Hama Hama On the Half Shell
A 5th-generation family shellfish farm harvests the merroir of the Hood Canal.
STORY BY NICOLE CAPOZZIELLO
“My husband sometimes teases me about having the same job my whole life — but it’s kind of true,” laughs Lissa James Monberg. Lissa, like her older brothers and cousins, was born on the Olympic Peninsula and raised a farm kid — well, an oyster farm kid.
Lissa is part of the 5th generation in the family business Hama Hama. One of the most recognizable names in Washington oyster farming, the Hood Canal operation regularly pops up at farmers markets and on the menu at top seafood restaurants like Coastal Kitchen and Renee Erickson’s famous The Walrus and the Carpenter.
The June day that I head out to Hama Hama, the sky is overcast, a saturated hue so familiar that it could simply be called Pacific Northwest Gray. The wildlife — herons, eagles, seals — don’t seem to mind the clouds — and neither do the people at Hama Hama. Customers — some local, some just passing through — order oysters to go from the store or sit outside at the Oyster Saloon, chatting while enjoying local brews and roasted oysters.
In the 1890s, Lissa’s great-great-grandfather, Daniel Miller Robbins, purchased the land on which Hama Hama sits. Daniel’s son started a timber company in 1922, which the family still runs today. Then, in the ’50s, Lissa’s maternal grandfather, Bart Robbins, waded into the oyster business.
Washington was unique among the coastal states in that it allowed people who owned upland property to buy the adjacent tideland property. And this was by design: In the early 20th century, Washington wanted to foster an oyster industry. “And it worked,” Lissa says. “Washington has the biggest farmed shellfish operation in the nation.”
Today, Hama Hama is incorporated, with around 50 shareholders, but it’s still very much a family-run operation. Lissa’s brother, Tom, recently completed his doctorate in forestry and is taking over the logging aspect of the business, while his wife, Kendra, is Hama Hama’s president. Lissa’s brother Adam is the oyster farmer, and Lissa handles the retail operations and marketing. “My mom’s trying desperately to retire, but she does our shopping on Mondays,” Lissa says.
Photos of the Robbins clan through the ages cover the walls of the store and its back room serving not only as a testament to the family’s way of life for generations, but also as a timeline of the beach and the land on which they’ve built their lives. “We love growing shellfish because, basically, all it takes is clean seawater and sunshine,” says Lissa.”
Oyster farming at Hama Hama starts with buying oyster seed from a local hatchery, usually Taylor Shellfish Farms. Even though the entire hatching process lasts a mere two weeks, the hatchery is a labor-intensive, scientific part of the operation, as well as the only phase where you have to feed the animals. It’s also the only phase Hama Hama does not do themselves.
“We buy oysters when they’re the size of quinoa or smaller, and then we nurse them until they’re about a half-inch,” Lissa says. From the beginning, oysters grow at different rates, so the crew at Hama Hama is always rinsing and sorting them according to size. From there, the crew either scatters the oysters directly on the beach to become Hama Hamas, or they place them in a tumble bag to become Blue Pool oysters.
Both are the same species (Pacifics) but their differences come from their growing environments and diets. The tumbling gives Blue Pools a smooth shell and deep cup, whereas Hama Hama oysters are rugged and wavy, a product of their rough beach upbringing. Aside from appearance, the different environments also give the oysters access to different food, in the form of different communities of algae. Depending on conditions, the oysters then take anywhere from two to seven years to grow.
When it comes time to harvest oysters, Hama Hama is at the whim of the seasons — in the summer, harvesting oysters only from places that stay cold year-round — as well as the tides. At each day’s two low tides, crews head out to collect oysters, via beach and barge.
“People who work the barge or who work on the beach, their whole schedule changes every day,” says Lissa. “The entire rhythm of the wholesale operation changes with the tides.”
On shore, the oysters are stored in tanks of cool water, which the farm pumps in from the Hood Canal. From there, Hama Hama, sorts, assesses, rinses, and, finally, sells their oysters to restaurants up and down the West Coast.
The much-esteemed name and, of course, the oysters’ flavor, comes from how and where they’re grown — a concept known as merroir. Merroir is to oysters what terroir is to wine; in French, the word “mer” means sea.
Lissa borrows her oyster-tasting framework from Rowan Jacobsen, author of the James Beard Award–winning A Geography of Oysters. He breaks down the experience of eating oysters into three phases: salinity, body, and finish. Salinity is determined by the salt content of the growing region, as well as the condition of the oyster; if an oyster is skinny, say, there’s more room for seawater, or liqueur, in the shell. Body can be “abstract or prosaic,” says Lissa, but is most often experienced as its texture (chewiness, softness, etc.), which gives us a glimpse of the oyster’s diet. Oysters that grow up in a nutrient-rich environment tend to be fattier and heftier.
Finish is where the oyster can sing, sometimes subtly cucumbery or melon-like, other times reminiscent of mushroom or kelp. The finish is the culmination of how, where, and when it was grown. Contributing factors can range from the microalgae the oyster’s been eating to the shift in water temperature through the seasons. Hama Hama oysters, for instance, tend to be sweeter in the spring and brinier in the fall and winter.
On site in Lilliwaup, as well as around the Pacific Northwest, Hama Hama conducts classes, discussing the basics of where oysters come from, teaching participants how to shuck, and then proceeding through a raw oyster tasting. The retail store has been around since the 1970s, open daily for customers to buy a bag of fresh oysters, house-smoked oysters and salmon, live and cooked crab (when available), local cheese, or an adorable piece of Hama Hama merchandise. They’ve also started shipping oysters direct to the purchaser.
The Oyster Saloon is a more recent addition. Built in 2014, the outdoor space has become a popular hangout, where customers select from roasted oysters with three kinds of butter, oysters on the half shell, and Lissa’s mom’s crab cakes. This summer, the saloon added a seasonal Sunday brunch, featuring fried oyster benedicts and mimosas.
Every spring, Hama Hama hosts its Oyster Rama, a community celebration that consistently sells out, often just a few days after the tickets go on sale. The event, which last year drew 1,500 people, includes education, U-pick oysters and clams, live music, and a gutsy oyster-sports competition called the Shuckathalon.
Following this year’s festivities, Lissa collected feedback from Rama attendees, who said their favorite part of it all was simply being out on the beach. And it’s easy to understand why. As I walked the beach with Lissa, I saw seals and ducks near the dock. Above me, the sky was dotted with so many bald eagles that I stopped counting. “Up that way is a heron rookery,” says Lissa, gesturing to a part of the Hamma Hamma River, flanked by the small iconic bridge that is Hama Hama’s logo.
“Bringing people out here helps you see it with new eyes,” says Lissa. Going to Hama Hama, and eating one of their oysters, gives visitors a unique connection to the very place their food was raised. “I like eating lots of different kinds of raw oysters and usually I like ours best. But I think some of that is nostalgia — I love the way this place tastes when you taste it through an oyster.”
Nicole Capozziello grew up in her family’s Italian restaurant in Wisconsin. She is a freelance writer and a tour guide at Theo Chocolate.