It took me a while to really, truly come around to oysters. To dislike oysters as a fancy restaurant cook is kind of an embarrassment. So I’d eat them, and pretend to really like them, when I was still wrestling with the texture and vitality of raw shellfish. To manage the revulsion, I happily went along with the proffered wisdom that smaller oysters are better, and that oysters with creamy, plump midsections were to be totally avoided. I even recall shucking oysters at one fancy restaurant and, over the course of a night, tossing a few score into the trash bin in search of only the most “perfect” grey, limpid specimens. Chef eventually told me to not be so overzealous.
I remember the oysters that finally brought me around weren’t delicate little Kusshis or Kumamotos, or any of those other finely manicured, lilliputian things that have been all the rage for years at west-coast fine dining establishments. They were these big, gnarly, barnacle encrusted, long-lipped and shallow-dished Pacific oysters (Crassostrea Gigas) that they sell at practically every seafood shack on the coast around here for seven or eight bucks a dozen. I was driving around with the woman who wasn’t yet my wife and had what I referred to as an “epicurean fantasy” of slurping raw oysters with some cheap lager on one of those rock promontories over the ocean that always seem to have lighthouses perched on the edges. I went to the nearest shack, bought a dozen of the only variety they had, and tried to look real manly and unafraid shucking these huge, mucky things on a park bench with only lemons to dress them with. When I got one of those big and creamies in my mouth and bit down a couple of times I was pleasantly surprised that far from needing to suppress an urge to gag, I chewed a few more times. Cucumbery in texture, briny, sweet, and clean, these ugly oysters were a revelation. She agreed that these changed one’s perception of raw shellfish. We ate a dozen between us, and washed them down with Coors Banquet Beer from the pint cans.
The oysters were from the Willapa Bay, 258 square miles fed primarily by seven rivers (although there are at least 11, probably more) emptying into the Pacific behind the Long Beach Peninsula. The peninsula itself is a 25-mile- long sand spit formed by effluvia poured from the mouth of the Columbia river. Despite the fact that the peninsula is formed from the geologic detritus of the 259,000 square mile Columbia basin, the estuary is considered “pristine” from a pollution standpoint, which seems to be a word that biologists actually use. The oysters reflect that quality. For that reason alone, never mind the cornucopian razor clam harvest to be had on the Pacific side of the peninsula, the area has intrigued me for years.
In the past, we’ve stayed at a couple of spots on the peninsula to dig clams and take in the island-like culture, but we recently spent a few nights in the place that fascinates me most of all: Oysterville. History, biology, geology, aesthetics, gastronomy and politics all come together at the last town on the north end of the peninsula. Founded in 1854 by Robert Hamilton Espy, a logger who found oystering a more lucrative trade, the town rose and fell with the fate of the oysters before the century even turned.
The oysters traded by Espy, and the hordes of treasure seekers who followed him, were tiny native Olympias (Ostrea lurida, formerly Ostrea concaphila) which they simply picked from the bottom of the bay and shipped on to San Francisco to feed the ’49ers (the gold seekers, not the football team). That trade was pretty lucrative, so the oysters disappeared. They imported Atlantic oysters (Crassostrea virginica) for a while in the late 19th and early 20th century to revitalize the fishery, but the east coasters found the hard-drinking life of the west coast an impediment to their reproductive abilities. New seed had to be regularly imported to continue the harvest, and in 1917 the Atlantics all died from a now unknown cause, possibly red tide. In the 1920’s, on the advice of University of Washington biologist Trevor Kincaid, the oystermen of Willapa started importing seed from Japanese Pacific oysters (Crassostrea Gigas) from their native territory. They grew and reproduced well in the bay, and are still the workhorse of not only that estuary, but are possibly the most widely distributed oyster species in the world thanks to intentional introduction into other failed fisheries.
Willapa bay produces 25% of US oysters (that’s a great documentary; pertinent fact at 00:01:40) and more farmed oysters than anywhere else in the country. Although the vast majority of Willapa Pacific oysters are bound for the fresh-shucked and canned market, there are a few growers who culture their oysters specifically for the fancy restaurant half-shell market. Raising them off the bottom of the bay and tumbling oysters as they grow are two methods of producing the prettier and smaller oysters that most people prefer. Kusshi oysters, for example, are simply Pacific oysters that have been tumbled aggressively to slow their growth and shape up their shells by knocking off the barnacles and fast-growing outer layers of shell. Supposedly, it also makes them creamier. The only Kusshis I ever had, at a convenience store-cum-fancy restaurant on Vancouver island, were skinny, grey, and inconsequential, although the presentation was stunning.
There’s only one place in Oysterville to buy oysters (or anything else for that matter): The Willabay Oysterville Sea Farms Store. Right on the bay and adjacent to owner Dan Driscoll’s oyster beds, they carry Dungeness crabs, clams, oysters and some wine and condiments. You can even get a glass of wine and some seafood cocktail, or excellent clam chowder and sit on the back patio overlooking the bay. You’re not likely to find such a fantastic epicurean experience at these prices almost anywhere else.
I was looking forward to sitting down to an enormous platter of extra-smalls (an industry standard defined as from 2.5 to 3 inches from hinge to lip) but they only had smalls (three to four inches) and mediums (four to five inches). Definitely not boutique, but they were a steal at $7 a dozen or $20 for a bag of three dozen. I had the lady pick me out two dozen of the smallest they had. The bigger of those, when shucked, were still more like oyster steaks than precious bites.
