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Melissa Deckert and Nicole Licht

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The Great Pacific Oyster Trail

In search of the elusive Olympia oyster, on the road from San Francisco to Seattle

Like a wine grape, an oyster is the result of where and how it’s grown. The term that gets bandied about among oyster nerds is “merroir,” terroir for the sea. Place is how they’re listed on menus: identified by where they’ve been farmed, names like Tomales Bay, Eld Inlet, Totten Inlet — all bays, coves, and inlets, bodies of water partially enclosed by land, which provide a calm environment for oysters to thrive in. Along the Pacific Coast, oysters thrive in bays like California’s Tomales and Humboldt, Oregon’s Yaquina and Netarts, and inlets throughout Washington’s Puget Sound and British Columbia. Though the drive from San Francisco to Seattle can be made in a reasonable 12 hours up the 5 freeway, a multi-lane freeway lined with fast-food chains and abundant gas stations, we — my two little brothers and I — are taking our time: 26 hours of driving along the coast, on highway that winds around bays, coves, and inlets. We’re going on this trip to learn something about this coast — tourists who experience our destinations via oysters rather than sight-seeing.

Along the way, a major thing we’ll learn is that all West Coast oysters — except for the native Olympias, which are now nearly impossible to find — have come from somewhere else: the Eastern oyster from the East Coast, Pacifics and Kumamotos from Japan. But that’s where merroir comes into play. Variables like where an oyster lives and how it was raised not only matter, they can make an oyster taste totally different from how it might in its homeland.

My siblings have flown into San Francisco from Southern California: My twenty-three-year-old brother Ben is an expert shucker; Clement, turning thirty on this trip, is our A/V man, and inexplicably owns both a dash cam and selfie stick. Not unlike oysters, we were grown in different places, under different methods. At ages one and two respectively, Clement and I came to the U.S. from Malaysia, then were grown in Arizona and California. Ben, younger than us, was born in Fontana, California. Clement works for Los Angeles County, in Water and Sewer. Ben’s getting a degree in biblical counseling. If we were oysters and you ate us, we would taste very, very different.

Our journey begins at the rental car center on Sunday morning, where we secure a white Toyota Corolla that will mostly refuse to play music from our phones. We’ll fill the silences with chatter about our parents and our relationships and how tired Clement is of oysters, because the truth is he doesn’t even like oysters that much —he’s being a good sport. Ben and I are less than empathetic, because we love oysters. Our snacks are thus: Haribo gummy candy, Costco-brand seaweed, ten pounds of hard Dutch cheese, salt-and-vinegar potato chips. We have with us a little insulated Zabar’s bag for storing oysters in; we’ve inherited, from our parents, a devil-may-care attitude toward food safety.


Sunday

The first bay of the journey is San Francisco Bay, which we drive over via the Golden Gate Bridge, heading north. It’s a bay, so it stands to reason that there might be oysters in it. There used to be, but not anymore. In the mid-1800s, when the Gold Rush was in full swing, oysters fed the forty-niners and made men rich. The native oysters, Ostrea conchaphila and Ostrea lurida, which we now call Olympias, were half-dollar sized (Mark Twain called the Olympia a “poor little insipid thing”). They’re slow to reproduce and grow, so overfishing quickly depleted their stocks, and in 1875, Eastern oyster seed (Crassostrea virginica) was brought to San Francisco in barrels packed with sawdust and ice on the first cross-country train. The Eastern oyster thrived in San Francisco Bay; in 1899, the bay produced 2.5 million pounds of oyster meat. But the industry eventually collapsed — no one knows for certain, but likely because of pollution and water quality. The last oysters were harvested in 1929. (Though rare, Olympia oysters still exist here and there in the Pacific Northwest; on this trip, we’re keeping an eye out for them.)

The mermaid mascot of Tomales Bay Oyster Company, in Marin County, heralds the beginning of our oyster crawl. One of the first places Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) were experimentally grown after their seed was brought over from Japan in the 1920s, Tomales Bay remains a place where oysters thrive. The inlet is long and narrow — 15 miles long and 1 mile wide, protected from the Pacific’s current. The Tomales Bay Oyster Company is a retail operation situated right on the bay (it used to also have a picnic area with barbecues, but Marin County recently put an end to that).

