Sunday

Oyster Chicharrones



I've always felt seafood doesn't get its due place on the American dinner table.  Think about your weekly dinner regiment.  Not to be presumptuous, but I imagine most are composed of something like chicken and rice, a hearty soup, taco Tuesday, some sort of pasta, an entree salad (cause we all want to feel healthy), pizza (to counteract that healthy salad), and maybe, if feeling bold, a piece of salmon.  Seeing how healthy and delicious seafood is, it's a shame it doesn't make it to our home dinner plates more often.  It's also a shame that when it occasionally does, it's usually just shrimp or salmon.  Reading Paul Greenberg's American Catch and Four Fish really makes you realize what an amazing abundance and diversity of seafood is off American shores.  Then, sadly, we limit ourselves to ecosystem-devastating farmed shrimp and unsustainably-caught and overfished tuna.  I know I'm teetering on the edge of sanctimony (I fuckin' love shrimp, love it!), but for the health of our oceans and the health of ourselves, our dietary choices really need to start supporting more sustainable aquaculture products like clams and mussels and responsible fisheries like sardines and ling cod.  Check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch for some guidance.  They have a wallet size guide you can always carry with you.


But back to the point of why seafood doesn't show up on our plates more often.  There are tons reasons for sure from availability to personal taste, but three main ones that I most often see.  First, and the most obvious, is that it's damn expensive.  Standing at the butcher and fishmonger at your local market, it's pretty easy to opt for the $2.99 a pound bone-in chicken thighs over the $34.99 a pound dungeness crab meat.  Sure, seafood is often seen as a luxury item only bought and cooked for special occasions.  However, when considering the season and the items, it can be pretty easy to make seafood an economical staple in your diet.  Things like mussels, clams, and squid rarely exceed $5.99.  Rockfish is usually available year-round at $9.99 a pound as is farmed rainbow trout.  Fish like salmon and halibut fluctuate in price throughout their seasons, so keep a sharp eye out for a drop in price.  Or, even better, befriend your local fishmongers.  Trust me, if they like you, they'll always "hook" you up.  Hackneyed puns are the best.


Second, and by no means do I intend to insult, but most people are intimidated by cooking seafood at home.  Maybe intimidated is a bit strong, but certainly unfamiliar.  Fact of the matter is that most of us grow up on pot roast, burgers, and spaghetti.  Seafood was something you ate when you went out to dinner.  So, as an adult, these are the familiar items you know and cook or can easily call your mom for the recipes.  A lot of people also really fear spoiled seafood.  For some reason stories of having a bad oyster are much more popular than bad chicken.  Therefore, we often avoid seafood because of the looming fear of it being off.  However, proportionally, contaminated salad greens and poultry make far more people sick than seafood.  Nowadays though, both of these issues are easily overcome.  As previously mentioned, I can't stress enough how valuable it is to become friends with your local fishmongers.  Chat with them, get to know them, hell even tip them or bring them beer as a holiday present.  They will not only guide you to the freshest items available that day, but can also provide a number of fun ways to prepare them.  If you don't have this luxury, farmers' markets will often have a quality seafood vendor that's worth the trip or, admittedly not economical, there are a number of online services that will ship fresh seafood to you.  Several oyster farms like Hog Island and Island Creek will Fedex oysters directly to your doorstep less than 24 hours out of the water.  And when it comes to preparation, come on, we've all got Google.  Be adventurous.


Lastly, and much in the same vein as my last point, seafood is simply foreign to many people.  Not only in cooking as previously discussed, but in flavor and style.  Outside of a few classics like chowder or lobster rolls, when you see most seafood preparations in the States, they are either one of two things: asian or fried.  This is certainly not a bad thing and is definitely changing with time.  Omakase nigiri is my absolute jam as is chili-garlic crab.  My last blog post was even about deep fried oysters.  Unfortunately, this limits our consumption of seafood as nobody wants to only eat fried food or asian-fusion every single night for dinner (if you do...don't stop...stay beautiful).  In every single seafood restaurant I've worked the chefs were always hyperconscious about not having too many fried items or asian-influenced items on the menu.  They all pushed for creative and new presentations.  I love the idea of "Americanizing" seafood.  No, not putting it through extreme-vetting or delusionally "making it great again."  Rather taking some typical and traditional American cuisines and making them with seafood.  Smoked trout hot dogs, octopus pepperoni, catfish chili, black cod bratwurst, salmon pastrami, buffalo oysters, smoked sturgeon club sandwiches.  Chef Doug Bernstein at Fish Restaurant in Sausalito is someone who I admire greatly and is creating a lot of these exact types of dishes.  So, I decided to try my hand at one of his very own:  Oyster Chicharrones (or Oyster Pork Rinds)

