If you jump in a car and head up Highway 1 out of San Francisco, you’ll get to the Tomales Bay in about an hour. If you get carsick easily, you may never get there—this stretch of the famous coastal highway is a maze of switchbacks, twisted hills, and fanatical (insane?) cyclists winding their way up and down the coast. It’s a gorgeous, yet nauseating, drive—a danger to even the most stalwart of stomachs.
Once you reach the Tomales Bay, you’ll be mere minutes from one of the most pristine shellfish-eating spots in—dare I say it?—the country. You’ll want to keep in mind those windy roads as you slurp down raw oysters, grilled clams, and bottles of BYO wine and beer. It’s a long road back, and you don’t want to get sick.
Even as recently as a few years ago, I never would have entertained the idea of a road trip organized solely around the consumption of raw shellfish. Despite growing up in a family of oyster lovers, I stayed far away from the little beasts, afraid to slurp down a slimy sea creature that was just barely dead.
When I was a kid, my family used to take spring break trips down to Apalachicola Bay, along with a few other families. We kids could play all day at the beach while the parents enjoyed finer things, like beer and oysters. Our parents would gently encourage us to sample the shellfish delicacy, but I’m sure they were happy when we turned up our noses and left more oysters for them to eat. If only I had listened to their prodding, I wouldn’t have spent so long in oyster ignorance.
Gulf oysters are among the country’s most prized national foods. Once found in abundance in the wild, excessive trawling and environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill have, over time, turned the poor man’s shellfish into a relatively expensive treat. Not that this price hike has affected oysters’ popularity; Louisiana still celebrates a number of oyster festivals each year, and in New Orleans, tourists flock by the hundreds to established oyster palaces such as ACME Oyster House before, during, and after Mardi Gras. ACME even has an oyster-eating contest immortalized on the Travel Channel’s ever-classy Man V. Food:
These 15 dozen oysters contestants are expected to consume are the same species that populate oyster beds up and down the East Coast, and they are native to the region. The only major difference between Gulf oysters and those further up the coast is that almost all Gulf oysters are wild. In New England—and much of the West Coast—oysters are grown in farms—highly sustainable and environmentally friendly farms, mind you—and are cultivated to take advantage of a region’s specific climate. Oysters from farms located only a few miles apart can taste distinctively different, depending on the farms’ water temperature and salinity. There are oyster farms that grow foreign species of oysters, as well (Japan’s Kumamotos and European flat oysters are being grown in the colder waters of the Pacific Northwest and New England, respectively). But in the Gulf Coast, an oyster is an oyster is an oyster. I take comfort in knowing that when I taste a Gulf oyster, it will be buttery and mildly salty, and it will be big. The lack of specificity may have something to do with the proliferation of oyster-based dishes in the region (think Oysters Rockefeller, Po’Boys, and Oysters en Brochette).
But I digress. There are excellent oysters to be had in coastal communities throughout the country, but few can match the atmosphere of Tomales Bay Oyster Company (TBOC). Situated feet from the bay, the company farms their own oysters and sells them straight out of the water. Instead of simply grabbing a few dozen to go, however, you can sit down and shuck and eat ‘em right on the spot. There are picnic tables and grills set up for doing just that, and the staff even recommends camping out and making a picnic of it.
I arrived on a recent sunny Sunday for an early picnic lunch. There was only one other group sharing the space with us at 11 A.M., but the tables soon began to fill up with families, tourists, and groups of friends ready to camp out for the day. Most of the time, TBOC sells their own farmed oysters as well as a few varieties brought in from their partners on the Northwest coast. We showed up right after a few days of heavy rain, and because of the opportunity for contaminants to run off into the oyster beds, they were only selling oysters from Washington State. No matter. A bayside oyster is a bayside oyster—so we grabbed a dozen small Pacifics and a couple dozen Kumamotos.
As the other tables fired up their grills and laid out elaborate spreads of food, we dove in to our oysters with little more than our hands. All three of us favor raw oysters slurped straight off the shell, with no accompaniment save for a squeeze of lemon. Sure, we alternated with bites of bread, fruit, and crunchy vegetables. Beer was not forgotten. But this picnic considered the oyster above all.
The larger Pacific oysters were just small enough to suck down in one briny bite. These offered a bigger, bolder oyster flavor with smooth, creamy texture; like Gulf oysters, they could hold up well to grilling, Rockefeller-ing, and frying. Yet my heart lies with the Kumamoto. Pint sized and tricky to shuck, these thin-shelled specimens are milder than Pacifics, with a hint of salt and an undercurrent of buttery richness. The requisite lemon almost overwhelms the flavor of these babies; a gentle squirt is all that’s needed.
Still, the magic of TBOC is not in the taste of the actual oysters. Sure, each bite is as fresh as they come, but I’ve had oysters just as sweet in many a restaurant, served with fancy sauce or fried into cornmeal-crusted bliss. Instead the allure lies in the immediate act of shucking and sharing shellfish on the banks where they were grown. Much like grilling a freshly caught fish or eating string beans straight from the vine, this style of dining is the most direct, primal way to eat. In my mind, there is no better way to enjoy an oyster.