Barbecued Willapa Bay Oysters

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Serves

    4

    with about 1½ cups sauce

Appears in

Ninety percent of the Pacific West Coast’s oysters are raised in Washington and half of these are raised in Willapa Bay, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Because this is the heart of the canned oyster industry, the giant Pacific oyster has long suffered the contumely of discriminating oyster eaters such as M. F. K. Fisher, who refers unkindly to that “tinned steamed Japanese bastard from the coast.” Shucked, washed, tinned, and steamed oysters bear little relation to the fresh reality of any oyster large or small. But it is the blandness of these Pacific leviathans that critics attack, searching for the exquisite brini-ness of the wild Olympia or the Belon bastard from the coast of Brittany now being raised on the coasts of Maine and Pigeon Point, California.

In the early 1900s, the Pacific oyster, which even in its scientific name suggests something crassly gross, Crassostrea gigas, was rightly called the Japanese oyster because oyster seed from Japan had to be imported annually to replace the beds of native oysters depleted by the mouths of greedy gold miners. Oysters were farmed by the “cultch” method of Japan, where the seed is spread on empty oyster shells strung vertically and hung from platforms in tidal waters. Now, however, hybrid species spawn in Pendrell Sound, Hood Canal, and Quilcene and Willapa bays in Washington, in Yaquina Bay in Oregon, and in Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes, in northern California.

Because of its size and relative blandness, the Pacific oyster is ideal for the outdoor grill and barbecue sauce. The Pacific Coast is littered with roadside barbecue oyster stands that you recognize by the heaps of discarded shells outside the door, like kitchen middens on the rise. At the Oyster Creek Inn, near the Rock Point Oyster Company in Washington, I ate an oyster medley—oysters with vermouth and Parmesan cheese, with hollandaise and spinach, with shrimp and capers in a frothy cheese sauce. The cook was, in effect, treating these giants like poached chicken breasts. But I find I prefer stronger stuff like garlic-parsley butter, or Pernod-fennel sauce, or hot chili sauce. A recipe left over from Gold Rush days Helen Brown calls “Carpetbagger’s Steak,” and the California Cook Book (1925), an early regional book by Frances P. Belle, calls it “Spanish Steak with Oysters.” This is a good mouthful for Bunyanesque appetites, consisting of a large thick sirloin, smothered in poached Pacific oysters and covered with a hot chili sauce. Here I’ve omitted the steak and used a fresh red or green chili salsa.

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Ingredients

  • 12 Pacific oysters, unopened
  • 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped fine
  • ½ cup green onions, tops included, chopped fine
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeño or serrano chili, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • ¼ cup fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) butter, melted
  • lemon juice, black pepper, and Tabasco sauce to taste

Method

Crumple a large sheet of foil in a foil baking pan to make a nest for the oysters, placing the shells deep side down. Cover the pan with a sheet of foil large enough to form a sealed lid so that the oysters will steam inside. Place directly on the grill over hot coals or under a hot oven broiler. Medium oysters should open in about 6 minutes, large ones in 8 to 10 minutes.

For the sauce, mix together the prepared vegetables, pour the melted butter over, and taste for seasoning. Remove opened top shells and spoon on the hot sauce.