The concept is basically making shrimp chips, but with oysters. Shrimp chips, or Krupuk, are of Indonesian origin and an extremely popular snack throughout Southeast Asia.  If you've never had them, I highly recommend trying them.  They can be found in pretty much any Asian grocers and often in the ethnic foods isle at Safeway or Giant.  I am also aware chicharrones are a Latino and not an "American classic," but living in San Francisco, believe me, they have been completely adopted and identified as local cuisine.  See what great things welcoming diversity into our country can bring?  #notmypresident
The process is pretty simple in labor, though takes a few days of waiting.  In a food processor, blend the oysters into a paste with seasonings to taste.  In this instance, I used Pico de Mariscos (a Mexican Old Bay-esque seasoning) and some guallijo chiles.  Mix the paste with an equal part in weight of tapioca starch.  This will come to the consistency of a kneadable dough.  Knead a few more times on a floured cutting board and form into the shape of a one 2-3 inch wide log (or however large you'd like your chips to be).  Then steam the log for 45 minutes to an hour and place immediately in the fridge to rest overnight.  The next day, slice the log into thin chips.  Dry these chips out on a baking rack on a cookie sheet over night. 


From this point, the chips last in a zip-lock bag in the fridge for ages, ready to fry-to-order.  Of course, I couldn't wait any longer.  350 degree canola oil and in went the chips, just a few at time.  You know right when they are finished as they puff up just like a chicharron and float to the top.  It's hard to describe how cool it looks, so here is a link to a video demonstrating.  I wish I had taken a video, but I was solo and safety first.  Plus I didn't want accidentally deep fry my phone (libations were had).  However, I can share an image of the end product, which was amazing.




They were crunchy but fluffy and mild but with a oystery ocean brine pop.  Just like I'd hoped, an oyster chicharron.  I threw a little hot sauce on, more Pico de Mariscos seasoning, and served with fresh lime.  I then proceeded to sit down with a 22oz Tecate, the Giants game, and the entire bowl to myself.  Believe me, they did not last long.  I wish I had shared them with someone, but a big part of me is glad that I did not.  I really look forward to trying my hand at some other seafood dishes like this and I hope you may now too.


Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

Friday

Deep Fried Oysters


I got a deep fryer for Christmas this past year.  It's not exactly a clean operation, but it's certainly easier than pouring a 1/2 gallon of canola oil in your dutch oven, turning the burner to medium-high, and hoping for the perfect, southern style fried chicken.  I've wasted plenty of time flicking AP flour into hot oil and thinking "sure, that seems about right."  The tempature is always accurate, there's an easy-to-use fry basket (no diving into scalding oil with a slotted spoon), and it's a self-contained, splatter-free operation.  Don't worry, it's not easy or clean enough to make fish'n'chips a daily staple in your diet.  All you cardiologists out there can rest easy. 

I have, however, been frying all sorts of fun stuff.  Cornish game hens, sand dabs, mezcal tapatio hot wings, mixed tempura, Milky Ways, Indiana style pork loin sandwiches.  There's an endless amount of things that could always be made better with a crispy, golden crust.  I'll be honest, though, spilling the meager $8.95 for Yen's Kitchen's General Tso's chicken is certainly more time and effort efficient than prepping, dredging, frying, and worse, cleaning up after making it at home for yourself.  Leaving it to the pros is often more reasonable, but there is something rewarding about making your own "take out" food at home, from time to time. 

