What comes to mind when you think about “Oysters”? Delicate pearls? A luscious dozen nestled in their own tangy juice on a bed of ice with, perhaps, a dab of horse radish, a splash of Tabasco? Champagne? Of course! And while it is true that genus Ostrea has long been prized by the wealthy, or reserved for the truly special moments of our lives, we are often surprised to be reminded that for thousands of years the oyster has been a culinary staple of many cultures.
Early New England & Jamestown colonists relied on oysters to stave off starvation until they could harvest their first crops. Oysters remained a staple of daily life well through the 19th century. As recently as early in the last century — in both the Old World and the New — fresh, raw oysters on the half-shell were sold from street carts — the hot dogs, Italian sausages and pretzels of their day.
For a thousand years, Native American tribes on both coasts carefully gathered the wild oysters native to their shores. While the Eastern beds continued to flourish, the native oyster of the Pacific Northwest was seriously depleted by the 1880s. For several decades, tribes whose ancestral lands lie along the pristine waters of Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast turned to importing “seed” oysters from the East, but they did not flourish, failed to reproduce, and, finally, in 1919, were devastated by a shellfish epidemic which wiped out the Eastern variety in the Northwest forever.
The Willapa Bay Tribe of Southern Washington State, though considerably reduced in numbers since the coming of the Europeans, has proved to be a resilient and resourceful community, fully committed to the belief that as Stewards of the Bay, they must protect and increase their ancestral resource. They have deliberately chosen to retain and improve their economic base and preserve their traditions by tending and harvesting Crassostrea gigas, the Pacific-style, Japanese oyster first seeded in 1928 and now thriving in the cold, chemical-free waters of their Bay.
As with so much in the sea, it all begins with lowly Plankton, the favorite oyster food. Willapa Bay’s cold, unpolluted waters produce abundant plankton — and healthy, flavorful oysters. Our oysters don’t just lie abed – they spend three years (not the usual two) in cozy comfort on a French Rack No, not the unpleasant and infamous implement of the medieval Inquisition! We’re talking Oyster Heaven. The French Rack-and-Bag system is a careful, hand-operated method of producing splendid oysters. Bags of infant oysters are suspended above the sandy bottom where the sea meets the bay in mesh sacks attached to racks. As the high tide covers them, they feed and replenish their juices. The oysters must be hand-turned regularly so that they don’t clump together and develop weak shells. The bags protect them from mammal and marine predators as well. What’s good for the oyster is not necessarily good for the oysterman. The racks are accessible only at low tide, so their tenders must be ready (even at night, with miners’ lighted helmets!) to trudge out across the sandy flats to supervise their charges.
The result of all this hard work – from plankton to plate – is a deep-cupped Pacific oyster from one of the purest ecosystems in the continental United States. The thick shell assures excellent “meat-to-shell” ratio and seals and protects the integrity of the meat and abundant juice. The quality of water in clean, cold Willapa Bay assures superior taste.
The Oyster: A Literary Interlude
“Why the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” –Shakespeare.
“The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.