‘O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter
‘You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none –
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter
Growing up Jewish and keeping some of the basic dietary laws that religion subscribes to (no pork or shellfish), my only connection to oysters was through that poem, part of “Through the Looking Glass.” It wasn’t until my time in Bordeaux in 2019 that I tried an oyster, purchased from a riverside seafood market for the lofty price of €8 for a half dozen and a glass of white wine. I was hooked.
Describing the flavor of an oyster is complicated. Briny, sweet, basically if you could distill the feeling of sitting and staring at the ocean into a taste sensation, that’s an oyster. The concept turns many off; they are a bit slimy, can be gritty, and are basically eaten live. Get beyond those things, and it’s a bite unlike any other.
While oysters can be found in most of the world’s cooler oceans, Humboldt Bay is known for some of the best. The area provides approximately 70% of California’s oysters for consumption (as opposed as for “seeding”), farmed here over roughly 250-300 acres of shallow muddy corners of the bay. As of 2012, the industry provided roughly 6.5 million dollars in direct economic value, with at least five or ten times that in tangential value (transportation, restaurants, boat mechanics, etc…). More than 150 people are directly employed by the oyster industry here, and again, several times that second-degree.
These are just a few of the statistics rattled off to me by Captain Sebastian as his small boat moves smoothly across Humboldt Bay between oyster patches. Sebastian is a local oyster farmer, leasing five acres, on (in?) which he works about 1500 bags (more on that in a bit) producing 150-200,000 oysters yearly. He also runs Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours, taking curious visitors like me out to learn what goes into farming these oceanic treats.
Our first stop is one of his beds. He explains to me that there are two main ways to farm oysters. One is in clusters, using a “mother shell” to allow larvae to latch on and grow in, well, a cluster. Those tend to be then attached to a line and allowed to grow in the tide almost like grape vines.
The second method, the one Sebastian uses, is single oysters. He purchases tiny oyster “seedlings” and puts them in bags that are attached to poles so as not to float away or sink to the bottom, where predators like starfish have better access. Each bag will ultimately contain hundreds of oysters.
Sebastian pulls a bag out of the water with a long hooked pole and dumps it out on the bottom of the boat. Today, he says, we are not allowed to actually harvest oysters. It has been raining here in Humboldt County, and while the runoff into the bay from the rains brings awesome nutrients the oysters love and need to grow, it also brings additional bacteria that make them less safe for consumption in the immediate aftermath. So we fill the bag back up and put it back into the water.
As we head over to another stop, this one to allow me to see cluster farming, Sebastian explains some of the awesome characteristics of oysters. Oysters feed by pulling sea water in, then filtering out microscopic plankton and algae, and then “spit” the water back out. In doing so, they actually clean some harmful things, like fluorides, out of the sea water. So in reality, he tells me, by oyster farming in Humboldt Bay, not only is food being grown, but the waters of the bay are being cleaned. That is, in itself, a pretty cool thing when you think about it. While oysters can’t remove all harmful substances from the water, utilizing natural – living – filters that in turn become food (and remove these things so efficiently that they won’t pass through into humans via consumption) could be the future of cleaning our coastal waters and shallow bays.
Finally, Sebastian takes me to a floating dock that is home to one of the seedling farms. Here, hundreds of thousands of larvae become tiny oysters, and grow to a large enough point where they can be moved to a bed. In total, it takes about a year and a half to grow oysters to maturity for harvest, and places like this do some of the early work, both for single oysters and for clusters.
Tour done, Sebastian and I head back to Humboldt Bay Provisions, his oyster bar. Each tour includes an oyster tasting, but as I am solo on this one, Sebastian also shows me how to shuck the little guys. Step one, put on gripping gloves. Step two, put oyster on towel, and grip. Between the gloves and the towel, try not to let it move. Step three, take a narrow knife and find the “joint,” and with side to side motions and plenty of pressure, slide the blade in. Step four, use the tip of the blade to slide around the side until the top shell pops off. Step five, clean the oyster off the top shell with the knife. Step six, add lemon juice and slurp down. It sounds simple, and I manage to get a couple to work, but it’s a rough go on a few others.
Fortunately, Sebastian is an expert and before I know it I’m eating oysters both raw with lemon (my preference) and broiled with spicy sauce. Broiling them in the shell removes much of the briny flavor for those for whom that is a turn-off. I still prefer raw, brine and all.
I may not be either a carpenter or a walrus, but I fulfill my part of the poem and eat every oyster placed in front of me. A day like today, and an experience like this, is a window into an industry I knew nothing about. Going out on Humboldt Bay with Captain Sebastian has given me a greater appreciation for where a food I have come to love comes from. Oysters are incredible little creatures, and oh so tasty!
Thank you to Sebastian and Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours for an incredible experience, and a special thanks to Visit Redwoods for making this happen!
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