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Digging clams and amassing oysters off Puget Sound

19 May

I was fortunate enough to spend five days last week in Olympic View, a community about an hour and a half outside of Seattle. In the ’50s, my grandma owned a neighbor grocery store not far from Olympic View, and she remained friends with two of her customers, Kenny and Marie, until the day she died. It’s probably not possible to “will” someone friendship, but I developed a kinship with these two, whose home of over 50 years on the Hood Canal overlooks the beautiful Puget Sound. Kenny, a World War II Pearl Harbor survivor, and Marie, adept at keeping up with their social circles, introduced Joe and me to their oyster-laden beach many years ago. Lack of time or simply not enterprising enough, we never — not on one visit — gathered and cooked our own oysters.

So, on this visit, I was hell-bent on oystering. Interestingly, I learned that citizens from local Native American tribes sometimes take their boats to these shores, gathering never more than half of what they can find, leaving the rest to multiply. Moderation:  A food philosophy I respect. There were still plenty of oysters to be had, but they were difficult to pry from the rocks they adhered to. Thankfully, Kim — a petite clever-carrying Vietnamese woman with the strength of Hulk Hogan…’s lesser nemesis — quickly dislodged them. Soon, she had me digging clams (the product of these efforts, regretfully, was only four shelled treats, but four, of course, is better than a swift kick in the head). It was time to schlup the shellfish up the stairs to a neighbor’s house and cook them. But they (specifically, the oysters) had other ideas.

They began on the barbecue, but might as well have stayed on the beach; they simply weren’t budging. Next, they repaired to a pot of water on the stove, where they remained as tight-lipped as ever. We snacked on the wee clams as we continued to refill the pot with more water as it condensed and steamed. Finally, one oyster grinned and we snagged it. In some circles, presenting a lone oyster to a gathering of 10 people  might be considered uncouth, but after waiting for over an hour (if they were humans, they could have done their hair and makeup and tweezed their brows), excitement trumped disappointment. The first bite was taken sans butter and it was Heaven. It was like eating the ocean, but without the excessive brine and clearly more substantive. Soon, all of the oysters were opening up (perhaps they were getting to know us) and we were feasting on the freshest seafood I’d ever eaten in my life.

Thankfully, San Diego’s Sea Rocket Bistro, which sources all of its seafood locally from sustainable fishermen and farmers, is currently serving, on the half shell, summer oysters from Carlsbad Aquafarm (also where the chef at Starlite gets the best mussels ever. Period.) I’m looking forward to getting my fix and, given that they’re $1 each on Tuesdays and $2 every other day, there’s really nothing stopping me, yet I wonder if they’ll taste as good without the elbow grease, muscle power and energy spent willing the little suckers to open.