Nantucket celebrates the life of a true original, Stephen “Spanky” Kania.
Attend just about any event on Nantucket and you’re bound to find a raw bar. The little dinghy filled with ice and loaded with freshly shucked oysters, clams and other wonders of the ocean’s bounty is a popular staple of weddings, graduations and most any other important celebration held on the island. Standing behind the raw bar boat, knife in hand, is the shucker, a culinary master of ceremonies dutifully opening shell after shell for the many attendees who gravitate to his gunnels. While it might seem as though the raw bar scene has been on Nantucket forever, its roots can most likely be traced to one man with the legendary nickname Spanky.
“I’ve always considered him to be the godfather of the raw bar scene,” said PJ Kaizer of his late uncle Stephen “Spanky” Kania, who passed away last November at the age of sixty-nine. “From what I’ve been told, there wasn’t any catered raw bar service before him.” A second generation Nantucketer, Spanky was a true island original, a salty yet affable figure who carved out an entire industry with his bare hands. He got his start back in the eighties when Lizzy Sanford asked if he’d be willing to shuck some clams for a group of ladies playing bridge at her home. Happy to oblige, Spanky set up a nice raw bar spread for them. But as the story goes, when hewent inside to grab something, Spanky returned to find a swarm of seagulls feeding away at his creation. Nevertheless, so began Spanky’s Raw Bar, a catering company that flourished by word of mouth and paved the way for many others to make a living on the island.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic thinking about the early days of Spanky’s operation when he and his crew would spend the mornings digging clams that they would shuck at parties later that evening. Oysters, which are not native to Nantucket, were always sourced by local purveyors. “He took extremely good care of his shellfish,” said his wife, Kitty Wilson Kania. “He woke up early every morning to ice each individual piece.”
Yet beyond the shellfish, what set Spanky apart was his personality. “He had a sense of humor, a congeniality, a character about him that just drew people in,” remembered Kaizer, who spent his summers growing up working as a member of his uncle’s crew. “Spanky was fun-loving. He was every guy’s best friend. And that’s the hardest thing to replicate—it’s a lost personality.”
Manning his raw bar boat, Spanky was a master at reading the scene, seamlessly connecting with well-heeled summer visitors and blue-collar locals alike with his witty banter, fun sense of humor and live-in-the-moment attitude. “Spanky was a global ambassador for Nantucket,” said his brother-in-law Pete Kaizer. “There was something magical about him, how he connected with people from all different places and made them smile.”
Over time Spanky emerged as an icon in his own right and his business became a must-have for family celebrations. Through the decades, he and his team shucked at baby showers, galas, graduations and weddings. Time and time again, he donated raw bars to local nonprofits and remained committed to the island he so loved.
Spanky continued running his business well into his late sixties until his untimely passing last November. His life was celebrated this past Memorial Day weekend at a party hosted at Fairgrounds Restaurant. “Three hundred fifty people showed up, but I can think of another 150 who wanted to be there,” said Kitty who hosted the affair. With Kaizer shucking oysters through his aptly named LegaSea Raw Bar—a business that his late uncle inspired and help him launch—the party took on the fun, festive air that defined the countless celebrations where Spanky docked his raw bar boat for decades. So the next time you belly up to that ice-filled dinghy and slurp down a salty clam or oyster, remember the words Spanky so often uttered during his life: “We are some kind of lucky.”