I shucked a few and dabbed them with cocktail sauce, and they were as excellent as that first day of oyster bliss. Lots of people think cocktail sauce is low-class and trashy. This is probably because, according to the story I’ve heard, cocktail sauce is an American invention, stemming from the 49ers habit of putting ketchup on their oysters. There seems to be a growing consensus that we should put nothing but mignonette on our oysters. Pish-posh, you can take your little francophilic oysters back into the bistro. A red-blooded Gangster enjoys his cheap, sauce-slathered oysters in the sun.
I make my cocktail sauce from half chili sauce (American kind, not the Thai kind) and half ketchup (of the major brands, Hunt’s is way better than Heinz) mixed with copious lemon juice and horseradish, thinly sliced scallions, worcestershire and Tabasco. Alternatively, I like it in the style of just about every surf-side shack in Mexico: ketchup, Clamato, lime, fine diced onion, cilantro, hot sauce (Tapatio, Yucateca, Valentino in a pinch) and a dash of Maggi Jugo Sazanador. Put a little shredded iceberg lettuce into the bottom of a parfait glass, mix oysters and other shellfish with the sauce and some cubed avocado, and pour that over top. Eat with a long spoon and plenty of saltines, wash down with micheladas. Now you’re living less like an animal and more like a human being.
If you need to know about mignonette, I’d prefer you didn’t have to go out into the rest of the internet and have your mind sullied by those Gallic dogs. So here it goes: two parts decent champagne to one part high-quality champagne vinegar, seasoned with fresh ground pepper, fine diced shallots, some tarragon and chervil. Whatever the sauce, go sparingly.
I also like oysters cooked, and although I’ve tried several oyster stews and oyster loaves and grilled oysters, my favorite way is still fried: dredge in flour, then milk, then bread crumbs. Fry in half butter, half vegetable or rice bran oil (my favorite) only as soon as the butter has finished foaming. Matter of fact, whenever trying to crisp things in butter, that’s the secret to remember: add the pat of butter to the skillet and wait until it stops spitting and foaming before adding the food. All that foaming is the water escaping and water, as you may know, is the enemy of crispness. I like fried oysters with either cocktail sauce (por supuesto) or that other great American seafood sauce: Louis dressing. Louis dressing is approximately one third sour cream, one third mayonaisse, and one third chili sauce seasoned with lemon juice, white wine vinegar, pepper, tabasco and scallions. Alternatively, you can lighten up the texture by replacing part of the fat (sour cream, mayo) with some unsweetened whipped cream. The variations are obviously endless.
All of this American sauce rhapsodizing is beginning to border on jingoism, so let me attack the free market for a while. Willapa bay has been touted by at least one Libertarian think tank as a paradigm of free-market environmentalism at work, since Washington is one of the few states where tidal lands are held privately rather than publicly. Although I’m inclined to believe that ownership of the tide flats does encourage the oystermen to more zealously guard their interests in clean water and sustainable management, Libertarian think tanks conveniently overlook the money that the state government pours into invasive species control, biological research and pollution control. Here’s a quote from the Competitive Enterprise Institute: “Willapa is the cleanest bay in the country, and it is the oystermen who have kept it that way.”
If I had a think tank I might say: “Willapa bay is a biologically perverted estuary, and it was poor management by private interests that drove the Olympia oyster to near extinction,” and that would be equally pertinent, right? It was the state government who set aside reserves in the bay so that the Olympias might recover, although the effort proved insufficient and belated. It was a publicly funded biologist who did the research that led to the introduction of Pacific oysters after private mismanagement destroyed the fishery. Furthermore, it is a dreaded government organization, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, that works to eradicate Spartina grass and oyster drills, invasive species detrimental to oystering and bird populations in the bay. From a strictly ecological point of view, Pacific oysters would perhaps also be defined as invasive.
Libertarian think tanks often lament the “tragedy of the commons,” and recommend privatization as the solution, but can the entire bay be privatized? Should it be? What about the atmosphere? Because the oyster industry now suffers from the effects of ocean acidification, a direct result of the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
I’m going to geek out a little here, so feel free to skip this next paragraph but I feel that, when dealing with dangerously politically motivated lunatics, it’s important that we know exactly what we’re talking about. So here goes:
Oyster shells are made of Aragonite, a mineral made of the chemical base calcium carbonate. The dissolution of carbon dioxide in water produces some carbonic acid (H2CO3). The two Hydrogen ions (protons, H+) disassociate from the CO3 portion and bind with carbonate ions (CO32-), creating two bicarbonate ions (HCO3–). This renders the carbonate unavailable for binding with calcium to form calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Oyster larvae are born with limited energy resources, from which they must draw to build shells. In an ocean environment with less calcium carbonate, the larvae must work that much harder to form shells, and they fail more often. Oyster hatcheries must increasingly rely on sophisticated testing and equipment in order to obtain (or create) water suitable for oyster production. With the increasing acidification of the oceans, we can expect that it will only become more difficult to obtain suitable seawater for oyster hatcheries.
One potentially positive development is that the native Olympia oyster, which grows more slowly than the Pacific, seems to be less sensitive to ocean acidification and it continues to recover from historical depletion. Perhaps in the future we can expect the commercially rare Olympia to return to commercial prominence as the Pacific becomes less reliable and more expensive to raise.
And although I trash on tiny oysters, I would never trash a native with a name like Olympia. I can’t wait to down several dozen like a real old-school gastronomic hero.