Jamie Marks’ fascination with fish and fishing started at an early age. “When I was little, the trucks used to sell their catch on Main Street. I’d stand there watching as long as my mother would let me…My father always said that it’s hard to make a living at fishin’ but my mother had a hard time keeping me out of the water.” By the time he was 19, he was setting out, handlining for cod. “My father would go down to the jetties with binoculars, watching out for me.” Salt water was in his blood, and Jamie continued to fish and scallop.
Mary Marks, Jamie’s high school sweetheart and now wife and partner, also grew up around fishing and scalloping: “When I was young, my mom told me to stay out of the shanties. I thought it was because of what went on in there, but one day I went and there were huge piles of scallops in front of me that had to be opened—mom put on her apron and helped me, and that was when I realized it was the hard work she was warning me about…but it’s what every Nantucket kid did back when—we all knew how to open scallops— that’s how we made money for gas.”
Over the years Jamie discovered his father was right: fishing is a hard way to make a living. He turned to other ventures, but never gave up his dream. After more than 20 years in the excavating business, he decided to try his hand at aquaculture. “I wanted to be on the water.” He started researching, reading, and helping cousin Richard Holdgate at his island oyster farm. It took three years of study and endless paperwork for Marks to find the perfect location for his farm and obtain all of the necessary federal, state, and local approvals. “A litany of approvals,” Mary added. “It was a labor of love,” Jamie said with a smile and a shrug.
He constructed his oyster farm using reclaimed wood and repurposed docks, and powers it with solar. “There’s nothing else man-made out there, and not another soul around.” He takes great pride in what he has built and in the fact that his farm actually helps the water quality. Oysters are filter feeders, “an oyster can clean 50 gallons of water in 24 hours… Since I’ve been farming, marine life has returned…I love to be out with the wildlife as see it coming back.”
The work of an oyster farmer is 365 days a year in all weather conditions— no matter how hot or cold or rough it is, he has to go out—but Jamie Marks is passionate about his farm and his oysters. He’s there every day, sorting, sizing, pruning, and harvesting. Marks starts with thousands of seed from a nursery, each one smaller than a grain of sand, and nurtures them for years until they grow to harvest size. “It’s all how you prune,” he explained “you want to prune as they grow so they get a deep cup…then the meat is plumper with more liquor.”
It is the location of his Coskata Shellfish Farm, “a natural oyster growing area surrounded by a 500-acre salt marsh,” to which Marks attributes the high quality of his oysters and their distinct and appealing flavor: “They’re slightly salty with a clear finish—everyone who has them comes back for more, they’re like no other in the world…they’re like wine, oysters grown in a different area of water around Nantucket will taste completely different.”
The final step in his endeavor was to share his bounty. Last November—at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/11, to be exact—Jamie and Mary, opened Oyster Cracka’s, the island’s newest seafood market, at 2-1/2 Toombs Court. “This was the last excavating job he did,” Mary explained. “Afterwards, he drove the excavator to the end of the driveway and put a For Sale sign on it.” “I always wanted a fish market,” Jamie added.
Marks built their market himself using reclaimed wood: “When they razed the White Elephant, we salvaged some materials…some is from dead standing trees…every bit of wood in here was reclaimed…the floors, the roof…all of it…” The pilings by their entryway were reclaimed from the docks when they were rebuilt, and the lamppost is an original from Main Street. “We wanted it to look like Nantucket used to be as we remember it…My whole childhood…my love of the water…we put it all togther.”
Their goal is to run Oyster Cracka’s like the Nantucket shops from their childhood days: “We want to give people what we remember: the old mom& pop shop that is fresh and clean… and we like to get to know our customers and take care of them…we love to spend the time to explain to them what they are buying…the fish we sell here was swimming less than 24 hours ago.”
In addition to the oysters from their Coskata Shellfish Farm, they also sell their own littlenecks, lobsters, and scallops, and they offer a range of sushi grade fish, that usually includes salmon, halibut, tuna, and cod. They had planned to open earlier on November 11, but Jamie wanted to go scalloping to have the freshest catch for his customers.
The whole family is involved in Oyster Cracka’s: their daughter Heidi created the logo and their daughter Catryn set up their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/oystercrackas. Several of their prepared foods—the clam dip, the stuffed quahogs, and the chowder—are made using family recipes. Mary Marks runs the market and makes much of the prepared food they sell, with Jamie as Official Taster, a role he heartily enjoys. “My wife is a beautiful cook,” Jamie commented, “Her lobster rolls are the best in the universe.” Mary smiled and shook her head: “He gives me the products, and I just put them together.” Occasionally Mary helps Jamie at the farm, “but only if he’s no more than a gaff’s length away…he floats, I sink.”
As the business grows, Jamie and Mary plan to expand their prepared products. This summer they introduced Dinner for Two to Go, and their smoked salmon and smoked bluefish patés (made with a special smoking method Jamie developed) have become customer favorites.
It’s no surprise that one of Oyster Cracka’s most popular specialties is their Raw Bar to Go. Opening close to the holidays last year, they noted that many customers came in for holiday platters: “they were asked to bring an appetizer to a party, so they brought our oysters…then people who tasted them at the party came in for more.”
It’s clear that the oysters are Jamie Marks’ favorite. He loves to introduce customers to this delicacy that he expertly opens with a flick of his knife. “You see that? The meat, the liqueur…that is gold.”
Oyster Cracka’s is open this fall on Friday 1-7 pm, and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from 11 am to 7 pm. To find them at 2-1/2 Toombs Court, turn off of Old South Road onto the road between Espresso to Go and Tugboat Tim’s, then take a left onto the shell drive.