If you keep up with The New York Times or The New Yorker, you might know of Grand Banks, a new oyster bar on the deck of the historic schooner F/V Sherman Zwicker, docked at Hudson River Park’s Pier 25 through October. Especially on a night full of friends and oysters and drinks, under the glow of a supermoon and twinkling city lights, it's easy to fall in love with New York and its rich history aboard this 142-foot sailboat, the last of a large fleet of schooners that fished the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic.
Something about the whole venture – its aesthetic, its budding lecture series on maritime history and aquatic sustainability, and its work with the Billion Oyster Project to restore bivalves to New York Harbor – feels so inspired. In talking with Alex Pincus – sailor, architect, and Grand Banks owner, whose partners include Brooklyn restaurant veteran Mark Firth – I wondered aloud about the root of the idea.
"One day about a year ago I was talking books and boats with Eric Cheong – he's director of Atelier Ace, the design branch of Ace Hotels, and a big sailor – and he told me I had to read Cod and The Big Oyster, both by Mark Kurlansky," Pincus said. "The oyster book, especially, blew my mind. I knew about New York history from the perspective of architecture, but it really brought the waterfront to life. I read about the days when hundreds of boats tied up and peddled oysters, and I thought, 'Why don't we have that now? Or at least one?'" (Great minds think alike, as you'll find out below from Kurlansky, also the bestselling author of Salt: A World History and Bon Appétit's 2006 Food Writer of the Year.)
And so began the mission of bringing the Sherman Zwicker to New Yorkers hungry for a good time rooted in a sense of place. In addition to being inspired by Kurlanksky's oyster-centric view of the city, Pincus has actually gleaned much of the history of the boat from reading Kurlansky's book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, which documents its one-time fleet. (The research continues at the Maine Maritime Museum and the Penobscot Marine Museum.)
In the introduction to his latest book – International Night, co-written with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Talia, and forthcoming next month – Kurlansky writes, "Food is the best way to teach history and geography and most everything else." The story-driven cookbook – based on their weekly ritual of spinning a globe, landing a finger, and cooking a meal inspired by the country where it lands – is in keeping with Kurlansky's insatiable curiosity about food and its natural environment.
Given his understanding of and impact on New York culinary life and nautical history, I've been wondering about his take on Grand Banks. Last week, he joined me by phone from his home in New York City.
BIOGRAPHILE: For the past couple of years, I've lived in Key West, Florida, where I wrote about boats. Last summer, I traveled by schooner from Key West to New York. Now that I'm back in the city, I want to maintain some connection to nautical history, so my ears perked up when I heard about Grand Banks. What do you think of it?
MARK KURLANSKY: I have this whole section in my oyster book where I talk about how New Yorkers have gotten divorced from the sea and completely forget that they live by the sea, and I suggest that this happened when they lost their oysters.
BIOG: You began covering oysters for the City section of The New York Times, right?
MK: That's right, they asked me to do a piece. To be honest, I hadn't really thought about it much until they asked me to do it, and then I thought, this is incredible. Nobody seemed to know anything about it, and it's such a basic part of New York history that just somehow got forgotten.
BIOG: The Native American and African American history in the book is especially interesting. And my favorite factoid is that the oyster's little abductor muscle exerts twenty-two pounds of pressure.
MK: Yeah [laughs].
BIOG: No wonder I'm scared to shuck them.
MK: I'm not very good at it. You read about these oyster-shucking contests: Somebody did 100 oysters in three minutes, three seconds. I'm lucky if I can open one in three minutes, three seconds.
BIOG: And then there's the ancient Roman guy you write about who ate 1,000 of them in one sitting.
MK: You know, I had this idea for a while – not really rational – that a great way to lose weight would be to consume nothing but oysters and Champagne.
BIOG: Oh, I'm on that diet!
MK: I did it for about a week, and it was very pleasant, but then I started doing research and realized that this really wasn't any kind of a diet at all [laughs].
BIOG: You see oysters as containing the history of New York – the wealth, the greed, the trashing of the city, and so on. How does Grand Banks fit into that?
MK: Well, during the days when oysters were central to New York culture, there were all these oyster boats tied up along Manhattan that were wholesale markets, and I found one in New Haven in a parking lot – one of these original nineteenth-century oyster barges. I got together with a bunch of people, and we tried to interest someone in resurrecting the thing and putting it in some museum, like the South Street Seaport, or tying it up somewhere. And I kept thinking: Wouldn't it be great for it to be an oyster restaurant? But the thing was in bad shape, and we could never get the money to rescue it. When you looked at it, you really had to know your history to understand that it was something.
