Aw, Shucks

This early bird gets the oyster


Last summer, during the worst of the wildfires, my husband and I took a trip to Olympic National Park. We stayed in a very full campground near the north end of Lake Cushman, where we spent most of our time swimming. It was so warm, we could float in the lake all day, watching through the smoky haze as local teens threw themselves off boulders into the dark blue water.

One afternoon, after a trip to Hoodsport in search of ice cream, we stopped at a beach on Hood Canal. It was low tide, and the water had receded to reveal an indescribable number of oysters — a living carpet. With the blessing of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (and a shellfish license), you’re entitled to 18 oysters per person, per day, as long as you shuck them on the beach and leave the shells behind to shelter the next generation. Of course, there’s no rule that says you can’t eat them right then and there.

But summer is the wrong time for oysters. When the ambient air temperature is in the low 90s, so are the oysters, and a 90° bivalve lacks the charm of its chilled counterpart. Plus, summer is when Vibrio —infectious bacteria that builds up in oyster tissue — is most common.

Yet Andy couldn’t resist. He shucked his fair share into a Tupperware, dutifully leaving the shells behind, and tucked it into our icy cooler next to the eggs and beer. The next morning, as Cub Scout troop chaperones ambled past our campsite on their way to the showers, we heated a cast-iron pan over the fire and slid in a few strips of bacon. As they crisped, in went the oysters — cooking kills Vibrio. Then we poured in four beaten eggs and moved the pan off to the side, letting the whole thing gently thicken into a kind of improvised Hangtown fry.

The Hangtown fry is a West Coast invention, named after the city of Hangtown, California, which goes by Placerville today. The dish’s primary ingredients — eggs, oysters, and bacon — deliver three slightly different shades of savory unctuousness, plus a welcome, rough-and-tumble suggestion of frontier luxury. It’s easy to understand why California gold miners spent their nuggets on plates of the stuff 150 years ago. Yet our oysters still tasted spawny, even under all that cured pork. We vowed to return when temperatures started to drop.

According to the tide tables, mid-April is the next time when minus tides and daylight line up on Hood Canal. We’re getting ready to hit the road. The packing list is already done: card table, folding chairs, E-Z UP tent, two oyster knives, our sturdiest rain gear, and a six-pack of Black Butte Porter, the world’s best oyster beer. We’ll set up shop in the intertidal zone and eat our 18 in the wan light of the midafternoon, springtime meteorological vagaries be damned. This time of year, no eggs or bacon will be required — just icy oysters, fresh from the beach, enjoyed as the rain tumbles down onto the slate-gray mirror of the Sound.

Summer camping trips are a delight, but there’s a special kind of pleasure that comes from being outside in the off-season — like being locked in a museum overnight. It’s cold, it’s dark, and you’re blissfully alone, with nobody to distract you from your own, private communion, except the gawky, squonking herons. Soon, the campgrounds will be packed once again, but right now? This early bird gets the oyster.

Margarett Waterbury is a writer and editor who lives in Portland, Oregon.

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