Gathering oysters is easy. All you need is an agreeable tide, a bountiful site, a bucket and a good pair of work gloves. Shucking is the hard part, but I’m getting better. Part of this success is in the learning of which oysters to pick up and which ones to leave. Oysters often grow in clumps, cemented together by their magical calcium glue.
Clumped oysters are much harder to open than singles. I look for independent shells about three to five inches long. An oyster must be at least two and a half inches long to be legal, and I’ve seen shells as big as a foot long. In the oyster world, bigger is not better. Huge oysters taste strong, are full of green goo, and hard to eat, almost gag-worthy. Small ones are mild and sweet, containing only a small portion of goo.
I also search for barnacle free specimens. Barnacle incrusted shells are sharp and awkward to handle. Grip is everything in the shucking process. I grow queasy with the thought of a shell slipping free, allowing the rusty shucking blade to sink into the palm of my hand. This is a common accident amongst newbies on the oyster beach, especially for those opting for makeshift tools. Nothing ruins a beach day like a screwdriver through the palm.
Shells that seem single are seldom independent of piggy backers. A careful scrutiny reveals tiny lumps tucked within the rigid folds of a host oyster shell. These lumps are seeds or baby oysters, and if left undamaged, will grow to be something delicious. This is why shucking on the beach is important. Leaving the piggy backers ensures future abundance.
It was a perfect day for the beach. Snow caps of the Olympic Mountains melted into blue skies littered with stretches of cloud fluff. Douglas fir tops swayed in a gentle wind and hugged the shoreline, creating a blackish-green fringe along the steel-gray canal. I walked out on the oyster-laden spit. It was impossible to take a step without treading on the millions of shells packed several feet deep constructing the nature-made jetty. I picked a nice spot near the water, sat on a small white bucket and shucked. I didn’t need to move about the beach to scavenge. Hundreds of limits waited within arms-reach around the circumference of my bucket.
I shucked the first oyster into a plastic pint container and tossed the shell into the surf. Game on. Jasper ran into the waves to retrieve. He didn’t find the one particular shell I tossed, but he found something better. He pulled up a heavy rock plastered with four vertical oysters. I’d never seen him do anything like this. He held tight to his prize, lugging it from the water and dropping it at my feet.
The rock was heavy, close to 10lbs. You can see it in his mouth in the above photo. I shucked the four oysters off the rock but didn’t throw the shells. I worried Jasper would cut his mouth by carrying them or his feet by running in the surf.
Jasper went back into the water anyway. I watched him study the oysters beneath the surface before dunking in his head and pulling up a mouthful. He did this over and over again, retrieving several clumps for me to shuck. Even though I prefer singles to clumps, I processed his gifts, so not to offend.
Jim had come to the beach too. He doesn’t eat oysters, but I wanted his company, and I needed his hands and his limit allowance. Another eighteen oysters makes the trip out to my secret spot worthwhile. He was a good sport but complained a little bit, “This is an awful lot of work for these slimy things.” There's no middle ground when it comes to oysters. People either love them or refuse to put them in their mouths. I joked around with Jim, giving him my grandpa's old line, "Eat em up. They'll put lead in your pencil." I never knew what that meant as a kid. But the promise of a leaded pencil was not enough to entice Jim to even try a bite.
Together Jim and I shucked 36 oysters, mostly from the clumps delivered by Jasper. One limit will be eaten fresh and the other will be frozen for a future oyster stew. Jim will have Johnsonville Brats on those nights, or maybe a turkey burger. I don’t mind preparing separate meals on oyster nights. Jim’s oyster abstinence leaves more for me and the boys.
Jasper’s new trick amazed me. After the first bit of praise, he was back in the water to work, to help in a way I never thought possible. It wasn’t a fluke, or at least I don’t think so. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Now I just need to teach him how to select barnacle-free singles of a particular size. I wonder what else is possible…