Food Travel: Walrus and Carpenter Oyster Picnics
If you're a fan of these…
And you like adventure, there's no better place to find yourself on a brisk January or February night than Washington state's lonely Totten Inlet, stumbling along a muddy oyster bed at low tide, wine glass in one hand, oyster knife in the other, plucking, shucking, and slurping any oyster that happens to look just right within the glow of your headlamp.
It's called the Walrus and Carpenter Picnic, and it's both a rite of passage and wintertime ritual for a growing number of the oyster obsessed in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Organizers of this fundraiser (host Taylor Shellfish and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund) bill it as the ultimate oyster experience. After the thrill of devouring more than two dozen oysters within two hours—oysters I had gathered and shucked myself and slurped from the half shell, or roasted on a grill over a campfire and plunged into melted butter, or savored in a steaming bowl of delicate oyster stew—I am inclined to agree that this statement is NOT hyperbole. Just fact.
You pre-funk with bowls of steamed mussels at one of Taylor Shellfish's bright, sleek oyster bars (this time, we met beneath the Space Needle in Seattle's lower Queen Anne neighborhood). You board a charter bus bound for an oyster-rich tide flat perched at the southern tip of Puget Sound somewhere between Olympia and Shelton, a little over an hour south in good traffic. You stumble out into the darkness and wait for your vision to adjust. Lanterns beckon in the distance and make the water gleam. It's oh-so quiet. The sky is alight with stars (or moonlight, or more likely, being the Northwest, it's raining and the wind is blowing it sideways into your face). Either way, when you combine a) the outdoors b) foraging c) drinking, you're bound to have a good time, damn the weather.
Shucking experts rove around to share shucking technique; if you'd prefer to just slurp than shuck, tables of oyster shuckers are hard at work prepping Kumamotos, Pacifics, wee bitty Olympias, and Totten Inlet Virginicas for your slurping pleasure. Check out The Oyster Guide to read more about any of these varieties.
At this point in the night, about a dozen oysters and a glass of wine in, you might find yourself like me, gazing at constellations, inhaling the scent of nearby evergreens, pondering the state of the universe, feeling at one with my place within it. Or, you might be one of the gang laughing uproariously at a new friend's jokes. Choose your own adventure.
And if raw oysters aren't your thing, your hosts have thoughtfully set up a campfire so you can roast these beauties. Let me tell you, oysters baked atop a campfire are among the best things I've ever eaten: they're rich and decadent like lobster and not the least bit slimy. We speared ours with our oyster knives and doused them with hot sauce or melted butter. YUM.
Because you really can't eat too many oysters, we capped off the night by stumbling back up the hill to cradle steaming bowls of delicate, fragrant oyster stew in our gloved hands.
What to know before you go
- Walrus and Carpenter Picnics are a fundraiser for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. In 2015 tickets ran $125 each and sell out quickly.
- Dress in layers, making sure to bring at least one waterproof/windproof layer in case of unexpected storms.
- Pack a headlamp v. a flashlight: You'll want your hands free for easier eating!
- Oyster beds can be wet, muddy, and slippery. Wear hiking boots, galoshes with traction, or sneakers with traction.
- Pack a spare garbage bag to lug home soaked clothes in case you don't luck out with a clear night like we did.
- I recommend these work gloves in your size for easy shucking. Otherwise, bring machine-washable warm gloves (they'll get muddy and/or soaked in wine or butter).
- Bring bread and cheese or fruit for the bus ride home. Our bellies were happy after so many oysters, but variety is the spice of life.
I've already set a calendar reminder to buy my ticket as a gift to myself next Christmas. I hope to see you on the oyster bus!