BIOG: Did you know that Grand Banks was inspired by you? When I brought your name up to one of the owners, Alex Pincus, he said, "Mark Kurlansky is the reason we built an oyster bar on a boat in New York Harbor. You can quote me on that."
MK: No. I like to see oyster culture returned to New York, even though from the standpoint of history, it's the wrong boat, and the wrong kind of oysters, but so what.
BIOG: Because the Sherman Zwicker was a cod fishing boat?
MK: Yeah. I don't know if this relates more to my oyster book or my cod book.
BIOG: And "wrong oysters," in that the oysters aren't local?
MK: Yeah, but the local oysters are full of PCBs, so I'm not saying they should serve them. The Clean Water Act [of 1972] mandated the cleaning of New York Harbor, and they did a great job. They got rid of just about everything but PCBs. So the result of the cleanup is that oysters will now grow in New York harbor again, which for years – really, most of my lifetime – they couldn't, so that's some kind of progress. But the oysters growing now aren't edible because of the PCBs.
BIOG: Alex told me that they're seeding oysters off the side of the Sherman Zwicker.
MK: There are a bunch of good arguments for doing that, even though they're not edible. For water filtration, and for history, and it's one more step to bringing the New York Harbor back. And it really publicizes the PCB issue, and how the work isn't finished. A lot of people think, "Oh they've cleaned up New York Harbor, and that's that." Same goes for Boston Harbor.
BIOG: Given your connection to cod fishing, what do you think of the Sherman Zwicker being in New York now?
MK: This thing was built in the 1940s. That tells you something about cod fishing, and commercial fishing in general. Commercial fishing is always so behind the curve of technology that they were building ships with wooden hulls and masts in the 1940s, though it also had a diesel engine, which probably was used most of the time. There was this transition period between schooner fishing and modern bottom draggers, so this vessel is historically interesting.
The ships from New England, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland that fished the Grand Banks are an incredible part of history that's pretty much over. First of all, the Canadian Grand Banks are closed to fishing. U.S. banks, like Georges, are sometimes open, but not very much. Because of fishing regulations that limit the number of days at sea, fishermen don't like to go out long distances and have a day or two at sea where they're not doing any fishing, because they're spending it getting to or from a place. Also, fuel has become really expensive. So the age of long-distance fishing from New England and maritime Canada is pretty much over.
BIOG: When you worked as a commercial fisherman, was it for cod?
MK: Some of the time, but for a much longer time I worked lobstering for this guy out of Fishers Island [at the eastern end of Long Island Sound], who had a forty-four-foot wooden hulled boat built in Bath [Maine]. We'd go out in the open ocean, and this thing would really roll around. I can stand on any kind of deck in any kind of weather now, because when I was seventeen, I worked on this boat. You'd be out there in 200 feet of water off of Rhode Island, hauling by hand three wooden pots on a line, which is extremely heavy because the wood would get water-logged. And basically that's why I had a job. Because they were just looking for a kid who was big and strong. Not particularly skillful. That didn't matter.
We didn't have any equipment. Not a radio, nothing. I always remember when freighters came bearing down on us – which happened often, because that's a big shipping lane to New York – you'd be hauling a line of pots, and you'd hear this "HHRRRRRMMMM." If it was a foggy day, you'd just see this black shadow coming at you. All I had to warn them that I was there was this little kazoo [laughs]. I'd grab it and go "toot-toot-toot." I'd have to decide whether to finish hauling the line, or let it go and quickly grab the wheel and get out of the way.
BIOG: How big was the crew?
MK: Just me and the owner.
BIOG: Did you go out at night, as well?
MK: No, in fact, we didn't go out if the fog was too heavy, because in that kind of lobstering, you can only fish in slack tides. That's when the buoys for the pot lines popped to the surface. You have to visually find them and grab them with a boat hook, and then haul them on deck. So you couldn't do it in the dark or in heavy fog.
BIOG: How does your appreciation for seafood and fishing fit into your upcoming book?
MK: We just saw the hard copy with an index, and Talia noticed there's something like eight recipes for sardines. Sardines are a really good thing to eat – not just because they're really delicious, which they are – but they're usually good sustainable fisheries. And they're low in the food chain, so they don't have a lot of mercury and things like that, and they have all these oils that are good for you. They're just about the best fish you can eat for a lot of reasons. So if you want a bunch of recipes for sardines … there you are!