Foodie Underground: The Wide and Wonderful World of Oysters

ColumnA book about oysters teaches the real meaning of farm-to-table.

A month ago, a good friend put a copy of Shucked into my hands and said, “You have to read this.”

I looked at the cover. A watercolor painting of an oyster and a fork paired with the title of Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm was intriguing.

“It’s about a woman food writer that decides to trade her city life for working on an oyster farm.”

While I have never expressed the specific interest in working on an oyster farm, I saw where she was coming from. Having grown up in the country, I have my personal organic farm and vineyard dreams, the kind of place where you can get your hands dirty and find a new appreciation for the food and drink that ends up in front of you every evening. A personal narrative about what farm-to-table really means was therefore right up my alley. What I didn’t realize before diving into the pages of Shucked was how much I would fall in love with oysters in the process.

Odd as it might seem to fall in love with a food via a book, author Erin Byers Murray opened up an entirely new world to me, one that involved saltwater, hard work, rain boots and oyster recipes.

A few months ago, I had scribbled in my worn Moleskine notebook that finds itself along on most food adventures, “Oysters are the new bread.” It was a comment induced by a weekend of overindulgence of seafood, but working my way through Shucked, I again realized that oysters were everywhere.

My brain full of words like bivalve and oyster farm, my eyes and ears sought out any mention of the seafood. Byers Murray’s descriptive personal narrative and informative approach to describing life at Island Creek Oysters made me feel like I too was working on an oyster farm, or at least had an intimate understanding of the industry and the food she and so many others were working hard to harvest.

Which is how I ended up at The Walrus and The Carpenter.

The oyster bar in Ballard, just north of downtown Seattle, Washington, had been recommended by two food enthusiasts: a food photographer that worked with a friend of mine, and a charismatic wine connoisseur at McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants, who on a chance encounter with their Saturday afternoon wine tasting, had launched into a long conversation on wine, food and beyond. “So, are you a food writer?” he asked. (Is it that obvious?) A mere nod got me a list of eight places to visit, all scribbled on the back of his business card. The Walrus and The Carpenter had a star next to it and the name of a server we were supposed to track down.

After a two hour wait, which no one at the oyster bar seemed to mind, we were seated on stools at the bar, watching as a man with a bright red beard that went all the way down to his collar line pulled oysters from various buckets full of ice and shucked quicker than I can type. A menu full of local seafood, the “least” local of the oysters coming from British Columbia, only a few hours north, our server pointed us in the right direction of some of the stronger tasting oysters. Always trust your server. Soon we were in the midst of shells from Effingham and Dabob Bay, and I had a newfound love for this bivalve shellfish.

I am not alone in oyster love, however. As it turns out, they really are everywhere.

“[Oysters are] actually making a comeback – they were this hugely popular a century ago but then oyster populations around the country were depleted or completely wiped out by over consumption, pollution, and other factors. But there’s been a real effort to rebuild wild stocks around the country along with a huge rise in popularity of oyster farming on both coasts. Essentially, there are more oysters on the market than there have been in decades and restauranteurs are finding them to be a popular menu addition. I’ve been to a few sports bars that now boast raw bar menus – it’s pretty incredible to see one food product cross over so many different tastes and styles,” says Byers Murray.

Oysters aren’t just a fancy delicious component of a dinner party, they’re also a key part of our ecosystem. When I asked Byers Murray what she thought the single most impressive thing about an oyster is, she responded with, “oysters can filter up to 40 gallons of water a day – imagine what that can do help clean up our waterways.”

Oysters may have struck such a personal chord because they play the key role in my home state’s economy. According to Geoff Menzies, Manager of the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm, a project by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to “engage community members in the actual act of growing oysters and getting muddy,” Washington State is actually the leading producer of farmed bivalve shellfish in the U.S., producing 61 million pounds of oysters in 2011 which accounts for $58 million. Menzies cites Rowan Jacobsen’s book A Geography of Oysters when he says, “No city is as oyster-mad as Seattle.” It’s like I was born to fall in love with them.

Looking at the efforts in the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast, it is clear that there is a significant effort to rebuild wild stocks, which is good for both the environment and our health. Oysters are low in saturated fat, contain Omega 3 fatty acids, and as Menzies points out, are “especially good sources of high-quality protein, minerals: Iron, zinc and copper, and Vitamin B12.”

Oysters also have a positive communal effect. “When a community is located next to a bay which supports commercial  oyster harvest, they benefit from all of the efforts of that business or nonprofit to restore and to keep marine waters clean. Oyster farmers need clean marine water in order to survive. Everybody benefits. They often lead the charge to reduce bacterial contamination from livestock farms and septic systems, which are often the leading sources of pollution that close shellfish beds,” says Menzies.

Take a step back, and oysters are a good reminder of all of the elements of the food system that are essential to keeping us and our communities alive. Byers Murray says that if there is one lesson she can take away from Island Creek it’s “that there is an enormous amount of human effort and energy that goes into our food supply and we should do everything we can to appreciate and support that effort.”

Ensuring that we are well educated about that supply chain is the game changer when it comes to food politics. “I think we need more transparency in the food system overall. The media has really picked up its game in terms of reporting what’s happening behind the curtain at some of these massive food producers. But so much more can be done at a more basic level, such as in our education system, to bring awareness to what we’re eating and where it comes from,” says Byers Murray.

Keeping all of this in mind, I savored my oysters at The Walrus and The Carpenter, with a new appreciation of what, for so long in my mind, had just been another shellfish. But as is clear with good food, everything we eat has a story. Nothing on our plates can be paired with the word “just.”

A place of production, people to produce it, a system for getting it to a restaurant or a store and lastly the people that prepare it for us, or the preparation that happens in our very own kitchens; that entire system happens with every single thing that we eat. Every. Single. Time. Discovering that story is part of enjoying and appreciating what we’re eating, and putting us on a path to better food and food system.
Erin Byer’s Murray Drink and Oyster Preparation Recommendations

  • Drink: It depends on the oyster but for an East Coast oyster like an Island Creek, I’d go with an ice cold Pilsner or a glass of mineral-ly white wine.
  • Preparation: One of my favorite methods is throwing them on the grill until they pop open. You quickly pull the tops off, then add a pat of butter and a dash of Mexican hot sauce, like Cholula. Let the butter melt just slightly and serve.

Want to win a copy of Shucked?! We’re giving one away! To enter to win, leave a comment below telling us why you’re committed to local food. 

Image: samantha celeraThe Walrus and the Carpenter, Geoff Menzies, Anna Brones

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