We buy a mesh bag of a dozen Pacific oysters the hoodied employee plucks from tanks, as well as gloves and a green-handled shucker for these and future oysters. On a wooden handrail overlooking Tomales Bay, where boats sit serenely, we feast. The oysters are variously shaped, rugged, with shells that are flaky and jagged, a little brittle. They’re briny but sweet, sort of abrasive, a little metallic. Ben does all the shucking. Clement and I remember Ben as a cute, fat baby, but now he’s a lean, mean, oyster-shucking machine, a veritable ostreaphile, who shucks shellfish for all his friends’ birthdays. Ben gets his first shucking cut and we soak the blood up with tissues he had the foresight to pack.

The drive to the next stop is mere minutes north along Tomales Bay to Hog Island Oyster Company. Hog Island is a larger operation: 160 acres leased from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, growing its oysters using the French rack-and-bag method. Oysters go in mesh bags that go into the ocean, suspended by PVC pipes so they’re kept off the ocean floor, and regularly sorted by size to keep oysters of like size together. Farm manager Erik Schlagenhauf shows us the racks and bags, and the metal machines they use to sort. Also the baseball bat that he uses to beat the oysters once a month. When oysters get smacked around, they grow into a more deeply cupped shape — ideal for restaurants that want oysters on the halfshell.

Chelsea Gems from Chelsea Oyster Farms in Olympia

When we tell Erik about our trip, he describes the variety we’ll find along the way. Oysters eat phytoplankton, and the composition of algae in every body of water we visit will be different, Erik explains. The particular nutrients and food in any given body of water depend on the salinity of the water, the average temperature of the water, what the watershed is doing, what kind of minerals and nutrients are coming into that bay, how much mixing of the water is going on. Ultimately what affects the flavor of the oysters is first of all the species, then the water that they’re grown in, and the growing method.

We eat at Hog Island’s restaurant, called the Boat Bar, because their adjacent picnic shucking area — where you can shuck, grill, and eat your own oysters — is booked for the next six months. At the Boat Bar, you order from a menu. The sweetwater oysters come on the smooth half shell (unlike Tomales’s more jagged shells), pristinely shucked and nestled into crushed ice, and we wash them down with glasses of cold wine. Sweetwaters are Pacific oysters, but they are markedly different from the ones we’ve just had at Tomales: less metallic, less briny — cucumber-y and crisper and melon-y. The shells are smoother, more uniform and polished compared to the more free-spirited Tomales ones. These are the same species of oysters as the ones we’ve just had, and they come from the same bay, but they’ve been farmed using different methods and as a result taste totally different. We take in the view of the bay and a boat being rowed to shore. The breeze is mild and the oysters we didn’t have to shuck ourselves are delicious.

Now that the cushiest part our trip is behind us, though we don’t know it yet, the rest of the day is pedaling it to the metal to make it to Humboldt in under six hours. It’s all breathtaking coast — cypress trees and frothing blue sea — but no bays and therefore no oysters. Night falls and the trees are ominous giants. Clement exclaims — I won’t say screams — when we see something scurry across the road. Ben drives so fast I have to close my eyes so I’m not nervous. We arrive in Eureka, California, craving the opposite of oysters — something warm and without nuance — and find our way to AA Bar and Grill, with its lit-up sign like a casino, where the one lady bartender is the only employee. My brothers get steaks and I get a heap of entirely brown food: fried chicken and onion rings. It’s not only not oysters, it’s a meal we could have anywhere. Having gotten what we wished for, I regret it somewhat. At our Red Lion in Eureka, it’s a race against time to fall asleep faster than the person who snores.


Monday

This morning’s plan is go on a shellfish tour of Humboldt Bay, by boat. Before that, we stop at Coast Seafoods, one of the country’s largest shellfish producers, to buy three dozen Kumamotos for $22 — the cheapest oysters we’ll have all trip. It’s early but workers in rubber overalls are already hard at work, forklifting huge hills of shellfish.

