A Clean, Well-Lighted Oyster Bar

We were shucking oysters at the picnic tables at Hog Island Oyster Farm on Tomales Bay. The sun was low across the water and a web of light danced on our glasses.

“Is it like this in New York?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “You don’t do this in New York.” I handed her a Hog Island Sweetwater and she tilted it into her mouth and drank her wine. It was a rosé from a man in Sebastopol and it was cold and sharp and tasted faintly of strawberries.

“Why not?” she said. “Why would you eat oysters any other way?”

The light was very fine and the hills shone like tawny elk and the men from Hog Island were carrying bags of oysters from the boats up to the wet storage. “This is a good way,” I agreed.

I shucked another dozen oysters with the knife that was attached by a cord to the picnic table and we split them. The shadow from the hills across the bay had not quite reached us and the ice under the oysters was melting and they were getting a little warm, but that too was okay because we were outside.

“In New York they eat their oysters underground,” I said.

She shuddered a little and looked out at the water. “How could they?”

“Grand Central Station,” I said. “You eat the oysters at the oyster bar near the tracks as the trains come and go, and you sit at the old stools under the vaulted tile ceilings and drink martinis and it’s very loud. And then you catch your train.”

“And you like that?”

“Yes, because it’s a stillness within the busyness. Every oyster is a moment of stillness. And you enjoy the stillness and the knowledge that you are about to be busy.”

“That might be all right,” she said.

I opened the rest of the oysters and ordered another two dozen and some ice. “It’s more than all right,” I said. “Even before Grand Central, all the oyster cellars in New York were in basements. You’d see a candle-lit red balloon on the street and follow the steps down, and there would be sawdust on the floor. In New York oyster eating still feels illicit.”

She was watching the gulls fight over shells on the flats and thinking about the illicit people in New York eating their subterranean oysters. “I’d miss all this,” she said. “To me, the oysters and the place are one.” She was right. Even in San Francisco, the oyster bars are all glass and air. They are without fear.

“In New York the oysters and the place are not one,” I said. “The oysters should be from as far away as possible.” I opened the oyster and cut the muscle very carefully with my knife so I could see its heart beating coldly against its shell and I tipped it into my mouth and popped its belly. “New York is all boxes of escape.”

“Then why do you like it so?” she asked.

“Because they are such good boxes. In New York, I can eat oysters from Maine, Mexico, New Zealand. Chincoteague. Nootka Sound. California. Here, it’s all local.” I shucked another oyster and handed it to her and she stared at it for a while before swallowing.

“New York has no local oyster?”

“There is the Bluepoint. But it’s dredged from Long Island Sound, so it’s not that local, and you don’t want to think about it too much.”

“Does it taste like these oysters?” she asked.

“No. The Atlantic oyster tastes like wet rock. The Pacific oyster tastes like cucumber and kelp. It’s from Japan. It always tastes a little bit like Japan.”

“It’s not native?”

“No, it was brought here after we wiped out the little native oyster. That one is very hard to find now.”

“What does it taste like?”

“A little like licorice.”

“Everything tastes like licorice,” she said, “especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

“That’s the way with everything,” I said. “But perhaps you haven’t had the right absinthes.” She didn’t say anything. I shucked some more oysters and called for another dozen.

“Please stop shucking,” she said.

“Nonsense,” I said. “We’ve just started.” I held a Hog Island Sweetwater in my hand. The shell was black and purple and it had flared eaves like a pagoda. I thought about how the Bluepoint’s shell is thick and dull and built for the weather, like Cape Cod houses. “At Maison Premiere,” I said, “in New York, they have an absinthe fountain. And their absinthes from Switzerland taste like forest herbs. And when you drink them with bitter Belon oysters from Maine you lose the empty feeling and you begin to be happy and to make plans. That is something you can never do in California.”

“Because you never have the empty feeling.”

“Because you never have the empty feeling.” The water in the bay churned and I thought about the San Andreas Fault a few feet directly below. I shucked another dozen oysters, set them on the tray beside her, and drizzled some cilantro-jalapeno-lime mignonette over the top.

“I wonder what they put on their oysters in New York,” she said.

“Nada,” I said.

“How dreadful.”

“They used to use cocktail sauce,” I said, “but now it’s all nada y pues nada.”

“California has lots of good sauces,” she said.

“California has youth, and money, and sauces,” I said. “California has everything.”

“Perhaps you should move here,” she said. “They all move here eventually. Even Mark Bittman.”

She put an oyster in her mouth and swallowed very slowly. Everybody in California eats their oysters as if they had all day. In New York you eat your oysters fast, reaching for them as if they were knots on a lifeline, reeling yourself toward whatever is at the end of a lifetime of oyster eating.

“There’s something you need to understand,” I said. “In the Northeast, the oysters are at their best on the winter solstice. It gets dark at five o’clock. A New York oyster bar needs to be well-lighted, so the ice sparkles beneath the oysters. It needs to make good martinis. It must be clean and orderly. And it must stay open late, in case there is someone who needs it. I am of those who like to stay late at the oyster bar.”

I shucked another oyster and handed it to her. She set it down on the tray. “Would you do something for me now?” she asked.


“Would you please please please please please please please stop shucking.”

We didn’t say anything for a while.

“I am of those who like to leave the oyster bar early,” she said at last. “So we can do sunset asanas on the beach at Point Reyes.” The gulls suddenly erupted into the air. “Because I don’t do scarcity thinking. There will always be more sunsets, and more oysters, and this place will always be here waiting for us, and whenever we come we’ll have such a damned good time.”

The water was sloshing in the bay. I watched our oysters quivering in their shells. “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I’m a crossing guard at the intersection of Food, Adventure, and Natural Systems.

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