Naturally, fried oysters eventually came to mind.  Simple enough approach, no?  Cornmeal dredge mixed with an Emeril's Essense of sorts and served alongside a remoulade or flavored aioli, right?  Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the classic fried oyster.  The Walrus and The Carpenter's are hands down in my top five of cooked, or "quality added," oysters.  But hey, why not have a little fun and explore the possibility of oysters fried in different ways.  As I near 30 years of age I find myself in very different circumstances on a warm Saturday evening than I had less than a decade ago.  Eight years past it was tequila shots, Natty Light, beer pong, and power hour Kanye mix tapes.  Now, it's canola oil, buttermilk, AP flour, and a macro lens.  Oh, and Tecate, the West Coast version of Natty Light.  Never forget where you came from.

So, with three dozen wrist-breaking Hog Island Sweetwater mediums shucked and ready to go, let the frying begin. 

Be wary of the self-proclaimed oyster 'ficianado who says "I only like the small ones"

Potato Starch Fried Oysters (Kaki Karage)

Chicken karage is a dish of fairly high repute these days.  Savory, flavor-filled chicken thighs soaked in a soy mirin marinade, dredged in potato starch and deep fried.  The dredge is the key.  Potato starch is a curious thing in the canola crisped world.  It only requires a light dusting and straight in to the oil.  It has a certain stickiness to it, requiring a chopstick separation of individual pieces once dropped, but beyond that it is all one can hope for in a fried product.  It's a clean, club-handless prep, absorbs very little oil, and stays crispy for days.  If you've ever wondered why that Korean or Japanese fried chicken you love is so good, potato starch is often the answer.

As a huge fan of potato starch frying, oysters karage was one of the first things to come to mind.  I actually had made them before for my buddy's Vice Munchies video on the life of an oyster shucker.  Best to start out with a tried and true winner.


They turned out great.  Served alongside a spicy, bright yuzukosho aioli and garnished with quick fried keffir lime leaves and scallions, the oysters karage were as tasty as we remembered.  I over coated a few, which led to a crispy outside but a little potato starch stickiness remained under the crust.  A lesson well learned.  Always dredge lightly when doing karage. The crispy keffir lime leaves were a nice find, though.  Seriously, they taste exactly like Froot Loops when fried.  Unfortunately, I couldn't come up with a clever spin on the "follow your nose" slogan.  Ideas?

 Chicken-Fried Oysters

Put "chicken-fried" next to anything on a menu and it's going to sell.  Yet there are so many different and well respected approaches to the arguably national dish.  Without running the thesis deserving gamut that defines chicken-fried, I'll give you my understanding of the traditional.  

1) Marinate product in seasoned buttermilk for an extended period of time.
2) Strain product and dredge in seasoned AP flour.
3) Dip product in a mix of egg and buttermilk.
4) Dredge product, once more, in seasoned AP flour.
5) Fry

That's the exact process we did.  Three hours or so in seasoned buttermilk, the three tier dredge process, and right into rippin' hot oil.


They ended up with a pleasantly crunchy, craggily exterior and a fluffy interior that lead into the briny oyster.  They did "die" quickly, though, as several fried foods do, and lost that desired crunch.  I think the high moisture content of oysters softens the breading quickly.  Be sure to serve them immediately out of the fryer.  Topped with chives and served alongside a maple bourbon cayenne sauce, they could easily be an excuse to get out of Sunday morning church.  "Sorry, mom.  I really want to go but I have to prep the chicken-fried oysters everyone loves to have for brunch."  Oh, and topped with bacon bits, which obviously makes everything better.

Buffalo Oysters

I always get really excited when I see something "buffalo" flavored.  Spicy Buffalo Wheat Thins, Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch Doritos, Frank's Red Hot Buffalo sunflower seeds.  A big part of me really wants these products to be good and hopes they are, as the buffalo wing flavor is so incredible.  Every time I see a new one, I have to buy it.  However, they always end up tasting awful.  And yet, like a vicious buffalo seasoned Groundhog Day, I keep buying them, optimistically thinking "this one just might be good."  I now know why people call "hope" a four letter word.

