Most memorable meals, take four: oysters and earthquakes

Hog Island Oyster Co., Marshall

As some of you know, Heather and I have spent the last two weeks in a rented cottage in Point Reyes Station, about an hour north of San Francisco. This is, I think, the longest vacation the two of us have taken together since our honeymoon, and it’s been a little unsettling to be away from home for such a stretch. But the beauty of western Marin County—the wild coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore, the placid expanse of Tomales Bay, the rolling hills, the towering eucalyptus and Monterey cypress trees—is utterly overwhelming, and we have found ourselves entranced.

It is impossible, however, to be in this part of the world and not have a sense, no matter how deeply buried in the unconscious, of impermanence. Tomales Bay, after all, is a visible marker of the San Andreas Fault, and the Next Big One could hit at any time. It’s always there, that nagging knowledge that this landscape, this place, is every bit as temporary as we are; eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may be at the bottom of the ocean, or buried under rubble. I think that sublimated dread adds a poignant savor to all aspects of life, including the food, for what is more temporary than a meal? Growing and harvesting and preparing the animals and plants we eat can take years; and yet, once they appear on our plates, they are gone in a matter of minutes.

And make no mistake: for foodies, the Bay Area, and Marin County in particular, is truly the Promised Land. This is a region ferociously dedicated to the idea of local, sustainable, organic food; in fact, we have concluded that any area restaurant that does not display a “Marin Organic” sign is probably doomed to failure. The dairy farms in West Marin are legendary; the fruits and vegetables are astonishingly various and beautiful (we saw gorgeous tomatoes and carrots, squash and beets, all on offer at the same time at the Point Reyes Farmers Market); and the bread—well, this is the homeland of San Francisco sourdough, after all. ’Nuff said.

Seafood, too, is available in mind-boggling abundance. I have probably eaten more raw oysters in the last two weeks than I had in my entire previous life: at Ferry Plaza Seafood in the San Francisco Ferry Building; at the Farm House Restaurant in Olema, a couple of miles down Highway 1; at the Station House Café, in Point Reyes Station; at Saltwater, on the west shore of Tomales Bay in Inverness. And we haven’t even been to what is probably my favorite restaurant in the whole world, Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco.

But the apotheosis of oysters is the legendary Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, about ten miles up Highway 1 on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay. Last week, coincidentally, our pal Jesse Griffiths of Austin’s Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club was in the Bay Area, staying with friends in Oakland. Jesse has just published his first book, a beautiful volume called Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish, chock-full of charming stories, delicious recipes, step-by-step instructions, and stunning photographs (including some of Madroño Ranch!) by Jody Horton, and last Tuesday made an in-store appearance (which we attended, of course) at the Tyler Florence Shop in Mill Valley to promote the book.

Jesse had last Friday free, and agreed to drive up for lunch with us. We agreed to meet at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station to load up on picnic supplies and then head up to Hog Island.

At Cowgirl, of course, Jesse immediately recognized the young woman behind the counter as a former co-worker at Austin’s Vespaio (“she was always into cheese,” he recalled, which must be an understatement). We picked up a dark, crusty Brickmaiden baguette, a round of Cowgirl’s new seasonal Chimney Rock cheese, a salame al tartufo from Creminelli, a bottle of white wine, and an Earl Grey panna cotta for Heather and hit the road for Marshall.

Tomales Bay from Hog Island Oyster Co.

At Hog Island you can order your fresh shellfish, claim a picnic table overlooking Tomales Bay, and smugly ponder those unfortunate souls who have to live anywhere else in the world. Because Heather wasn’t really into the whole raw oyster thing, we ordered only a couple of dozen—one each of Kumamotos and extra-small sweetwaters—and claimed one end of a picnic table out back. (The friendly couple at the other end of the table looked enviously at our wine and bread and cheese and complimented us on our foresight.) It was a typical West Marin day; the morning had been foggy, but now the sun was out, the temperature was in the upper 70s, and a gentle breeze was blowing in off the sparkling light blue bay.

The oysters appeared atop a bed of rock salt on a plastic tray, with an oyster knife attached by a chain and a rubber glove for shucking purposes. Jesse took charge of the shucking, I poured the wine (we appropriated three styrofoam cups from the bar) and sliced the salame and cheese (using Jesse’s own oyster knife; he never leaves home without one), and we sat in the sun for an hour or so, elbows propped on the rough wood of the picnic table, eating and drinking and dropping empty oyster shells into the wire basket at our feet—not, perhaps, the most elegant meal we’ve ever consumed, but surely one of the most enjoyable. All around us people busily slurped their own shellfish, drank beer, grilled eggplant and chicken, and patted their dogs.

Jesse Griffiths at Hog Island Oyster Co.

Raw oysters are, I grant you, an acquired taste. Some people never get the hang of it—the trick is to open the throat and let the little bugger just slide on down—but these were delicious. We ate them unadorned, with no mignonette or barbecue sauce or horseradish or Tabasco, and they were perfect: briny, sweet, smooth, plump. The wine was cool and crisp, the bread perfect (dark crust, with a firm hand), the cheese (from Jersey cow milk, washed in wine, and covered with dried organic mushrooms, savory, and black pepper) was soft and delicious, the conversation far ranging and lively, and the setting, of course, almost impossibly beautiful.

For me, at least, the combination of being back in the part of the world in which I grew up, with my beloved Heather and our good friend Jesse, felt like a stitching together of my life. It was integrative, if I may lapse into Marinspeak, in the best way, even though I knew it couldn’t last. Our two weeks out here have been utterly amazing, but on Sunday we fly back to Austin, back to our real lives, and it will be good to be home again. These last few months have brought more than their share of challenges, and more challenges doubtless lie ahead. But on this day, sitting in the sun sharing a delicious meal with dear companions, in this most beautiful of settings, was enough. More than enough.

What we’re reading
Mary Roach (ed.), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011
Martin: Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

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6 Responses to Most memorable meals, take four: oysters and earthquakes

  1. Tinky says:

    We do have great local food here in western Massachusetts-but I will allow myself to be a teensy bit jealous of this trip. Or maybe just happy FOR YOU that you had it … and happy for me that I can participate in the lovely landscape and edibles by reading your account.

  2. Ginny says:

    Your description is so vivid I can taste those briny Pacific oysters myself! Enjoy, beloveds, enjoy!

  3. Kevin says:

    So happy that you two have had this time, in this place, together and mostly alone. Cannot imagine a better, nor more deserved, therapy for you both. Safe travels home. Will look forward to seeing you back in Austin.

  4. Dinnis says:

    Oysters from Marin; like French kisses from a mermaid.

    Good wishes to you from Friday night at Leadership Pilgrimage.
    Best news of all is we have rain in Texas all over Madroño.

    Cheers and safe travels,

  5. Gwen says:

    Ah, thank you for sharing your trip with us. I’m in need of a vacation far away from Texas and now I feel I have been on one. Your descriptive writing is a gift to all who read your blog. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.

  6. Joybells says:

    You could be a food writer, man. These descriptions made my dog AND me start drooling! Thanks for taking us on your vacation with you!

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