Discovering the Odd Life of Pacific Northwest Oysters – and Those Who Farm Them

Americans love oysters: Inside the journey from a Seattle river to a serving platter; how it can happen in less than 24 hours.

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Discovering the Odd Life of Pacific Northwest Oysters – and Those Who Farm Them

I won't try to sell you on oysters. You're either grossed out by what look like organ meats sloshing around in dirty soap dishes, or you're awestruck by the bivalve's ability to make the ground seem to sway gently beneath your feet, like you're standing on the deck of a sailboat and bathing in a gentle salt spray. A good oyster is a thrill that invokes memories both real and imagined; it's what author Rowan Jacobsen calls "more mood than food."

The oyster's power of transportation has alway struck me as mysterious, so I set out to unlock it. I began at Elliott's Oyster Bar in Seattle, where I tasted my first Blue Pool from Hama Hama. With a deft twist of a knife, Robert Spaulding, Elliott's executive chef, revealed a chicken-nugget size oyster steak that emitted its own heavenly glow along with what sounded like a chorus of angels coming from the shell. "One of the features that people like about these is that they know they're getting a nice, fat, meaty oyster," Spaulding says.

Nice, fat, meaty – sounded fantastic. I slurped the Blue Pool down and proclaimed, "That's awesome!"

Chef Spaulding agreed, and he graciously offered me some better adjectives: In addition to being awesome, he said, the Blue Pool is "buttery in the middle with cucumber and melon flavors at the end." It also has "a good amount of minerality all the way throughout."

I left Elliott's inspired to reach the source of this cucumber-melon awesomeness. So after a hundred-mile drive along twisty roads lined with towering pines, I arrived in Lilliwaup, Washington, where the Hamma Hamma River pours into the Hood Canal. The tidal flats here are routinely washed with cold, clear, plankton-rich water that breeds strong, healthy oysters, so it's no surprise that the family-run Hama Hama Oyster Company has cultivated a reputation far bigger than its actual size. (And yes, the company spells its name with singular m's, despite the river's use of double m's.)

I'd already noticed a flaw in the pristine presentation of the oyster tray. That neat spread of pre-shucked half-shells seemed to sterilize the more interesting narrative of an oyster as an antisocial, bottom-feeding loner. That's the oyster I wanted to meet, the one that grows not on a mountain of sparkling ice, but underwater, among a gang of mollusks who are happiest when slurping algae and sea bugs through tiny filters. By following a farmer out into the mud, I hoped to earn a new respect for the unlikeliest hero of the human culinary scene.

Adam James, who runs the farming operations at Hama Hama, agreed to let me shadow him on a harvesting mission. By way of warning, he told me, "Oysters in the restaurants look one way, and oysters in the beach look entirely differently." Then he told me: "We'll need to get going early."

I can do early, I think. But then I realize that what James actually means is that we have to get going late. As in, 1:30 a.m. That would be low tide, and oysters farmers schedule everything around it.

With eyelids heavy and a headlamp strapped to my forehead, I followed James out into the mudflat. We had three or four hours to gather what we could before the delta was once again under water, so we had to move quick.

James showed me how Hama Hama's harvesters trudge across soft earth filling Mini Cooper-size steel cages with oysters. At low tide, the cages are accessible by foot. At high tide, James motors out on a barge, lifts them out of the water with the crane, and hauls them back to shore for processing.

As we progressed through the dark, James shined his headlamp toward what looked like a field of lunar rocks growing in menacing, jagged formations. "This is our oyster garden," he says. And perhaps sensing my sleepiness, he adds: "Just take baby steps here. I don't want you to face-plant."

Per his earlier counsel, these oysters did not resemble anything I'd seen in a restaurant. They were clustered together to form meteorites and rimmed with sharp edges that seem to say, "Eat me and die, motherfucker."

As we walked, brittle bits of the shells' mantle cracked beneath my boots. I worried we may be angering the oysters, but James assured me that they respond well to stress. It makes them stronger, he said. And a strong oyster is a delicious oyster.

In addition to the massive shell clusters, we passed stand-alone oysters of all ages. Some were 10 or 12 years old and as big as footballs. Others were so small they looked like pebbles. It's the ones in between that typically go into the harvester's basket, and once full — a basket holds about 120 oysters — the whole lot goes into the steel cage, which weigh north of 800 pounds at the end of a shift.

After passing through the oyster garden, we arrived at the Blue Pool section of the farm, where the meaty oyster I'd eaten at Elliott's used to live. These are its brothers and sisters — or rather, its brother/sisters, since oysters are hermaphrodites.

Blue Pools represent a low-tech innovation in oyster farming. Rather than grow on the sea bed, they reside in mesh bags anchored to lines slung a few feet off of the ground. During high tide, a buoy fastened to the bottom of each bag floats up, inverting the bag and causing the oysters to bounce and clank all over each other. It's never-ending stress: The constant tumbling chips away at thin bits of shell and polishes the rough exterior.

After years enjoying oysters from artful restaurant serving platters, it was gratifying to finally see them in their natural habitat. They're funky little brainless monsters, converting seawater into sweet, crisp meat that can't help but transport you to the water. "There's a strong connection to the sea that people may or may not realize they have until they eat an oyster," says James. "You see it with kids, right? You take kids to a beach — it could be the Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf Coast. Kids just kind of go crazy and they kind of lose themselves."

And that sense of awe is something that oyster fans appreciate. Even after spending years working the oyster farm, James still feels it. "Every once in awhile you'll eat an oyster here that just throws your hair back," he says. "That's really what I'm passionate about."

I'm grateful for his enthusiasm. Because while the oysters I ate straight from his farm are undoubtedly the freshest I've ever tasted, it's the effort of him and his fellow farmers that make it possible for me to find a similar experience in oyster bars all over the country. And from here on, when I do, I'll think about more than just my imaginary adventures in sailing. I'll think about the Blue Pools gently tumbling beneath the waves, and I'll think of James out in his oyster garden, giving his shells a hard time and caging them for delivery while the rest of us sleep.