Oysters and Jam
This tale comes from a time early on in my cruising days…
I had just gotten a job, but I was broke and hungry waiting for my first paycheck. I was on my annual migration south. Actually, I think it was my first annual trip southbound on the ICW. I had worked construction in the summer, so I had a little cash saved and I had some groceries stocked up. But being my first trip down the waterway I had a tendency to go ashore too often, and that was making my cash reserves go faster than I had planned.
When I sailed south from Charleston I knew that I would have to be stopping for a job soon. Being new to the areas I was traveling through, I did not know what to expect in the towns that lay ahead of me. One thing that I did know is that gasoline is expensive on the waterway, and my little motor was not fuel efficient. For that reason I sailed as much as possible, even in light or contrary winds. The only problem with that philosophy is that I was not making as much southbound progress as I would have liked, and my store of groceries and other supplies was being depleted.
Well, I sailed south from Beaufort, SC and made it to Hilton Head, SC, where I stopped at the first marina I saw so I could buy some fuel.
There were some folks hanging out there as the marina, and we were having a fine yam. Somewhere along the way I mentioned that I needed to be finding a job, and soon. When the dockmaster heard that, he told me that the boatyard there at the marina was looking for help – someone mainly to wash and paint boat bottoms. It is a dirty, nasty job, and the pay is low – so I was very qualified. I was told to come back in the morning and talk to the boatyard boss. I kinda waited around after that, hoping for an invitation to spend the night at their dock at no charge since I was a prospective employee. That never materialized, so I moved my boat off the fuel dock and anchored in a nearby creek.
I showed up back at the marina first thing in the morning, and I was hired on the spot. This was on a Friday. I was told to show up Monday for work. That’s the good news. The bad news was that this was one of those jobs that pays every two weeks, and the pay period for the next payday just ended, meaning that it would be almost three weeks before I got my first check. I did not have that much food onboard, and I had very little money. I was going to have to be very careful until I got my first paycheck. One thing that I added to my stores was a ten pound bag of potatoes. A ten pound bag of potatoes is cheap enough, and that is a lot of spuds for one person to eat.
I got into the routine of my job very quickly. As I had expected it was wet, dirty, physical, and almost mindless work. The kind of work that really makes you want a beer at the end of the day.
I had no beer on the boat, but there was a pub between my work and my boat – well, it was on the way if I took the long way home, which I did. There I ran into some of the liveaboards from the marina. Now I know that I was only going to stay for a beer or two, but it had been a while since I had been out, and I am known to have an affinity (some would call it a weakness) for beer. And boy, the hamburgers there looked like the best food in the world at the time. And isn’t having a “cheeseburger in paradise” part of what my whole adventure was about?
So a couple of hours later I am heading down home to my boat. One of the positive aspects of living aboard is that “home” is always downhill. That was a good thing that particular evening since I was feeling light-headed, and I had a full belly to boot. The bigger problem was that now my wallet was lighter than my head, and I still had over two weeks till payday.
The next evening after work I did an inventory of my stores. I had plenty of non-food items to last me, such as toothpaste, soap, shampoo, rolling tobacco, etc. My food supply consisted of about 9 pounds of potatoes, flour, oil, ketchup, half a dozen jars of homemade jelly, and about ten cans of mystery food.
Mystery food was a problem that I ran into in my early sailing days. For whatever reason, aboard my boat the labels would fall off a lot of my cans of food. Whether it was due to moisture, the way I stacked and packed them, or the jostling of being on a boat I never figured out.
The mystery food was always the last thing left onboard to eat. That’s because it takes two cans of food to make a good, filling dinner for me. With mystery food you never knew what combination of food you were going to end up with.. I am sure that there were times I got lucky and opened a can of ravioli and a can of spaghetti O’s rather than a can of corned beef hash and a can of corn. But I’ll tell you, more often than not I remember coming up with some weird (bad) food combinations. Clam chowder with a side of boiled peanuts – yuk!! Spaghetti and lima beans – eww!! Corn and corn – well, at least they don’t clash, but let me tell you, by the time your belly is full you are sick of corn. And then the next day you get to see a reminder of how much corn you really ate – gross!!
