Oyster Shucking

Tomales Bay resides just South of Sonoma County’s coastal border. There, the summertime crowds line up in undulating throngs along its Eastern bank. They gather in the deep fog that forms between the Petaluma hills and the Point Reyes dairy farms and stay to be blistered in the noon day 90 degree temperatures which spill over the hilly spines of the long Sonoma and Petaluma valleys, drawn by the great heat suck of the Pacific Ocean. There isn’t a winery for miles, so why come? As the tide exits and the heat rises the mud flats loan the air a perfume of wet dog. All along Highway-One, there are flashes of Ferrari red and yellow in the deep blue-green of the twisted cypress trees. Laughter rings across the water, raising Blue Herons. Small barges pull alongside over crowed restaurant patios, driven by men in thick rubber waders, delivering the bay’s treasures in thick rubber buckets, Oysters.

Tomales Bay is the negative space created by the friction of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates rubbing against one another. Over millennia the Pacific plate has pushed farther North into the sea building the great diamond head of Point Reyes. The waters that rushed in to fill the scar of the fault made Tomales bay. In the South, the Petaluma River enters the long narrow bay and dumps its silt, creating vast mud flats. Near the Northern end of Tomales are two small islands, Hog and Duck. Past these, the mud flats deepen and eventually drop off into the cold and notoriously sharky water of Bodega Bay. Just West in the bay is where Sir Francis Drake beached during his trans global voyage.

More locally to the bay, Hog Island is famous for the specific variety of oysters the mudflats grow and for the mythical hog colony which started there after a ship exporting pigs caught fire and crashed, letting its cargo run wild. The parking lots of the town Tomales are as likely to be filled with gun rack toting Fords as they are to host the rearing horses of European made sportscars. But closer inspection of the two-acre Hog Island suggest it couldn’t support a single hog, much less a herd, and the local farmers are all generally friendly to oyster lovers.

Seen from its profile, the oyster looks very comparable to that of a time weathered whale, with its narrow top shell and potbellying bottom shell. The comparison does not stop there. Like a whale, the oyster feeds by drawing water between its lips and filtering out plankton. Its preferred hunting grounds are shallow watered estuaries that stay warm and provide oysters with constantly refreshed water to strip of plankton. Tomales, while small in terms of oyster estuaries, is ideal with its long shallow expanses of bottom. In many places, skinny wooden poles extend from the water like mooring posts forever waiting on a ship to return. The poles stake bag after bag of oysters to the soft bottom and stop them escaping into the wild. On a calm day, it is not uncommon to see small sailing craft moving from South to North with the wind disturbed by waddling brutish little barges charging up and down the estuary, ferrying these bulging mesh bags, recently unstaked, to the waiting maws of nearby diners.

In their final purgatory, the oysters are gracefully shucked and laid out bare to the world over a sandy beach of rock salt. Kept in the ocean until the last possible moment, these oysters are another expression of the deeply historical roots in the area between farmers and a crop.

By Sam Styles

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