-19th century. Take chicken broth, a lot of torn up kale (the miracle food of the paleo-Hipster movement), some kidney beans, diced potatoes, sliced chorizo and you have a bowl of goodness.
If I had to nominate one dish as the official Cape Cod specialty I would have to go with the stuffed quahog, also known as the “Stuffie.”
Take big quahogs — the bigger the better, like ashtray sized monsters — grind up all the meat and clam juice and mix with some sort of bread crumbs, diced onion, celery and whatever feels right, mix into a filling like a turkey stuffing, pack into the open shells and bake until golden brown. The restaurants serve them with a pat of butter, a lemon wedge, and a bottle of tabasco.
Stuffed quahogs are big among Cotuit cooks for bragging rights. My step-sister, mother, aunts, brother-in-law …. everyone has their own take on the stuffie. Green bell peppers? Maybe red pepper flakes? There is no great restaurant stuffed quahog. Most bars that serve them as bar food get premade ones from New Bedford — nasty, very processed pasty things with no big clam chunks. Do not confuse a stuffie with Clams Casino — different thing altogether.
I confess I like a homemade Cotuit stuffed quahog, and even will go with a mass produced ones if I’m at the right bar and want something to go with a beer. My favorite recipe — which is total heresy because it is “gourmet” to some critical palates– is Chris Schlesinger’s “Ultimate Stuffie” from the Back Eddy in Westport. These suckers have ground Portuguese sausage, a ton of sage and oregano, and kernels of corn. I discovered the recipe in The New England Clam Shack Cookbook, (probably one of my most used books on my kitchen bookshelf.)