I find the same to be true of buffalo style seafood.  Shrimp and oysters seem to be the most common.  Often simply breaded and tossed in buffalo sauce, they both come out okay, but never smack me as amazing.  To figure out a solution to this problem, I think we need to go back to what makes the actual hot wing so good in the first place.

What's everyone's favorite part of the bird?  Let's be honest, your most base instincts never say "go straight for the white breast meat" while the Thanksgiving turkey is being carved.  That skin that falls right off, however, is awfully convenient, and, in your heart of hearts, the most delicious bite of the whole meal.  It's true of all poultry.  From the decadent peking duck to the humble buffalo wing, rich crispy skin is the common denominator of deliciousness.

So, why not bring chicken skin and oyster together?



Hog Island Sweetwaters wrapped in chicken thigh skin
This was by far the craziest and most ambitious of fries.  Would the skin stay on?  Will the oyster over cook before the skin gets crispy?  Will the "franken-oysters" even taste good?  

I also decided to make my own ranch to go with them, seeing as I already had buttermilk and several different herbs for garnish.  All ranch really is is thickened buttermilk with seasoning and herbs.  I figured, why not throw it all in a mason jar and shake the shit out of it, just like homemade butter is made from cream?  Maybe throw an egg and oil in to help?  How hipsterly cool would it be to say "Hey, guys, I made my own ranch dressing.  Did it all by hand in a mason jar.  No big deal.  Also, do you know any typewriters that have Helvetica? I want to write a blog about writing a blog on a typewriter.  So meta."



But yea, turns out that doesn't work.  I was an idiot for thinking buttermilk would thicken.  It is, after all, the left over product from when the butter has already separated from the cream.  Hence, buttermilk.  Oh, and oil and egg yolks don't emulsify into mayo when shaken in a mason jar, either.  Duly noted.  I did end up busting out the Cuisinart to make mayo, added buttermilk, herbs, and seasoning: it was homemade ranch, but was certainly no Hidden Valley. 

With oysters wrapped, ranch made, and a butter, vinegar, Frank's Red Hot sauce simmering in a bowl, it was go time.



Surprisingly, the oysters and skin stayed together in the fryer.  No toothpick needed, they just stuck to one another.  After about 4 minutes, the skin crisped up and into the bowl they went for coating.



Were they good?  The most memorable quote of the night by far was after the first bite:  "Anthony...I've gone too far..."  Understandably, it was just me and my buddy, and we had already downed several beers and had a dozen fried oysters each.  And chicken thigh skin is significantly fattier than chicken drumette skin.  Though it appeared to be crisped up, the skin still held a world of rich poultry fat waiting to burst on the first bite.  I can say the first one was delicious, but anymore than that and you could feel the butter, ranch, and chicken skin slowing your heart.

At the end of the day, any excuse to break out both my shucker and deep fryer is a good time.  Not all my fried oyster ideas came out perfectly, but they were certainly fun to make and insightful into the abounding possibilities of deep fried shellfish.  Though I do claim to be an oyster purist, I think Julie Andrews should have thrown "fried oysters" between "raindrops on roses" and "warm woolen mittens," cause they're certainly one of my favorite things. 


Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

Thursday

Low Country Oyster Trip

Southeastern U.S. oysters don't get much love.  I've even heard people speak of Gulf oysters with an air of disdain.  Rarely do they enter the conversation when people are talking about their favorite oysters, in my experience.  In modern oyster culture, Massachusetts, Washington, both Canadian coasts, and Kumamotos from anywhere are what most raw bars across the country are talking about.  "The colder the waters, the better the oysters" is a phrase haphazardly thrown around these days.  "I only like the small ones" is another disappointing expression frequently heard.  And, unfortunately, the coastal Carolinas and Georgia don't have or produce either.  It's a shame, because the Low Country has a lot more to offer in terms of seafood than just shrimp'n'grits.

