Best oysters? Right here, fresh and in the cold
Xinh Dewelly serves oyster stew. Credit: Ronald Holden
What began five years ago as a stunt for journalists has turned into one of the most sought-after food excursions in the region, curated by Taylor Shellfish Farms. Here's how it came about.
The time has come, said Crosscut's bard,
For bivalves on the beach:
The moon is full, the tide is out…
We'll have an oyster feast!
OK, so it doesn't quite rhyme. And you have to know your Alice Through the Looking Glass to remember that "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem about two unlikely buddies who invite a bunch of oysters to their midnight picnic … and eat them.
(Mind you, all this began in 2008, well before René Erickson opened her excellent, oyster-centric restaurant, Walrus & Carpenter; unrelated to this event.)
I had the good fortune to attend a couple of these winter picnics before they became open-to-the-pubic events. Some recollections follow.
It's normally a one-lane track from forest to shore along Totten Inlet, but under the full moon and extreme low tide, there's a couple hundred yards between the treeline and the water's edge. Underfoot, it's all wet sand and oyster shells. Behind us, wearing LED headlamps, a work crew is picking oysters out of the ground, first into plastic buckets, then into 20-bushel wire cages.
Oyster guru Jon Rowley leads an expedition of intrepid foodies who fill a coach that leaves from Elliott's Oyster House on the Seattle waterfront to the Taylor Shellfish oyster beds on Totten Inlet in the South Sound. Full moon, extreme low tide, f-f-f-reezing temperatures, and all the oysters one could gather, shuck and eat. A bonfire to keep body and soul together. Fresh-off-the-beach bivalves, notably Totten Inlet Virginicas, Kumomotos, Pacificas and the thumbnail-size Olympias. Oyster-friendly wines, too,
"The best oysters you'll ever taste," Rowley had promised. "A benchmark oyster experience." He wasn't kidding. Oh frabjous day, oh frabjous (and f-f-f-freezing) night!
"Here, let me open a couple for you," says an oysterman who appears out of the blackness, one of a dozen Taylor Shellfish employees who've come out for this periodic moonlight picnic. He reaches down and plucks a couple of shells from the sand, trots down to water's edge to rinse them, and returns, shucker's knife in hand. Seconds later, we're slurping the Virginicas, firm and icy-cold.
Our helpful oysterman, it turns out, is Gifford Pinchot IV, known as Marco. Yes, that Gifford Pinchot, whose great-grandfather was Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and founder of the U.S. Forest Service, in whose honor the Columbia National Forest was renamed. Though he grew up in Connecticut, Marco came west, graduated from Evergreen and earned advanced degrees in ecology from Western and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. If there were a poster child for environmental stewardship, it would be Marco, though he'd be the first to say he's just one of many on the Taylor team.
As Rowley said, these were the oysters to end all oysters, the picnic to end all picnics, and to make sure the participants don't freeze their butts off, there's a soul-warming nightcap: a steaming cup of Xinh Dwelley's award-winning oyster stew as we get back on the bus.
Taylor Shellfish Farms will open its Totten Inlet oyster beds to the public for a couple of full-moon, low-tide beach picnics with unlimited oysters and wine on Tuesday, Jan. 8 and Thursday, Feb. 7. Tickets (including round trip transportation from Seattle) are $125 and benefit the Puget Sound Restoration Fund via Brown Paper Tickets.
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