Most of us rarely set aside time to think about where our food comes from.
But our relationship with food is gradually evolving as more and more people become part of sustainable food initiatives such as the locavore and farm-to-table movements. And while there have been commercial and industrial advancements in shellfishing, the baymen on Long Island maintain their traditional roots of hand-raking the bay harvest.
Hand-raking is important to understand. The process is quite literally what it sounds like. A steel trap is welded to the end of a long pole that is lowered from the side of a small fishing craft to the ocean floor. Then, as the name implies, the shellfisherman â€œrakesâ€ the bottom of a â€œproductiveâ€ area in the bay to haul the catch back into the boat. The catch is then hand separated and counted out as there are restrictions on the number of bushels each licensed bayman can take in on a particular day.
From catch limits to the delicate (but physically taxing) hand-raking process, every step of shellfishing is intended to disrupt the ocean floor as little as possible to allow for other life to sustain itself. Many people are surprised to learn that the process is still the same as it was for hundreds of years but it’s one of the things that makes life on the water so romantic and the story of shellfishing so alluring to seafood lovers.
Yet for the baymen, life on the water isn’t always so romantic. It’s hard work that requires incredible dedication and an understanding of the elements that can change in the blink of an eye. Knowing which spots will be productive and which areas need more time to mature is part of the experience required to be successful on the water. Moreover, true â€œseafoodiesâ€ will know that the colder the water, the better the catch. That’s right. Clams and oysters dug in the autumn and winter are (dare we say) even more delicious than the summer catch. Now think about hand-raking the bay waters in the middle of the winter and you’ll understand why some of the charm is lost in this profession. Nevertheless, as many baymen will tell you, it’s an honest profession in one of the most picturesque parts of Earth. And on those beautiful summer days when there’s a gentle breeze, the water is still and the catching is easy, it sure beats sitting on the Long Island Expressway going to an office job.