Slippery and sweet, cold and salty as the sea, a little strange, occasionally dangerous, and perfect with a glass of champagne, the oyster is, hands down, the world's most glamorous mollusk.
And it always has been. Ever since Aphrodite, mother of Eros, emerged from the sea on an oyster shell, the oyster has been linked to love and desire. It has inspired exalted Shakespearean poetry and staggering acts of gluttony. The ancient Romans used to gobble 12 dozen raw oysters at a sitting to restore their appetites in the middle of a feast. Henry IV liked to toss back 300 as an hors d'oeuvre and Casanova reportedly consumed 50 a day for breakfast, while in his bathtub.
When it comes to eating oysters today, we're pikers. The typical order at Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco's legendary seafood bar, is a measly dozen. Do we lack those Rabelaisian appetites? Or do we lack affordable oysters?
Probably both. While oysters have always been chic, they have not always been expensive. Today, a dozen runs between $15 and $30—a substantial outlay for a pretty lean meal. But a little over a century ago, cheap oysters on the half shell were sold like hot dogs from pushcarts on the streets of New York City; cafés advertised all-you-can-eat oysters for 6 cents. The seas were full of the craggy-shelled bivalve. At one time, San Francisco Bay and estuaries up and down the West Coast teemed with a tiny, creamy-complexioned variety called the Olympia, long enjoyed by the Indians.
It is possible to love oysters too much. When gold miners descended on California in 1849, they ate every oyster in sight. The population of native oysters in San Francisco Bay was all but eradicated within two decades. Soon, schooners were moving up the coast, scraping clean the beds of Oregon and southern Washington. The Olympia made its last stand in Puget Sound, but even here, its survival has been tenuous. The Olympia is fragile, sensitive to temperature changes, and easily upset by pollution—a perennial concern to the oyster industry. It takes three years to grow to the size of a quarter and is extremely expensive and laborious to harvest and shuck. One of food's literati, M.F.K. Fisher, was a fan and praised these "metallic tiny bites." But today you'll rarely find Olys on menus outside Washington, where they are still cherished.
"They're probably the most expensive oyster on the planet," says Richard Barrett, general manager of the Oyster House in Olympia, Wash. "But they're the sweetest and most delicate and absolutely our most popular oyster."
Now for some good news: Although the Oly has become a rare delicacy, and many estuaries around the world (San Francisco Bay included) are polluted and unsuitable for aquaculture, wonderful foreign oysters have been introduced in the West. Washington has become the nation's largest producer of oysters, and they are flourishing again in places like California's Tomales Bay and Oregon's Yaquina Bay.
There is now a dazzling array of Western oysters available, each with a distinct look, texture, and taste—Marin Miyagis, Hog Island flats, Netarts Bay Kumamotos. The plethora of names can be slightly misleading: There are actually only four species of oysters (Pacific, Kumamoto, European, and Eastern) currently being cultivated. But because the mollusks filter some 25 gallons of seawater through their little bodies every day, they take much of their character from their surroundings and are named accordingly. Oysters that grow up near the open ocean, like Vancouver's Fanny Bays, will smack of salt. If the estuary contains a superabundance of iron, their flavor will be metallic; if there's a lot of algae, an oyster will be greenish. A Hog Island flat from Northern California may be genetically identical to a Belon raised in France, but it will look and taste different.
Most of the oysters cultivated in the West today are Pacifics, native to Asia; they are long and typically sweet, with deeply crenellated shells. Many farms are also raising Kumamotos, a dainty, round, and buttery specimen from Japan. European oysters, sometimes called Belons, are flat shelled and generally taste of copper. The big, mild Eastern oyster, native to the Atlantic coast of North America, has also thrived in Northern California.
There are dozens of oyster farms on the Pacific Coast and many will sell them by the bag, along with picnic supplies and condiments. At the Tomales Bay Oyster Company on a lovely, chilly stretch of coast north of San Francisco, you can purchase a bag of charcoal, a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce, and as many oysters as you can eat—and grill them right there beside the pristine bay. Or you can buy a $10 oyster knife, shuck the oysters, and eat them raw with a squeeze of lemon. Oysters are at their most sublime served cold and alive, just hours out of the sea.
Great oyster bars are the most enduring of restaurants, perhaps because this kind of simply prepared seafood never goes out of style. One of Portland's oldest eateries, Dan & Louis' Oyster Bar, was founded in 1907 and is still renowned for its buttery oyster stew and crisp, raw oysters. Swan Oyster Depot, which serves up to a thousand oysters every day, is almost as old: It was founded in 1912, and just about everything in this lovely establishment dates back to its opening, from the 18 rickety stools to the gray marble counter, worn down where generations of diners have rested their elbows. By 8 a.m. night-shift cops, taxi drivers, and doctors are hunched over that counter, breakfasting on sparkling raw oysters and sourdough bread. (Swan is one of the few Bay Area restaurants that still serves Olympias. "They're a staple—very popular with the old-timers," says Steve Sancimino, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1946.)
But not everyone wants to eat raw oysters, and not everyone should. The old adage that they are only safe to eat during months with an r in the name can be ignored. But a raw oyster can indeed make you sick, whatever the season. An oyster swallows whatever bacteria and toxins make their way into the sea, and although water quality is carefully monitored, there are no guarantees. For most people, the illness caused by a bad oyster is unpleasant, at worst. But pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with immune system problems should avoid raw oysters altogether.
Fortunately, the oyster is versatile. It can be fried, stewed, roasted, steamed, or stuffed in a Thanksgiving turkey. It can be topped with a rich sauce of butter, spinach, and Pernod and baked, as in oysters Rockefeller. You can buy little oysters that have been smoked and canned in oil and eat them with toothpicks on camping trips. The Chinese dry their oysters and use them in stews; they also grind them up and turn them into a rich coffee-brown sauce that gives a deep flavor to stir-fries.
Or, if you want a taste of history, you can tackle a platter of Hangtown fry, an egg-oyster concoction. There are many stories about how this dish was born. Here's one: During the Gold Rush, a miner with a bagful of nuggets walked into a restaurant in Hangtown (now Placerville, Calif.) and requested the most extravagant dish the cook could concoct. This turned out to be a scramble of eggs and oysters—the two costliest ingredients in the pantry. Here's another version: A miner was about to be hanged and, knowing that oysters and eggs were hard to come by in the remote, landlocked town, chose an oyster omelette as his final meal, thereby delaying his execution.
Hangtown fry is still served at a few restaurants, most spectacularly at San Francisco's venerable Tadich Grill, where it is made with big, meaty oystersand thick curls of bacon. You will not be hungry again for days.
Where to eat oysters
Swan Oyster Depot 1517 Polk St., San Francisco, (415) 673-1101.
Tadich Grill 240 California St., San Francisco, (415) 391-1849.
Tomales Bay Oyster Co. 15479 Highway 1, Marshall, Calif., (415) 663-1242.
Hog Island Oyster Co. 20215 Highway 1, Marshall, Calif., (415) 663-9218.
Dan & Louis' Oyster Bar 208 SW Ankeny St., Portland, (503) 227-5906.
The Oyster House 320 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia, Wash., (360) 753-7000.
Photography by Sheri Giblin
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.