We have an 8:30 a.m. appointment at the dock, with a man named Sebastian who gives seafood tours of Humboldt Bay. Sebastian wears a bamboo camo shirt and red life vest, and hands us all life vests to wear. We climb on board his little aluminum boat and he zips us around Humboldt Bay, which dwarfs Tomales — 14 miles long and 4.5 miles wide, and 40 feet at its deepest. It’s an ideal habitat for oysters and other shellfish busy with the task of getting bigger. Much of the farming looks like nothing, actually — just water. It’s a reminder of how uniquely minimalist oyster farming is: Oyster farmers put baby oysters into water, the oysters take what they need from the surrounding ocean water and purify it in the process.

What does look like something are the floating upweller systems, or FLUPSYs: picture big platforms that float on the water. They house baby oysters in underwater compartments and pump (or “upwell”) water through to give the tiny oysters constant exposure to nutrient- and algae-rich water. Sebastian makes small talk with rain-booted workers on the FLUPSY platforms. Virtually all oyster farmers today get seed from hatcheries — they’re essentially teeny tiny oysters, with all the things adult oysters have but very, very small — and nurse them, in the first part of their lives, in FLUPSYs.

After the tour, we head to a little downtown square to shuck our Kumamotos from Coast Seafoods. There’s the strong scent of wafting pot. It’s fitting — Humboldtian. Kumamotos were native to Yatsushiro Bay, in Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture, and shipped to the U.S. in 1945. Their shells are cupped and jagged; the flesh is yellow-y, almost almond-colored, with a green tinge. They’re salty and melon-sweet, and incredibly good. We shove the uneaten Kumies into our insulated Zabar’s bag with as much ice as we can fit, and off we go.

In Orick, California, we see elk by the side of the road. Up the road, we see a sign that says “ELK VIEWING” and unanimously decide we have to pull over to view some elk. Clement takes our selfies with his selfie stick. We stop in Brookings, Oregon to shuck some oysters on a picnic table by the ocean. At this point the shucking glove is so wet we hang it out the car window to dry. Clement makes jokes and cracks himself up; Ben and I raise our eyebrows. We are inadvertently mean to one another, and sometimes advertently. We debate the various oysters’ merits. Ben’s and my favorite, so far, are the Coast Kumamotos.

Ben outside Oregon Oyster Farm in Newport, Oregon

By nightfall, we make it to Newport, Oregon, the largest town on the Central Oregon coast — which actually became a town in response to San Francisco’s insatiable demand for oysters. (In 1862, Yaquina Bay oyster beds were discovered, and brought down to San Francisco.) With nightfall, too, our conversation turns more reflective — about who we are, and whether it’s the result of who our parents are.

For Clement’s birthday, I’ve Yelped us a dinner place that is oyster-lite, for his sake: Georgie’s Beachside Grill, which is presumably beachside; because it’s dark outside, we don’t see it. We celebrate with chowder in a bread bowl and fancy fish, and we get our server to stick a candle into white chocolate cheesecake. At 30, my brother is a grown-ass person. He has a grown-ass person’s job and just bought a grown-ass person’s condo. Improbably, we all are grown-ass people. Later, in our hotel room, we shuck the rest of our Humboldt Kumies, and eat them in front of the TV like they’re popcorn. I remember how, as kids, we fantasized about this very situation: free of our parents, getting to eat and drink whatever we wanted, without judgment or repercussion. And this is it. We’ve eaten chips and cheese and oysters all day. We are incredibly thirsty. The mouths of our water bottles taste like oyster.


Tuesday

We wake up to a view of an enormous, comical rainbow over the ocean. I try not to believe in signs, as a rule, but it feels like one. Before commencing today’s five and a half hour drive, we take a detour to Yaquina Bay, a small, roughly three-square-mile bay, where a stranded boat captain discovered oyster beds in the mid-1800s, the story goes. Here, the Oregon Oyster Company juts out into the water; inside there’s a big window behind which employees shuck enormous, Nerf ball-sized Pacific oysters like maniacs and slip the meat into jars. The chalkboard sign says there are Pacifics in sizes ranging from petite to extra large, Kumamotos, and “local Yaquina Bay” oysters. We politely inquire about those “local Yaquina Bay” oysters, hoping that they’re Olympias, those hard-to-find native oysters that the San Francisco Bay used to be filled with. And they are! We order those, plus Kumies, plus Pacifics. We’re tittering with excitement. We head to the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse — built in the 1800s, it’s now one of five lighthouses remaining in Oregon — to shuck our oysters, the first of several attempts to combine oyster-eating with sight-seeing. We shuck on benches. The Olympias are my first, and unlike anything I’ve had: strange and intensely flavored. The “small” Pacific oysters we eat are the size of children’s hands: They are not our favorite. It’s windy and cold and the juice flies out of the oysters.

