Driving east toward the tiny town of New Suffolk, through an early November fog pushing down against the pavement the further I drove, I conjured images of ocean waves crashing ashore on a steamy summer day—the kind of day meant for slurping down oysters by the dozen, wholly different from where I found myself just then. Winding through the back roads, I pulled onto a gravel lot of what looked to be a run down tackle shop and not the up and coming oyster business I was looking for. Had I not caught the newly mounted P-E-E-K-O lettering along the faded red building, I would have turned around.
Two men were hauling scrap metal from inside a workshop onto the bed of their pickup while I walked through the mist to the end of the dock looking out on the Peconic Bay. I hummed lines from the Downeaster Alexa as I wondered what happens to the beautiful fishing villages once the seasons turn cold. “I know there’s fish out there, but where God only knows,” I sang, as oysters buried deeper in their shelves, awaiting a long winter.
I snapped out of my Billy Joel trance as Pete Stein approached. He’s not what you expect when you think of a bayman, lacking the weathered patina of someone whose days are spent on the water, but neither is his business. Stein started Peeko Oysters in 2016, shortly after being laid off from his job in business development for an educational software company. But his untimely departure became a blessing, as he was growing tired with the industry and felt ready to move on. Like most people who find themselves at a crossroads, he looked inward, hoping to find work with which he was personally connected.
The Stein family has maintained a home on the North Fork since the early 1970s, so even though his life—and his wife and child—was now in Manhattan, Stein looked east. He began apprenticing with an oyster farmer on the Peconic Bay with the intention of buying the business. By the end of 2016, he bought the underwater bottom, over 130 acres, from the farmer, and Peeko Oysters was born.
The name Peeko is a play on Peconic, deviating from traditional oyster nomenclature. “Most oysters you see on a menu are named after where they’re grown,” says Stein. “I wanted to separate myself from the crowd in that regard, so I chose a name that was less place-based.”
The name also offers a sense of merroir, which is what those in the oyster business refer to as the terroir of an oyster. “Regionally, oysters are going to taste somewhat similar, but there’s a little bit I have control over in terms of the grow out method, including using different machinery.” In creating a stand-out name, he also wants to create more transparency around his product, giving consumers information on what they’re eating, when it was harvested, and by whom.
There’s ample opportunity to create more transparency in the fishing industry, which is fraught with controversy, and oysters are no exception. Wars have been waged over this bivalve in the Chesapeake Bay and Point Reyes. Lives and livelihoods have been lost, which Stein alluded to when discussing his ownership of bay bottoms that are covered by public waters. “The law is only the law if you can enforce it. Legally speaking, I could prevent someone from putting their lobster traps on my bay bottom, but they’d probably have some beef with it.” In other words, the fight is not something Stein wants to participate in.
Land use is not the only point of contention. “I’ve heard stories of restaurants in the New York area saying in February that it’s fresh caught Montauk tuna on their menu. There has not been a tuna landed in Montauk in the history of recorded tuna,” says Stein. What he describes here is IUU: illegal, unreported, and unregulated, which is rampant in the commercial fishing industry. According to Stein, the average piece of fish that you buy in the grocery store or eat in a restaurant has changed hands over a dozen times. Through Peeko, he wants to put an end to the distance traveled and number of hands that touch seafood. For his part, he self-distributes his oysters to over 15 restaurants between the East End and Manhattan, including Osteria Leana in Oyster Bay and both Eleven Madison Park and their Summer House in the Hamptons.
While his oysters touch but a few hands before arriving on your plate, it still takes at least 24 months to get them there. Stein buys his oyster “seeds” from a hatchery once they’re a half-inch in length; to grow them to market size, which is about three inches, it takes at least 20 months on the water. His farming process involves tumbling and culling the oysters, a process by which the shells are damaged to promote growth.
But like most beings, oysters are now preparing for winter, which means storing up energy typically spent on growing so it can sustain itself for six months in 50 degree water. Knowing nothing will grow until May, when the bay begins to warm, Stein’s goal was to go into November with six months of inventory, so he could offer a consistent supply to his customers throughout the year. “I want to be able to tell my customers that if they want oysters 52 weeks a year, then they will get them.”
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Not only do oysters filter the waters in which they grow, but the cages that the oysters are farmed in are also beneficial to wild species by providing habitats for little critters like crabs and juvenile fish. Another day, another #pearlofwisdom #peekooysters #oysterfarmer #oystercages #laperla
Although oysters and summer have become synonymous, Stein corrected my assumption that demand drops significantly once rosé rations are depleted. “Qualitatively, oysters are better in the fall and winter than they are in spring and summer, at least in this area of the world.” But many of us eat with our brains and not our mouths, so while we’re stuck indoors over the winter, we’re not dreaming of the refreshing chill of an oyster. Proving his point, Stein shucked a half dozen Peeko oysters whose bellies had the creaminess of a west coast oyster and the brine of an east coaster. Sitting there, trying to catch the warmth of a single space heater, it was clear to me this is how oysters are meant to be enjoyed.
As we sat huddled in Peeko’s headquarters, a former bait and tackle shop that was ultimately abandoned by its former owner, warming ourselves in front of a space heater, I mentioned that the Downeaster Alexa had been stuck in my head since I arrived. “If I could choose a theme song for us, it’s that song. A lot of what [Joel] sings deals with the realities of commercial fishing.” And while Joel’s lyrics rightfully lament the struggles of fisherman across the island, Peeko proves, through Stein’s dedication and forward thinking, you can make a living as a bayman once more.