Oyster lovers tank up on tasty bivalve at state fair

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2000

PALMER, Alaska (AP) -- ''Yummy,'' says an older man as he sucks a raw oyster from its shell.

''Kind of fine,'' says his younger compatriot after letting the slippery bivalve slide down his gullet.

Once a year, oyster lovers from around Alaska gather around Susan and David Sczawinski's oyster bar at the state fair to partake of what they say are the best oysters in the world. During the fair the couple expects to sell between 12,000 and 15,000 oysters, or about a quarter of what they grow each year at their Pristine Products farm in Prince William Sound.

While they offer baked and pan-fried oysters, 80 percent of their customers are purists, preferring them raw on the half-shell with just a few drops of lemon.

Barbara Weinig, 58, a retired software specialist from Anchorage who holds the record of 11 dozen in one day, has taken up her post at the end of the bar. She comes with her own sauce, a combination of lime juice, Thai chilis, garlic and squid sauce.

''I like hers the best,'' she says. ''They have the right texture and they have a clean taste.''

Susan, who never tasted a raw oyster before she and her husband began farming in 1989, says their oysters taste better because they are grown in Alaska where waters are too cold for breeding. In warmer waters where oysters can reproduce, they become milky and develop a chalky texture, she says.

Susan, 41, and her husband, David, 44, buy 300,000 baby oysters a year, also known as spat. The baby oysters are placed in five-tier trays and suspend them in the bay.

Baby oysters need to be checked four times a year. Oyster-eating starfish, as well as mussels and clams must be cleared from the trays. As they grow, the oysters need to be separated so they won't clump and moved to bigger baskets. At four years, they're plump and ready for market.

Oysters need tending year-round. That means getting in the 17-foot skiff in winter when the thermometer is hovering around zero, maneuvering it through the ice and checking the buoy lines to 5,000 baskets at three locations.

The couple works in tandem due to safety concerns. One January, David was checking the engine prop when he fell overboard. His wife fished him out. Last February, when Susan was visiting her mother, the skiff sprung a leak and David was forced to wade through surface ice in his survival suit to get to another boat.

''It is hard work. We're pretty crazy,'' Susan says.

She's not complaining.

''I wouldn't last two weeks in a secretarial job,'' she says.

It was David's idea to become oyster farmers. When they met, he was a part-time carpenter and biology student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and she was a dietary technician at a hospital in Seward.

They apprenticed at an oyster farm in 1989 and began their own business in 1991 at Eaglek Bay, a remote, scenic area about 40 miles east of Whittier.

The first winter they didn't even know to keep an ice alley open and were landlocked from January to the second week in April. It took five days to push the skiff to open water.

''You learn,'' Susan says.

The couple lives on a houseboat anchored about 100 yards from shore -- a safe distance from the black bears that stroll the beach. The houseboat is half living space, half workshop with a blue plastic tarp hanging down the middle. It has nearly all the comforts of home -- two wood stoves, an oven, a refrigerator and laundry. Susan goes without television. She likes curling up with a good book instead. The bookmobile boat comes twice a year and drops off paperbacks.

The cell phone works sporadically and the ship-to-shore phone costs $3.50 a minute so phone calls are few. They don't get lonely, however. There's always something to do, or see; bears, eagles, whales, even a rare wolverine.

''We're not deprived at all. We have everything we need,'' Susan says.

Susan admits it would be nice to make a profit. They invested about $250,000 in boats, gear, cages and other equipment to get the business off the ground. Pristine Products lost between $10,000 and $20,000 a year the first few years, but is about to break even. They want to double production in the next couple of years, and with a $100,000 federal farm loan granted in 1998, they just might, she says.

''I really did believe we'd be out of debt in the first three years. I had no clue what it would take,'' Susan says.

She wants people to know she and David get a lot of help. The tourist boats that cruise Prince William Sound have been a blessing.

''We'll trade. They'll get oysters. I'll get fresh fruit and they'll take my mail to town,'' Susan says.

The life of an oyster farmer isn't all work. In the summer, Susan and David like to hit golf balls off the back of the houseboat. When they hook a shot, out comes the scuba gear. At the end of the day, they take their two cats to shore so they can climb trees and play. In the winter, when the oysters grow ''very, very slowly,'' Susan and David like to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

Susan looks forward to the state fair when she gets a chance to see some of her friends. A photo album filled with pictures of the farm in Eaglek Bay sits on the edge of the oyster bar, inviting new people into their world.

T.J. Politzer, a 48-year-old guitarist with the ''Sundogs,'' a San Francisco-based boogie band, said he's never had better oysters. Traveling with the band has allowed him to enjoy oysters all over the United States as well as Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam.

''Thanks Suzie. They were good,'' Politzer says as he finishes up a cool dozen. ''I'm coming back tomorrow.''

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