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Morrison’s Kitchen Made Me a Shucker for Life

By ROBERT GEISMAR | Apr 11, 2018
Courtesy of: Robert Geismar Clams on the half shell look inviting. They were prepared by the author, whose shucking skills were forged at Beach Haven’s Morrison’s Restaurant in the 1960s. 

In February 1955 The Bergen Record printed an article that Exit 63 on the Garden State Parkway had opened. My father rejoiced upon hearing the stories of magical fishing off the shores of LBI and did not hesitate. He had a house rented by March, and we experienced our first two weeks during July on Long Beach Island. We have never missed a year. He passed in 2005 and was proud to say our family was among the first transient LBI vacationers from Bergen County. 

Not afraid to make a buck, my dad felt that holding a summer job was honorable and shaped oneself for the future. Why not try LBI since we are there every summer? He had a friend from Pearl River who knew a high school teacher working as a summer chef at Morrison’s Seafood Restaurant in Beach Haven. I was hired in 1963, and little did I know at that point that my heart and life would be tied to this barrier island.

I began as a sandwich maker, salad prep station and gofer to the walk-in (at least 50 round trips a day). Unbeknownst to me was that I could shuck clams really well. We did clams on the half shell, steamed clams, clam strips and clam chowder. Someone had to shuck them.

We took delivery of clams from the bay clammers every day. These guys had giant arms, tanned, stubbled faces and always looked tired. They were not there to be your friend but to get paid and go on to the next restaurant. Each bag was in burlap and weighed 50 pounds. We had to shuck 15 one-gallon jars of clams and their juice (for chowder) daily and twice on weekends. Eventually I was given the “right” to assist Bill, the kitchen manager, in making chowder from Peg Morrison’s recipe. 

The one problem was produce. Morrison’s did not compromise on its produce, so every week at midnight a trip was made to the Philadelphia Market to purchase a truck full of fresh produce for the restaurant. My first night trip (Bill named me “Star Gazer” on these trips) was a whopper. He opened the glove compartment, put a .38-caliber pistol in my hand and said, “If anyone attempts to break into the truck, shoot them dead, Gazer.” He got out of the truck, did the purchasing and we loaded up the truck. From that day on I always knew where the gun was.

During the years I worked at Morrison’s I found out just how tough it was to live on LBI during the early years. Starting my first year, I shared a very low-roofline bungalow on Dock Avenue with another worker from Morrison’s. I felt like a vagabond during the Depression. Constructed of 100 percent wood, it was more a survival structure than a home. It had three rooms, and the only luxury was that it had a working bathroom. 

The bungalow was encircled with bay grass, home to mosquitoes and not kept up by the landlord. My roommate was gone within two weeks. Since I was being paid the minimum wage during my first summer, I quickly found a house with eight college and high school Island workers in North Beach Haven. I wound up paying less per month than in the “Oakie Shack” on Dock Road. 

I began work at Morrison’s the very weekend after school ended in Bergen County. School was out earlier in Ocean County so most of the restaurant’s summer help had an earlier start than us northern boys. Although we felt like outsiders, our arrival worked out just in time for the summer vacation rush.

My father would drive me down to LBI, as I had no driver’s license yet, to check out my living conditions. Since I usually shared a rental with another “northern boy,” he never saw how we lived and the condition of our rental within a month of living the summer life. My parents would usually return to vacation on LBI in July, and I would go over to get a great dinner on my day off. 

On the last day of their vacation while I was at work, Mom wanted to check out my rental. I was in the middle of a busy lunch hour (Saturday was checkout for vacationers) when Bill came over and said my dad was outside the door asking for me.

Dad looked at me and said, “Your mother wants you to come home.”

I asked, “Why?” 

“She just saw your rental.” My rental had a wall of beer cans to the ceiling, there was laundry piled to the window sill on the floor, and she thought I was at the gates of hell. As I was the youngest in the rental, Mom made it known that “it was no place for me.”

Eventually, Bill and my father spoke to Mom. Bill assured her that he would oversee my safety and bring me back from the gates. My mom never entered another rental during my years working at Morrison’s. She did not want to know. 

During my second year at Morrison’s I wound up renting an apartment above the Island Bookstore and bakery across from Murphy’s supermarket. We used to meet many girls from our window, and summer “carefree” was the name of the game. As I was learning to surf and went out every morning to get better and better, I was also becoming enamored of one girl whom I hung out with on a daily basis. After a month of getting to know each other she showed up with two girlfriends in their convertible. They asked if they could borrow my surfboard while I went to work. I never saw her or that surfboard again.  

In my third summer working at Morrison’s, I had turned 17 years old and was driving a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air convertible. I was dating a girl whose parents owned a house on LBI, and we hit it off. One night we went to the Manahawkin Drive-In and had a great time. I was taking her home when police flashing lights lit up our night. I pulled over and was informed that my passenger side brake light was not working. The officer checked my paperwork and asked where I was staying. I told him I worked at Morrison’s and lived above Margo’s Ice Cream Parlor. He told me to get back in the car and actually escorted me and my date to her house and back to Margo’s. Amazing.

During my last year working at Morrison’s I lived above Margo’s, now Show Place Ice Cream Parlour. Margo was French and had the accent to boot. She had singing waiters and waitresses on staff and was a calm, easy-going second “mom” to her staff and me. She was always interested in our well-being and safety. Just like living above the Island Bookstore, I had plenty of interaction with a lot of teens my age and could not have been better located in my summer rental while working on LBI. 

Morrison’s and Wida’s were the restaurant king and queen of LBI, both now gone. Morrison’s did 700 to 1,000 platters a day and had a fresh fish market manned by Pete Morrison. He was quiet, determined and must have filleted hundreds of fresh fish per day. He would smile only when the day was done.

Peg Morrison started it all with a small shack at that location around 1946, the year I was born. Long-time employees Tommy, Howard, Jean, Dee-Dee and many others spent years working for Pete, Peg, Bill and Jane. It was family, and family leaves lasting impressions.

As decades have passed, Barnegat Bay and its tributaries have become cleaner and home again to the famous oyster beds that used to feed New York City. Thanks to Morrison’s, I am today a proficient oyster shucker and very popular at family functions.  

Robert Geismar of Manchester, N.J., has rented and vacationed on LBI since 1955.

 

 

 

                                  

 

 

 

 

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