Driving the Oregon coast feels like being in The Goonies. It takes about two Goonies-esque hours to reach the next bay in Oregon. It’s called Netarts, pronounced knee tarts, and spans an area of five miles by a mile and a half. What’s interesting about this bay, compared to the others on this trip, is that many little creeks flow into it, bringing their freshwater. Like Yaquina, Netarts was, in the mid-1800s, a source of oysters for San Franciscans who couldn’t get enough. And, as was the case with all the other bays the San Franciscans touched, the commercial fisheries established here collapsed, and the native Olympia were decimated. But Netarts Bay is still home to small-scale oyster farmers.

At the JAndy Oyster Company headquarters in the town of Tillamook, essentially a garage, Todd Perman is about to head back out to Netarts Bay to dump his beach-grown oysters into the water. Todd, mustachioed and wearing a baseball cap, farms the oysters by scattering them on the ocean floor, where they grow together in clusters he has to break apart with a hammer. He’ll dump the separated oysters back into the water to keep growing. JAndy is named after Todd’s young son, Jacob Andrew, whose picture is everywhere: He’s grinning hugely, with oyster piles. We eat a few rugged oysters with Tapatío and lemon (though he normally likes them with lime). They’re sweet Pacifics that taste like they were grown on the ocean floor — deep, rugged, and minerally. We leave, and heading north, the road hugs the bay, and we try to see if we can make out Todd out there, on his boat, with his oysters.

After sight-seeing stops for various scenic rocks, Washington State arrives without much signage or fanfare. We cross a bridge, and then we’re there. From 1850 to 1869, Willapa Bay met San Francisco’s growing demand for oysters; ships from Washington sailed native oysters down to San Francisco. Now it’s still a place where oysters are commercially farmed en masse, primarily to be shucked and jarred. It’s not surprising: Willapa Bay is enormous, over 260 square miles. We stop at South Bend, a town that calls itself the “Oyster Capital of the world,” eager to take a selfie with the “the world’s largest oyster” before the sun sets. The world’s largest oyster turns out to be a hilarious and disappointing plaster halfshell.

A Pacific oyster from Yaquina Bay

By the time we get to Goose Point Oysters — an oyster farm right on Willapa Bay, housed in a group of large warehouses — the retail store has closed. But we manage to sniff out an employee, who gamely shows us the offerings. In a display fridge are oysters tied together with a blue band. Apparently they’re “blue seal” oysters — an invention of Goose Point’s. The oysters have been pressure-treated and pre-shucked and are held together with a plastic band. In Olympia, we pick up Thai food, and beer from Three Magnets Brewing. Ben gamely tries one of the Blue Seals. He’s excited by the prospect of not having to shuck more oysters, because his arm is tired. But the Blue Seal is eerily dry. I try one but am disturbed by it: They’re novel and futuristic but also creepy. You should have to shuck an oyster, not unwrap it like a gift. We watch the news on our hotel TV; I am distressed by the news. Clement refuses to eat any more oysters. Though we have also inherited our parents’ aversion to food waste, we might be nearing the edge of our oyster limit.


Wednesday

Puget Sound was made by a glacier thousands of years ago, which means the water — a thousand square miles of it — exists in all these jagged, fingerlike shapes. Every inlet is home to oysters; every inlet’s oysters are distinctive. Which is to say, there are too many oysters to eat here, and we only have a matter of hours before our flights home today. We’re going to try to cover as much ground as possible.

