Top | First Person

Aw, shucks

(article, Vanessa McGrady)

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We had Tom Sawyer summers. My brother, cousins, and I would run wild around Lilliwaup, population 600, on one of the soggiest patches of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. We’d spook ourselves silly at the tiny ancient graveyard tucked away in the wooded hills, swearing we felt the presence of ancestral spirits. We’d splash around the Lilliwaup creek while our dads, decked in hip waders, fished for trout and kept telling us to either be quiet or go away. Most of all, we kids had lots of uninterrupted time to build alliances and to develop exquisite methods of torturing each other, without adult interference. Until it came time to eat. 

[%image beach float=left width=350 caption="Shellfish at the seashore." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/FrankyDeMeyer"]

It was up to us to head out to the tide flats and collect oysters and clams for dinner from our family’s rocky beach, lousy with barnacles and goon greens. When the adults called us in, we’d whine and come up with all kinds of elaborate physical handicaps to get us out of the chore. And we were good, inventing elaborate new limps and alarming ailments. Oh, we were good. But not good enough to fool our dads, who had grown up collecting oysters and clams on the very same beach, and who had likely come up with the very same excuses for their parents. 

So off we’d go, sloshing out in big leaky boots, the tops rubbing raw against our bare legs, water making its way in through pinholes in the rubber. Each of us was armed with a bucket or two and the directive to fill them. Full. We learned all kinds of tricks to make the work fly by faster. That a clump of oysters, struck just so with a hammer, will happily separate. That clams like to live three or four inches under rocky oyster beds. That those cute tiny crabs really do bite, and it hurts. They do not make good pets.

When it came time for dinner, we’d happily devour the clams, steamed in their own juice with celery and onions. The oysters, however, were another story, and unless they were enveloped in a thick batter and fried beyond recognition, we wouldn’t touch them. In time, of course, everything changed. Treks to the graveyard began to involve beer drinking and inappropriate companions, and we’d look forward to eating Uncle Seamus’ delicate, buttery oyster stew. Eventually, I succumbed to the seduction of the oyster, the way it glistens in its little bath, the way it sidles down my throat. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Have shucking knife, will shuck." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/joanek"]

I also enjoyed the cachet that came along with knowing the ways of bivalves. I remember hauling 10 gallons of Lilliwaup oysters to a hipster party in a Seattle loft. There were many arty square-glasses people there, with exotic names like Ruvane and Colm. There I was, in my velvet-and-taffeta, spaghetti-strap, Betsey Johnson cocktail dress, sipping champagne, looking like I was about to run away with the Follies. Well, except for the thick suede-palmed work gloves. I posed ever so fetchingly with an oyster knife. And I began to shuck. 

Eventually, some of the arty square-glasses people drew toward me, and I managed to Tom Sawyer them into twisting the knife just so into the secret sweet spot, at about five o’clock with the hinge at noon. I moved on to make a sauce of butter, shallots, and whatever champagne I hadn’t chugged, cooked over low heat until the shallots became translucent. Everyone felt accomplished that night. From what I can remember.

Two years ago I moved to Los Angeles, a town where you can get almost anything on a moment’s notice. Lear jet? Not a problem. Clooney? I’m sure I know someone who has him on speed dial. But Lilliwaup oysters? That’s a dilemma. There are no delivery services that will guarantee overnight delivery from those boondocks, and even if they did, I’d be afraid of the debt I’d owe Uncle Seamus for trudging out there in the middle of the night. 

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Featured recipe

Oyster Stew, Lilliwaup Style

The taste of this stew makes all the hard work feel worth it. 

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I suppose I’ll have to wait until the next family gathering to get my fill of Lilliwaup oysters. And rope little cousins Eirik, 8, and Bjorn, 5, into “helping.”

p(bio). Vanessa McGrady misses living in a place where you can get fresh king salmon at the grocery store for $5.99 a pound. But she is all over the Southern California fish taco. A version of this essay originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer._


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