The education of an oyster farmer

  • Lissa James

 

My brother, Adam, and I grew up working summers on our family's oyster farm on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. In between a few epic mud fights, we picked oysters, dug clams and learned a lot about the tides, hard work and the proper use of sunscreen. But when we took over managing the farm five years ago, we found we didn't know nearly enough.

Our education started out on the beach. To grow consistently great oysters, you have to know where they fatten best, how their flavor varies with growing location, and where they'll be most protected from floods and ravenous starfish. Considering that the farm is 10 feet underwater half the time, learning the geography of our beach was -- and continues to be -- a challenge.

Our biggest shortcoming, though, was culinary: We had never eaten raw oysters before. On Hood Canal, where our farm is located, the food culture calls for oysters fried, barbecued and maybe stewed, but definitely not raw. To the great confusion of tourists, it's easier to find a Hood Canal oyster served on the half-shell in New York City than on the Hood Canal.

Since most of our restaurant customers serve oysters raw, we needed to develop raw oyster chops in a hurry. This is easier said than done. Oyster flavors are fickle and occasionally counterintuitive. Ostreaphiles have created a lexicon to pin down these subtleties, but wield those words incorrectly and you're likely to sound silly. Waxing poetic about an oyster's intricate flavor, when all you're really getting is salt, makes you sound like a showoff.

At first, Adam sampled voraciously and divided oysters into two categories: those he could eat, and those he just couldn't. Later, he found some helpful beer analogies: If a Hama Hama, a Hood Canal Pacific oyster, is an amber, then a buttery Kumamoto is an easy-drinking pale ale, and a full-bodied Belon equals a salty stout.

Because eating oysters raw is fun and frequently involves champagne, I was a swift convert to the raw culture. But for a long while, I had no way to describe our oysters without describing our farm. I didn't taste oysters, I tasted moss hanging like a curtain from big leaf maple trees; I could also taste the green-blue cold of the river. Once I fully explored the tide flats, I loved the oysters even more for their strange intertidal home, populated by fierce, tiny creatures, where the moon has agency and humans follow a curfew imposed by the incoming tide.

Eventually, Adam found descriptive words that worked for him -- musky, smooth, crunchy, creamy -- while I learned to let an oyster speak for itself. Oysters convert differences in salinity and nutrients into elusive flavors of melon, vegetables and earth. The brilliant thing about eating raw oysters is not that they reflect their environment, but that they give you a different way of experiencing it.

Five years ago, I blamed my community's lack of raw oyster culture on the relentless winter rain and our geography. Pinned between the mountains and the water, our only directional options are north or south, and I figured that gave us all tunnel vision. Now, I've concluded that my woodsy neighbors resist the raw oyster trend because they're already drenched, literally, in nature. A cooked oyster is a staple food, like pot roast. But a raw oyster is alive, and it speaks of the ocean. In order to listen, you need to chew. You'll get something otherworldly but also, in a strange and primeval way, familiar.

Our company is now a real-deal farm. We create, buy, nurse, plant and rotate seed in a quest to produce and sell only oysters that do justice to how much we love our farm. We?re happy as clams to be farming oysters. They require no fertilizer or feed, and they actively filter the water by removing excess nutrients. All you really need to grow oysters is clean water and a seed supply.

Unfortunately, reports from oyster hatcheries on the Pacific Coast say that ocean acidification is already interfering with seed production. Many species, farmed or not, will suffer in an acidified ocean, but oyster farmers stand to lose everything. For now, all we can do is to spread the raw oyster gospel far and near: Eating raw, healthy oysters is the absolute best way to appreciate clean oceans. And when you consult a raw oyster about climate change, you learn that there's a world of wet at stake, not just an industry.

Lissa James is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She and her brother, Adam, run the Hama Hama Oyster Company in Lilliwaup, Washington.