TALES FROM THE RIVER
Having worked at Nanticoke Seafood for 29 years, I was privy to some of the musings of the local watermen. Technically, I was the Purchasing Agent for Nanticoke Seafood, which processed frozen products. Nobody seemed to know much about Nanticoke Seafood and always thought I worked for Coldwater, which moved to Cambridge years before. Actually it was the largest producer in the world of fried clam strips. We didn’t have our own retail label, but produced in large quantities for large chains such as Red Lobster, Long John Silver’s, Friendly’s, Shoney’s and Country Harvest Buffets. This took up all of our production and was reflected in Nanticoke Seafood never having a losing year in its 40+ years of its existence.
Getting back to the subject of tales from the river, my grandmother was quite upset when I went to work down there in 1974. She was 86 at the time and very set in her ways and convictions. When I asked her why she was so upset, she asked if they sold oysters down there. I told her they probably did through the H. B. Kennerly Co. She said oysters made you “lustful” and I had better be careful. One day I wandered outside where they were unloading the tonging boats. They used to unload them into a bushel-sized bucket that was hauled manually by rope and pully to the waiting front-end loader for transport to the shucking or grading tables. I asked one of the watermen if there was any truth to what my grandmother had told me. He kind of grunted and said that if there was any truth to that, Mr. Kennerly wouldn’t be getting them for $3.00 a bushel.
Another time, when one of the tongers came into the office to get paid for his day’s catch, I was witness to this conversation. An occasional tourist would come in for a pint of oysters and happened to be there when this tonger came in for his money. It was a particularly nasty day, cold and rainy, and he looked like he had experienced all that Mother Nature could mete out. When I asked him if he was O.K., the lady in the tourist entourage interrupted and remarked that he was a waterman and he was used to it. At this point, he calmly remarked that you never get used to being wet and cold. He didn’t offend her, but he did get his point across.
When I started working down there, I became Salisbury’s link to fresh oysters at wholesale prices. I didn’t mind and usually delivered the pints. Something happened early on that I never divulged. Everyone wanted their oysters in their own liquor right out of the shell. The first pint I requested from the “skimmer man” was for the oysters to be in their own liquor. He calmly informed of two things. One – nobody wants oysters that haven’t been “washed”. The sand and shell would make for very precarious eating. As far as “in their own liquor” – oyster liquor is simply water. Nobody ever complained and I never divulged the truth to them.
Another amazing fete and a combination of American ingenuity and shear intestinal fortitude I witnessed was the time a Mr. Pruitt was out tonging oysters and his motor quit. He took the carpet from his boat and cut two slits in it. Through these he wove his tong shaft handles to make a sail. With this he proceeded to sail back to safe harbor at Nanticoke. Before the days of cell phones and modern technology, Americans had to think for themselves. Times may have gotten more convenient, but are we losing the ability to use our brain to come up with these inventive solutions?