Green gilled Topsail Sound from North Carolina.
The green color comes from the type of algae it feeds on. 
The oyster culture in these parts is different, though.  First, it's one of the last areas in the country where the vast majority of oysters are wild harvested.  Farming oysters and aquaculture, in general, is something relatively new and practiced by a few visionaries.  It's unfortunate as the area is full of high salinity, nutrient rich, marshy waters.  I see it coming soon, though, but more on that later.  Most oysters are currently raked as clusters from wild reefs or grown in clusters and sold in 100-count bushels for $40 retail, a notable difference from the $1 a piece Kusshis or Kumamotos at wholesale.  Oysters are very abundant and available when in season.  Shit, in Charleston they even line the streets and make chandeliers out of them.


Oyster chandeliers at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar
This means that oysters aren't really marketed by farm or appellation but as locally harvested oysters.  It is certainly something that has existed and is becoming more and more popular as you see Stump Sounds, Coosaw Cups, or Caper's Blades on menus.  And, there is definitely a familiarity and appreciation of subtle differences in oysters, I just wouldn't say it's nearly as common or popular as it is in the northern states.  Traditionally, oysters are oysters and eaten raw on crackers with hot sauce, steamed and dipped in butter, and roasted or barbecued in various styles.  They're not particularly parsed apart for their illusive raw flavor differences varying by where they are grown. 

I found this quite refreshing compared to the almost oyster-snobbery that I've become accustomed to in the Bay Area.  I wouldn't be comfortable calling it snobbery if I weren't one of those snobs.  But my experience in the Low Country eating oysters really made me appreciate quality added oysters.  I'm slowly starting to accept the fact that oysters don't have to be "raw or bust."  "No lemon, no sauce, and especially, no cooking" used to be my mantra, but I'm slowly coming around.  And the Low Country certainly solidified that.

My first introduction to the Southeast style was with my very gracious host, Kim, of Harbor Island Oyster Company, who gave me a Wilmington, NC oyster tour for the day.  She spoke of steamed oysters, something which I had never really considered.  In my experience, oysters are not like clams and mussels when you cook them.  By the time they pop open, they are dramatically over cooked.  But, Kim proved I had been mistaken at Hieronymus Restaurant



Hieronymus is an old school seafood house serving up your classic crab cakes, shrimp'n'grits, and daily fish specials that come fried, blackened, or pan roasted in a sauce of your choosing.  It feels like the kind of place my grandma always wanted to go for the clam strips or where a bunch of old salty dogs would be at the bar chain-smoking and pounding Miller Lites.  The kind of place I grew up going to and first discovered my love of seafood.  The steamed oysters were pretty bad ass too.  Not many establishments provide customers with a knife to drive directly at their hands through brittle, steamed oyster shell, and it certainly added to the charm.  Personally popping open these delicious little brine bombs was a pleasure.  And the steaming enhanced the brininess, just as Kim had said.  Tough to beat a dozen of those, drawn garlic butter, and an ice cold bitter ale.  

Husk in Charleston was next on the list. Chef Sean Brock is a local culinary legend and gaining lots of international praise too.  He, and others, have helped to farm and reestablish the use of Low Country heirloom produce like Sea Island Red Peas and Jimmy Red Corn and to bring back "antebellum cuisine."  Husk even has a farm in McClellanville dedicated to promoting local produce and educating future generations of sustainable agriculture's benefits.  You know Brock luv da' kids.

And nothing screams coastal antebellum cuisine quite like local oysters.  Wood oven roasted Caper's Blades oysters with herbed chicken fat and aji pepper mash.  Yea.  Don't think I need to say much more than that.  The presentation was great, too.  The oysters were shucked, roasted with seasonings, and had the top shell placed back on for serving.  Each one was like opening an aromatic culinary-Christmas present.  Sorry, but no pictures.  Fancy dining with the parents and I didn't want to embarrass anyone, at least before we'd finished off the first bottle of wine.  Your kindergarten teacher would be so proud of you for using your imagination.

Final culinary stop: The Ordinary in Charleston.  Honestly, this place blew me away unlike any dining experience I've had in a long time.  The space is an old, converted bank.  All marble, two story ceilings, and the kitchen is even visible through the bank's original vault door.  The bar has an impressive selection of cocktails based on Caribbean rums, paying homage to Charleston's history as a colonial Triangle Trade post and a Prohibition era rum-runners' hub.