I made it all through the next week just fine. Don’t get me wrong, I was craving a thick, juicy steak, but really I had been eating pretty good. I would just open a can of mystery food, then decide how I would want to cook my potatoes. I had a grill, so I could bake them, I could fry them on the stove, and I also had canned milk, so I could mash them too. Sure potatoes every night was getting kind of repetitive, but I was coming home from work tired and hungry every night, so that helped.
By now I had noticed all of the oysters everywhere. The tidal range is about 5 feet at Hilton Head, so at low tide you can see a lot of marshes and mud flats, and they were covered with oysters. Well, I know better than to eat oysters from around a marina. Oysters filter the water to feed, and boats use an anti-fouling bottom paint that leaches into the water, the marina sells fuel, and any other waste that may be discharged into the water, intentionally or not, will be filtered by the oysters and toxic levels of very bad stuff can build up in them. Waters near golf courses and farms are other areas from where I would never take oysters. Those places tend to use a lot of fertilizer and pesticides which can run off into the waters when it rains heavily. I have been lucky and have never eaten a “bad” oyster, and I hope I never do.
When the weekend came I took my boat out to find an area that looked to have clean water and a lot of oysters, and soon I found a spot. As the tide dropped, there were oysters for the “picking” everywhere. I normally prefer my oysters steamed as opposed to raw, but not that day. The first couple of dozen I collected I popped open, rinsed in the creek and slid into my mouth, and they were incredible. I don’t know how many oysters are in a peck or a bushel, but I had a cooler-full.
I took my boat back to my slip at the marina, then I steamed oysters until I could not eat another one. What I did not eat I would be able to keep alive by keeping the water “fresh”, so I would eat oysters for a couple of more days at least. And I did. I ate so many oysters that I swore I would never eat another oyster again. But just as I did with all 10 pounds of potatoes, I ate all of those oysters. I had to. I was out of all other food – almost. They mystery food was all gone, as were all of the potatoes. All I had left were flour and some home made jelly.
I have never claimed to be a great cook, but I had to do something after coming home from work. Instead of just getting a spoon and eating jelly, I got some flour and added a bit of water. Just enough so that I could shape and work the dough. I tried to flatten it out like a tortilla, then I fried it in oil. I have had people tell me that I did make flour tortillas, others have called it pan-bread, but they did not taste it. It was fried flour, plain and simple, and it was not good. Thank God, actually, thank-my-big-sister for the homemade preserves. At least the fried flour gave me something “edible” to spread the blackberry jam and apple butter on.
Now I was into the week that payday came. Just got to make it till Friday. Then I can go out for a steak if I want to. Mmm, and a salad bar!! All the sweat tea I can drink! But not until Friday.
Being off on a boat, living day to day, week to week, you tend to lose track of time. If it weren’t for the Monday thru Friday job that I had at the time I would have no clue as to what day of the week it was. My calendar went more by the sun and the weather. When the days got long and the weather was hot, it was time to head north. When it started to get cold, follow the birds south. With that loose schedule, and add in a lack of television or newspapers, I was very surprised when I was told that I did not have to work on Thursday – it was Thanksgiving. I was informed of the employee party on Wednesday night, the day before Thanksgiving. And it was to be catered!
That was a big surprise. I knew that it was a corporation that I worked for, that is why I was not in a position to get an advance from my boss. But I did not know that so many people around the marina, the boat brokerage, real estate sales and maintenance all worked for the same boss as I did.
What that meant for me was a big party, and a lot of food. Boy, did I eat. And eat and eat and eat! My boss in the boatyard knew of my limited menu over the last 2 ½ weeks, and he must have spread the word. I had a few people come up and ask if it was true that I had been eating nothing but oysters and potatoes for two weeks. I said “no, I had some fried flour too – with homemade jelly.” After a few drinks among the partygoers it had become a much talked about subject. That was fine, I was fat and happy, and for a bonus, I got first pick of the leftovers to take home. I took some turkey and a whole pie.
As I mentioned at the beginning, that was one of my first sailboat cruises. I like to think I have learned a lot since then, things like:
I try not to get so broke before I stop;
Carry a lot of rice at all times;
Roll your own tobacco;
A big jar of peanut butter goes a long way;
And always, always use a magic marker to write the contents of canned food on the top of the can.