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A Visit to the Hog Island Oyster Company
By Janis Cooke Newman
"It looks disgusting," 7-year-old Harper tells her dad.
"Just suck it in," he advises.
She presses her lips against the ruffled shell he's holding out and slurps up a raw oyster.
"What do you think?" he asks.
"Mumgh...mumgh," Harper says, holding the raw oyster in her mouth and looking frantically at the ground.
"Over there," her dad tells her, "behind that boat."
With a wet sound, she spits out the oyster, wiping her tongue with the back of her hand.
"Would you like to try one?" I ask my 5-year-old son, Alex.
"Yuck," he says, disappearing behind a wheelbarrow full of oyster shells.
The setting for this sophisticated little culinary drama is the Hog Island Oyster Company in the seaside town of Marshall. We've come -- five couples and two kids -- to celebrate a 40-something birthday with vast quantities of raw bivalves. On the picnic table is a cooler filled with Lagunitas Amber Ale, several bowls of dirty rice and Cajun coleslaw, and one hundred Hog Island oysters -- pretty much all the grownups need to have a good time. The kids might be another story.
Fortunately, the Hog Island Oyster Company sits beside a wide flat beach, and before we can even uncover the mignonette (dipping sauce for the oysters), Alex and Harper have grabbed Alex's dog and are ankle deep in the briny-smelling mud. The more dexterous of the grownups start shucking the oysters, with knives provided by Hog Island. Meanwhile, somebody else lights the coals in an old round-bellied Weber, also provided by Hog Island.
Across from our table, a lone white horse stands grazing on a green hill, unaware that he's right on the edge of being a cliché. Out past where the dog is rolling in seaweed is the blue-green water of Tomales Bay -- the same bay the raw oyster currently sliding over my tongue was swimming in just this morning.
"Look what I found!" Alex exclaims, putting another batch of muddy oyster shells in my backpack. On a busy day, Hog Island sells around 15,000 oysters, and the ground in the picnic area is white with their bleached shells.
I take Alex over to a tin-roofed building to buy a couple dozen kumamotos, tiny sweet-tasting oysters with frilled shells. While we wait our turn, we watch a woman in rubber overalls sorting oysters by size. Her gloved hands dance above a wooden table, dealing oysters into bushels like a croupier at a blackjack table.
Back at the barbecue, one couple is salsa dancing to Brazilian music blaring out of speakers hung above the tubs of oysters and Manila clams. The 40-something birthday boy is busy covering the smoking grill with oysters on the half shell, filling each one with his secret ingredient: Safeway Select barbecue sauce. We've already lost the bottle opener, and Harper's dad is showing us how he can open beer using the neck of a water bottle.
"That's amazing," somebody tells him.
"How can you tell if something is art?" he asks.
"You can't open a beer with it."
I eat a barbecued oyster. It's smoky and salty, and the Safeway Select is tangy and sweet. Out near the shoreline, Alex and Harper are climbing around on a beached oyster boat. The dog is rolling around on a dead fish.
"Can I have more of that forbidden rice?" asks one of our literary friends.
"Dirty rice," somebody else corrects him, piling his plate high with rice and beans and bits of andouille sausage.
I get Harper's dad to open another Lagunitas Amber for me and watch the sun sending shadows on the Hog Island buildings, pale yellow clapboard with green trim and Christmas lights. Behind the buildings lean groves of cypress trees, permanently bent into shape by the wind.
"Now look what I found!" Alex shouts. In his palm is a tiny crab, no bigger than his fingernail.
"Hey, Harper," says her dad, "do you want to try a barbecued oyster?"
Reluctantly, she spears an oyster from the grill and puts it in her mouth, chewing with her eyes closed.
"What do you think?" her dad asks.
"I like it," she tells him. "It tastes just like chicken."
Hog Island Driving and Dipping Directions
The Hog Island Oyster Company (415-663-9218) is located on Highway 1 in Marshall, about 15 minutes north of Point Reyes Station. (Allow an hour and a half from Noe Valley.) Hog Island is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oysters cost $7 to $10 a dozen, or $45 to $60 for 100 count, depending on size. Hog Island provides the picnic tables and barbecues. You provide the charcoal and the rest of the food and drink. Well-behaved dogs are welcome. Bring an extra set of clothes for your kids-- it's muddy out there.
While I like my raw oysters served in their own brine, you might want to try dipping them in Hog Island's mignonette. Here's the recipe:
1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/2 cup unseasoned (natural) rice vinegar
Juice of 2 limes
2 jalapeño chilies, seeded and finely diced
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
Mix all above ingredients and serve in a bowl with a small spoon alongside two to three dozen small shucked Hog Island sweetwater or Hog Island kumamoto oysters. If making Hog Wash ahead, add cilantro just before serving.
-- Janis Cooke Newman