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Farm to Table: Exploring the Hama Hama Oyster Habitat

A good oyster is a thrill that invokes memories both real and imagined, what author Rowan Jacobsen calls “more mood than food”

Seattle HD Photo Gallery Oysters

Hama Hama Oysters in Lilliwaup, Washington is the fifth generation family-run shellfish farm on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

How an oyster makes its way from beneath the water’s surface to your table can seem mysterious, so we took the hundred-mile drive outside Seattle along twisty roads lined with towering pines, to Lilliwaup, Washington, where the Hamma Hamma River pours into the Hood Canal, to discover how it works. 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.)

As Adam James, who runs the farming operations at Hama Hama, explains while on a harvesting mission: “Oysters in the restaurants look one way, and oysters in the beach look entirely differently … We’ll need to get going early.”

During low tide at 1:30 a.m. James showed us 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. Here, a look at the process of farming oysters to get them to your table.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Great Haul

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, Adam James motors out on a barge, lifts them out of the water with the crane, and hauls them back to shore for processing.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

World-Class Oysters

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.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Bags of Bivalves

Through the years, the Hama Hama Oysters farm has shaped the family’s traditions and deepened their relationship to both water and woods.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

After the Oyster Garden

After passing through the oyster garden, it’s time to process the harvester’s baskets.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Connection to the Sea

“There’s a strong connection to the sea that people may or may not realize they have until they eat an oyster,” says James.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Slurp It Up

Employees dish up beers and oysters for customers at Hama Hama Oysters in Lilliwaup, Washington.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Elliott’s Oyster House

With a deft twist of a knife, Robert Spaulding, executive chef at Elliott’s Oyster House in Seattle, reveals a chicken-nugget size oyster steak. “One of the features that people like about these is that they know they’re getting a nice, fat, meaty oyster,” Spaulding says.

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Blue Pool Oyster

The Blue Pool is “buttery in the middle with cucumber and melon flavors at the end,” says Spaulding. “It also has a good amount of minerality all the way throughout.”

Matthew Ryan Williams for Rolling Stone

Back to Seattle

“Every once in awhile you’ll eat an oyster here that just throws your hair back,” James says. “That’s really what I’m passionate about.” Time to get back to the city to get another plate of oysters in Seattle.

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