At Chelsea Farms, right on Eld Inlet on the southern part of Puget Sound, we meet Shina Wysocki at 6:30 in the morning. Shina makes us coffee, laughs readily, and reminds us of Sam’s wildling girlfriend from Game of Thrones. She runs the farm with her brother, and they raise geoducks along with oysters. She tells us about how her parents got into oyster farming, as hippies, and how after traveling as an adult — getting to visit places that weren’t home — she realized that home was pretty good, and she wanted to be a farmer too. It seems ridiculous to leave this place: It’s raining on and off, the sun’s coming up, and the light is reflecting off the water’s surface in a very beautiful way. Their oysters are called Chelsea Gems, and we eat them by their holding tanks. The shell patterns can vary, but these are strikingly striped brown and white, and super smooth, from being tumbled. The oyster itself tastes clean — they’re grown off-bottom — and metallic, yet cucumber-y and melon-y. They’re unique and compelling.

We drive twenty minutes to Shelton in the now-pouring rain, to John Adams’s house on Little Skookum Inlet, another one of Puget Sound’s little inlets. He’s wearing thigh-high rubber boots and a shirt that says “Vote with your fork.” We like John immediately. It’s his family’s land, he tells us. In Washington — unlike in California and Oregon, where land is leased from the state — these shores are privately owned. Many oyster farms here are family operations — previously logging families that were given the option of buying the tidal land so they could transport logs.

John gives us raincoats and boots (not thigh high) so we can trudge out near the inlet behind his home, as he talks about the native Olympias and the diligent stewardship they require. He’s concerned with their conservation, because they’ve been barely hanging in there for so long. Olympias have never made commercial sense because they take so long to grow, and they can be fussy creatures, but they’re a part of this place’s history. While John gathers oysters from a pile he’s already harvested, he points out, nearby, the ancient Indian middens — piles of ancient oyster shells — that still exist on his property. They are thousands of years old. We can make out the layer upon layer of shells — fossils within reach.

In his garage, John uses a frying pan to scoop ice onto a silver platter. Then he shucks, with apparent ease, the oysters from his particular corner of the world: both the Pacifics, which — more so than any other Pacifics we’ve seen — have beautiful fluted shells, and the wild Olympias. These Olympias resemble the ones we had in Oregon, though their taste is more intense. The first word that comes to mind is weird, but the second is delicious: They taste coppery, and like daikon radish, and unlike any oyster I’ve ever had. They’re unique to this place, this farmer, this parcel of earth. Here is where that all becomes exceptionally clear to us.

After a quick stop at Hama Hama Oyster Company on the Hood Canal — clean, cucumber-y Pacific oysters with beautifully smooth, restaurant-ideal shells — we drive the car onto the ferry from Bainbridge Island and take it to Seattle. The day is sunny now, and traveling via ferry turns out to be a magical thing to do. It’s a bright, stunning day, and we leave the car to take in the scenery.

After the boat docks, it’s a quick jaunt to Elliott’s Oyster House — an old Seattle establishment with an oyster menu as long as an ambitious wine list, plus chain-restaurant-like charm. We arrive at 3 p.m., which turns out to be when happy hour starts and proceeds for the next couple hours. We order exclusively from the happy hour menu — fish tacos, calamari, mussels in cream, crab cakes, and a dozen of the happy hour oysters. It occurs to us that these will be the last oysters of our trip. Our all-consuming, days’ long mission is coming coming to a close. The road trip was — as road trips are — a way to be an intensely close unit. But in hours, we’ll disperse, retreating back to our separate lives, our private trajectories.

So we’re hoping these last oysters, after our dozens upon dozens, will be a proper sendoff — will blow our minds. They’re oysters from Calm Cove on the Hood Canal, not far from the Hama Hama River and Oyster Company, where we were earlier today. When the oysters arrive, shucked and nestled in their ice, Ben and I pick ours up and clink them like glasses, and Clement demurs, and … they’re not that great. They’re disappointing, actually — mild and almost flavorless compared to the oysters we’ve had all morning, and all trip. Though they haven’t traveled far, they’ve already lost something.

Rachel Khong is a writer living in San Francisco. She's the editor of All About Eggs. Her debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, will be released in July 2017.
Header art by Melissa Deckert and Nicole Licht
Photo of Chelsea Gems by Ben Khong
Other photos by Clement Khong
Art direction by Nicole Licht
Copy edited by Jaime Green

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