“If you don’t love life you can’t enjoy an oyster; there is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes. They shiver you for a split second,” Eleanor Clark wrote in her 1964 The Oysters of Locmariaquer.

An exquisite writer in her own right, Clark was married to Robert Penn Warren.

She shared his ability to peel away reality’s superficial outer layers and touch the truth within. (Warren’s All the King’s Men is about Louisiana’s Huey Long and is one of the best books on American politics.) Clark realized that oysters are the concentrated essence of their home waters – each a precise little masterpiece painted by the environment.

Pronounced “loc-maria-care,” Locmariaquer’s oysters are big, flat belons from France’s Brittany peninsula – now also grown commercially on Puget Sound. Here on the outer coast of Oregon and Washington, Olympia oysters are the hometown species. If belons exude suave Breton charm, their cousins the Olys are wisecracking bantamweight GIs who rescue Normandy and seduce all the pretty girls.

They certainly seduced Mark Twain. His adoration for Willapa Bay-grown Olys is profiled in June’s Smithsonian magazine. In May 1864, Twain bailed out of the gold fields of Washoe County, Nev., taking up residence at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, a place he called “Heaven on the half shell.” The 28-year-old reporter on his way to celebrity made $35 a week and blew it all on a fancy room and the oyster buffet.

For our 19th century ancestors, oysters were hamburgers, tacos and pizza all conveniently prepackaged in durable single-serving containers. They were fast food, but delicious and nutritious.

Along with other new arrivals in the city by the bay, Twain “developed a taste for the tiny, coppery Olympias. The Oly … was the classic gold rush oyster, a staple of celebrations and everyday meals in San Francisco restaurants and oyster saloons. Olys appeared in oyster soup and stew, stuffed into wild poultry and, of course, raw,” according to Smithsonian writer Andrew Beahrs.

Ninety percent of gold rush oysters came from Shoalwater/Willapa Bay in Pacific County. Although the same species was available in smaller quantities from Tomales Bay, Calif., those from Washington were larger and milder-tasting, according to a 1963 state publication, “The California Oyster Industry.”

It took around six days to reach San Francisco from Oysterville or Bruceport by sailing ship. Several vessels did nothing but service the industry by hauling 100-pound sacks or 32-pound baskets. On arrival, some were immediately sold with at least a five-to-one mark-up, but a substantial part of each cargo was laid out in beds in San Francisco Bay to fatten and stay fresh until needed. An especially drunk miner might pay as much as $1 per oyster in 1850, the equivalent of at least $30 today.

By the end of the 1850s, Shoalwater was shipping about 35,000 baskets a year – more than 1.1 million pounds. With completion of the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad in 1869, California’s loyalties swiftly shifted to Eastern oysters. This is probably just as well, since Washington state’s native stocks had virtually been strip-mined.

Smithsonian’s story notes that Olympia oysters currently command $2 apiece at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. Southwest Washington oysterman Bill Taylor supplies them. For $120, another company offers three dozen via the Internet and FedEx, barely enough for a bedtime snack for Twain.

My friend, oysterman Dick Wilson of Bay Center, Wash., has doubts about them as a commercial venture, noting they take three years to grow to anything like marketable size. He doesn’t know of anyone actively cultivating them in Willapa Bay, though some Olympias mingle in local beds with the justly popular and ubiquitous Pacific oysters brought from Japan decades ago.

“I find the flavor rather strong (with a zinc taste) but of course since they are so small it does not last long, regardless of what Hemingway says. Some people like this taste and I don’t mean to knock it, but our Pacifics from Willapa will spoil one’s appreciation for eating the small brown Native,” Wilson says.

And what did Ernest Hemingway have to say?

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

I think I can hear Olys and chardonnay calling me.

— M.S.W.

 

Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer.

  

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