But what topped all else was the restaurant's focus and execution of creative shellfish preparations.  Pangea Pearl Oysters with chives, caviar and crème fraîche.  Low Country style barbecued prawns, the sauce being more of a brown roux type gravy rather than traditional BBQ sauce.  Crispy oysters with beef tartare.  Maine lobster minute ceviche.  Cumin and coriander pickled white shrimp.  The only thing I regret was not trying everything.  However, far and above the rest, were the smoked oysters. 



Humbly and simply presented, they were probably the best bite of my entire East Coast road trip from Philadelphia to Savannah.  They barely smoke the oysters, only 15 minutes or so at 150 degrees.  This imparts a mild smokey flavor while keeping the oyster pretty much raw.  The oysters are then placed in a mason jar with lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and a few other seasonings.  Served with old bay buttered saltines, crème fraîche, and house hot sauce, they were awesome, as in actually deserving of reverence.  A trip to Charleston for these alone is justified, seriously. 

Lastly, I visited the UNCW Shellfish Research Hatchery on my trip there.  It was a really interesting and informative experience to see the very start of farmed oysters.  Ami Wilbur is heading the project to breed local, disease resistant virginicas to supply to Carolina watermen.  It's relatively new and she is only supplying four farmers with seed, but it's still in its beginnings.  They take broodstock (basically oysters studs and mares), spawn it, collect and set the spat (oyster larvae), and raise the oysters with "house-made" algae.  After they reach appropriate seed size, they are passed on to the farmers or grown out in the sound off Masonboro Island by the hatchery.  

Broodstock being analyzed for selected spawning

Algae growing tanks at the hatchery


Hopefully, a few years down the road, not only will more people be growing sustainable oysters in the area but we may all be able to enjoy full flavored and well cultivated Carolina appellations, as long as all those amazing steamed and smoked oysters don't stop coming, of course.  I highly recommend taking a trip to Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, or anywhere in between and checking out the amazing seafood and oyster culture yourself.  There's plenty more to be had than just vinegar based BBQ in these parts.


Cheers,
The SF Oysternerd

Sunday

Washington Oyster Weekend

I was recently in Seattle and Shelton, Washington for the West Coast Oyster Festival.  And by recently, I mean October.  New job, new apartment, apologies for not posting more frequently.  I'd read and heard that Washington is the Mecca for oyster lovers, but I had no idea to such a degree.  Sorry Boston, New York, Virginia, and San Francisco, but the first thing I noticed is that Seattle takes their oysters seriously, very seriously.  It was not only the oyster's ubiquity throughout the city and comprehensive, detailed menus at each locale, but also the conversations that I had with shuckers, diners, and servers.  Everyone I spoke with either at Elliot's Oyster House, The Walrus and The Carpenter, or at the Shelton Oyster Festival really knew their oysters.  People discussed everything from the differing flavors of Hood Canal oysters depending on how they're grown to varying copper notes of Olympias from Hammersley Inlet versus Totten Inlet.  Admittedly, I was surrounding myself with the oyster-junkie crowd, but there most certainly was a tangible oyster culture in Washington that I've found nowhere else.

I believe there are a several strong reasons for this.  First, Washington has arguably one of the most abundant oyster grounds in the world today.  Puget Sound alone is oyster heaven, not to mention the north-neighboring Hood Canal.

Puget Sound is a massive open hand of sprawling inlets and brackish, marshy waters providing some of the most nutrient rich oyster grounds in the world.  Totten, Hammersley, Eld, Harstine, Skookum, Case.  All are most likely familiar names to raw bar enthusiasts, and all eponymous oysters to their respective Southern Puget Sound areas.  Oysters from these areas certainly have a common trait in earthy, mushroom, almost musky flavor.  They are also the fattest and plumpest you'll find. 

Hood Canal, on the other hand is a deep, brackish water glacial fjord influenced by fresh, oxygenated water from the Olympic Mountains.  Oysters love to be beach cultured in this area, and examples such as Hama Hama and Dabob Bay are noticeably brinier, firmer, and more vegetal flavored.

