Update 12/6/11 – Tickets for the Walrus & Carpenter Picnic Dec. 21, 2011, Jan. 7, 2012, and Feb. 6, 2012 are on sale now.
Armed with head-to-toe rain gear, a head lamp and an oyster knife, I set out with a bus load of other hungry adventurers on a chilly December night to experience the ultimate in oyster eating.
The Walrus & Carpenter Picnic is a venture organized by Jon Rowley in conjunction with Taylor Shellfish Farms and named after Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Walrus & The Carpenter. It takes place on just a few dates during the coldest months of the year with the goal of creating the ultimate oyster eating experience. If you’re envisioning a glamorous dining room, elegant fireplace, fancy crystal stemware and an exquisite selection of fresh oysters on the half shell served on silver trays by white-gloved waiters you’re on the right track, sort of. Just add a Northwest-style twist; Gortex, REI-gear, and trundling about on a beach during low tide, which happened to be at 10 p.m.
This isn’t just any beach we went to, but a beach cultivated by Taylor Shellfish Farms on the prized Totten Inlet. Renown for producing some of the best tasting oysters in the country. Much the way terrior reflects the taste of the land and is associated with the nuances of flavor found in wine. Merior reflects the taste of the sea and is the term used to describe the unique flavor of an oyster based on the waters in which it grew. Jon Rowley and Greg Atkinson coined the term to acknowledge the importance of place with regard to shellfish. Temperature, mineral content, water salinity and the food available to bivalves directly impacts their flavor, and lucky for us the waters in the Northwest producing award-winning shellfish.
Like any respectable event, the Walrus & Carpenter Picnic has a mascot. When feasting on some of the best oysters in the world it’s important to not take yourself too seriously. The oyster costume made the rounds and was the catalyst for much silliness.
Braced for rain, wind and bone-chilling cold, we arrived at Totten Inlet to find calm crisp air with the temperature hovering around 37˚F and no rain. Not only did we have dry weather, but the skies were clear enough for the full moon to bathe the beach in beautiful light. The water in the inlet was like glass. Seeing the faint silhouettes of boats anchored off the shore I felt like I’d just stepped into a jigsaw puzzle picture.
A roaring bonfire welcomed us to the beach and pop-up tents were ready to serve wine and shucked oysters. We had it all; an elegant fire, wine served in Riedel stemware, an exquisite selection of the freshest oysters, and a quite beach which is one of the most glamerous dining rooms I can think of. Yes, this was going to be the ultimate oyster eating experience.
For a warm-up my friends and I decided to start with a shucked oyster served from one of the tents. I picked a Kumamoto and sucked it off the shell. The flavor was sweet and clean and the texture was remarkable; delicate, tender, and firm. How it can be all three I can’t explain, but this first taste was exciting. After our warm-up oyster we instinctively reached for our oyster knives and wondered off down the beach for more.
My first taste of an oyster plucked from the beach was a bit of a revelation. Just as fresh and crisp as the oysters served up under the tents on a bed of ice, but not having been rinsed they had the earthy aroma and briny taste of seawater. The salty accent was slightly pungent adding a stronger mineral note that made these oysters like none I’d ever tasted. The occasional touch of grit from sand only added to the experience. I was happy to wander the oyster beds and shuck my own from here on out.
Oysters were everywhere at our feet and with a quick lesson from the experts of Taylor Shellfish Farms we were able to easily identify which variety we were picking up.
Four of the five basic types of oysters were on this beach. Kumamotos (Crassostera sikamea) are rather small and have a deep bowl-like shape to the shell with distinct ridges fanning out from the hinge to the broad edge. Pacifics (Crassostrea gigas) had a remarkably sweet flavor and were easily identifiable by the shell’s fluted edge and flatter shell compared to Kumamotos. Virginicas (Crassostrea virginica) were the largest oysters with a relativly flat smooth pear shaped shell. The tastes and textures of the varieties were identifiably unique and whatever I was eating at the moment seemed to be my favorite. The tiny Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida or Ostrea conchaphila) are the only oyster native to the North American West Coast, but I never managed to find one myself so I enjoyed a few of them complements of the pro-shuckers stocking the ice tray under the tents.
Our free-range oyster eating was only interrupted periodically to warm up by the fire. I did try to pace myself as I’ve never tested the limit of my oyster consumption capacity and didn’t want to unknowingly cross the line tonight. The evening wrapped up with a lovely bowl of Oyster Stew made by Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House. Even though we’d been devouring raw oysters on the beach all evening the oyster stew was enthusiastically received and universally praised. If you happen to find yourself in Shelton, WA I recommend having a bowl of Xinh’s oyster stew.
This truly unique, deliciously enjoyable adventure came to an end and I crawled into bed happy, sleepy, and dreamt of the sea all night. Sunday came and went in a usual way. Come Monday morning I noticed I just didn’t have an appetite because I felt somewhat nauseous. This lasted all day and the next. The question of what eating this many oysters might do to me that had flashed through my mind while standing on the beach as I was sucking and eating, shucking and eating, had returned.
Curious about the nutritional makeup of an oyster I turned to the internet. I’d always thought they were a good source of zinc, but didn’t fully appreciate how good a source they were. It seems that six oysters have 76.3 mg of zinc. To put this in perspective the next highest ranking source of zinc is a 3 ounce serving of beef coming in at 6 mg. With the recommended daily allowance of zinc for an adult woman set at 8 mg, I clearly blew that requirement out of the water. I don’t know how many oysters I ate, but it was quite likely three dozen (or more) which would shoot my zinc intake up to 457.8 mg. After doing a little reading up on zinc toxicity my symptoms of nausea, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite were beginning to make sense. Other common signs of zinc toxicity include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and joint pain. According to Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute’s micronutrient research, a single dose of 225-450 mg of zinc usually induces vomiting. Thankfully I didn’t go there. By Wednesday, most of the excessive zinc was apparently gone because I was feeling better and my appetite returned.
My suspicion of self-induced zinc toxicity has in no way diminished the fun I had at the Walrus & Carpenter Picnic, or turned me off from oysters in the slightest. I’ll just keep track of my oyster consumption in the future.
Bill Dewey demonstrates how to shuck an oyster.