Map of Taylor Shellfish's Operations in the Pacific Northwest.  Puget Sound at the Bottom
I was talking with the GM of Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market and he spoke of oyster spawn being so rich in Totten Inlet that you could stick a ruler in the water, let it sit for 10 seconds, remove it and it would be absolutely covered in oyster spat.  Let's put it this way: according to Robb Walsh's Sex, Death, & Oysters, Washington produces the second most oysters in the country at 9.3 million pounds.  It is only beaten by Louisiana at 13 million pounds.  California produces a meager 1 million and New York a miniscule 0.5 million pounds.  And yes, this includes shucked meats and un-shucked oysters, before those of you who I know will beg to argue the statistics' validity and representative accuracy.

Not only is the production in the area massive, but the variety of oysters to be had is unprecedented.  Each inlet, bay and bend has a unique flavor to it.  Phytoplankton and algae in Totten Inlet can vary greatly compared to Eld Inlet or any other micro-ecosystem.  Hood Canal oysters from the mouth of the Hamma Hamma River versus the mouth of the Dosewallips River can taste completely different.  A true Washington flight of oysters is something to behold in how many different varieties are cultivated within one state.  Any area producing that many oysters and with such diversity has to have a respectable oyster culture surrounding it.  Any thing less would be a disservice to the hardworking farmers.

Floating Tanks of Oysters at Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market

Second, much of the West Coast history of oysters is Washington based.  I know I've spoken of the abundant native Olympias that were all over San Francisco Bay, but they were quickly over-fished in a matter of decades.  So, when the local San Franciscan oysters were exhausted, where do you think the 49ers got their oyster fix?  By shipping them down from Willapa Bay, Washington of course.  The frenetic oyster fiends of the West Coast were well supplied by native Willapa Bay Olympias into the early 20th century.  When the Olympias were wiped out, they started carting in East coast virginicas.  They held, for a while, but didn't thrive well enough and soon died off.  West Coast oystering was basically shucked, until two Japanese business men more-or-less accidentally brought in Pacific oyster seed (c. gigas) in 1919.  They dumped useless and valueless dead oysters into Samish Bay, but the oyster larvae on them were still alive:  they took and spawned like crazy.  What nowadays is 90% of West Coast oysters or more all started from this Samish Bay dump.  The modern day Pacific oyster that we all know and love by various names first set its Japanese "foot" (brilliant oyster anatomy joke) on the Continental U.S. in Washington waters.

Finally, Washington has some of the most innovative and creative oyster growers in the world.  As the native species of oyster died off so quickly, the West Coast has been open grounds for growing all sorts of foreign oysters.  While the East Coast can basically only grow the native Atlantic Oyster (c. virginica), the West Coast is open ground to oyster diversification. Virginicas, Pacifics, Kumamotos, European Flats.  Even Australian and New Zealand oysters were tried as the new saviors for this crumbling West Coast oyster industry.  Ideologically, the native oyster species would still be the standard.  But as that has not ecologically or economically been possible, the West Coast is a veritable laboratory for all sorts of oyster experiments.

This means styles of oyster farming as well.  Beach grown has always been Washington's style.  Matter of fact, there are still enough wild oysters growing on beaches in Hood Canal and Puget Sound that people can go out and recreationally harvest.  Living in a city as I do, can you imagine a licensed but basically free oyster and clam dinner only a 20 minute drive away?

Anyway, the farming methods in the state are always inventively growing as well.  Seeding, growing, and finishing oysters in different waters for that perfect flavor, size, and texture is very common.  It's much like viticulture up there.  Tide-tumbling of oysters, also, partly lays its claim in Washington.  Keith Reid was the first to physically pull and tumble oysters to manicure them in British Columbia.  But the origin of using the tides to do the work is a bit of a debate.  I've heard some say Australians developed it in the late 90's.  I've also heard Chelsea Farms in Washington discovered it by accident.  Whatever the origin of tide-tumbling oysters is, it certainly is one of the best things ever to happen to bivalve aquaculture.  It creates a deep-cupped, juicy, plump oyster by being thrashed around in a bag by tidal changes.  This chips off excess and brittle oyster growth, toughens the shell, and even forces the oyster to build up stronger glycogen reserves.  Shigoku, Chelsea Gem, Kodomo, Church Point, Blue Pool, Sea Cow.  The list of tide-tumbled oysters coming from Washington is certainly one of the largest, and they're all signatures of Washington growers who take their trade seriously.

Beautifully tide-tumbled and well-cupped Blue Pool oyster on my visit to Hama Hama.   "But don't say my car's topless...say the" (any Nas fans out there)?

In the end, geologically, historically, experimentally, and culturally, Washington has all things oyster going for it.

So, how did all this oyster antiquity and bivalve abundance manifest itself over my brief three day stint in Washington?  It started with eating.  And, well, was pretty much just eating...and drinking, of course.  Elliot's was my first stop.  As a West Coast oyster institution, Elliot's has a borderline obnoxious selection of 20-some oysters.  The selection was primarily Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with a few British Columbias mixed in.  The best thing was that they had Olympias from Lopez Island.  Olympias are cultured few and far between.  The only ones that I've eaten have been from Hammersley Inlet or Totten Inlet.  The Lopez Island olys were noticeably brinier and crisper as they were grown closer to the open ocean.  Super iron and copper flavored as olys always are, but a fresh sautéed greens minerality rather than a musky old penny copper.  Best Olympias I've ever had.

Displayed selection at Elliot's Oyster House
Oyster stop two was The Walrus & The Carpenter.  It's a popular destination restaurant just north of Seattle in Ballard.  Right at the base of Hipster Street, WA, The Walrus and The Carpenter is a retro Parisian-American raw bar with contemporary takes on cuisine.  The decor reflects this sentiment completely.  Old cookbook covered shelves, wrought iron baskets, and a giant antler chandelier. The food is something else.  Walnut pesto sardines, sautéed tripe, house-smoked trout salad, and shots of Fernet (they knew we were from San Francisco).  However, the best bite was the fried oysters.

Fried Hama Hama oysters at The Walrus and The Carpenter
O' my good god were they delicious.  Crispy, well seasoned cornmeal breading leading into a juicy, salty, ocean oyster bite.  They were incredibly meaty too, like oyster tenders.  All this heat, salt, and flavor was perfectly complimented by a refreshing cilantro aioli.  I'd make the trip back to Seattle for these guys alone.

My final stop was the West Coast Oyster Festival in Shelton, about a two hour drive southwest of Seattle.  It's an annual oyster party in which all proceeds go to charity.  Wine tasting, bouncy castles, beer gardens, funnel cake,  and all sorts of oyster preparations abound.  The focus of the festival, however, is the oyster shucking competition.



Contestants are divided into six different heats with six competitors in each round.  They're given 24 oysters to open as quickly as they can, but also as cleanly as they can.  Judges then review the shuckers' oysters and penalize based on mistakes.  +3 seconds for a stabbed belly, +1 second for excess shell, +1 second for a ripped mantle and so on.  The final time is then calculated and the top 6 best times compete in the final.

I competed, of course, though I don't believe you can actually call my participation "competing."  Some of these guys were real pros who work in shuck houses, getting paid based on the final weight of all the oysters they shuck.  Speed, to say the least, is their goal.  The Léon Brothers of Goose Point Oysters based out of Willapa Bay were most notably oyster shucking beasts.  Many of them had won previous years competitions and were clearly local legends.  I'm certainly not a slow oyster shucker, but these guys crushed me.  My final time before penalties was 3:40, and after the judging was completed I was up to 4:37.  Bad, but not horribly embarrassing.  The winner of the contest posted a final time, after penalties, of 2:59.  That's some serious shucking.  I did shuck early enough in the competition to make it, briefly mind you, on the leader board.


Look at my shit-eating grin.  I'm happier than a kid on Christmas morning.  The beer garden helped a bit.  I considered it a victory to just have made it on the board.

All in all it was an amazing weekend.  If you're really looking for the full oyster experience, Seattle and its surrounding oystering areas have to be on your bucket list.  I plan on returning for the Shelton Oysterfest and competition again this fall.  Ten months of oyster training here I come.

Cheers,
The SF Oysternerd