07-02-13 Sonoma Magazine: The Oyster & the Wilderness

In many ways, the Lunnys are as unlikely a couple as any you’ll find to be engulfed in the kind of knock-down-drag-out fight that has roiled the community and upset patterns of rural life. But the bitter feud and the often-vitriolic language that accompanies it haven’t embittered or discouraged them. “The beauty in all this is that we’re not in it alone,” Kevin tells me over lunch. “The community really cares and they’ve come to our aid.” Listening to him, I get the feeling that he’d much rather talk about the acidification of the Pacific Ocean, which threatens oysters from Washington to California, and about the coastal grasslands and prairies where his own herds of cattle graze—than argue about the facts in the court case or discuss the foul language that rural folks have hurled at one another. 

Still, Kevin enjoys talking about wilderness and the Point Reyes Peninsula, where he has lived and worked most of his life. The son of parents who were ranchers, he went away to college at UC Davis, and then came home because he loved the land and the coastline. Nancy shares that passion and she’s a powerhouse in her own right.

 

 

The Oyster and the Wilderness

Uncivil war, bivalve seduction, and the meaning of wild

STORY JONAH RASKIN PHOTOS JON A. SOLIDAY

Jul 2, 2013 – 07:23 PM

 

The quintessential Italian lover boy, Casanova, wolfed oysters by the score before he prowled Venice at night, searching for women to entice into his amorous arms—or so legend has it. The Miwok Indians harvested oysters on the Marin and Sonoma Coast for thousands of years, piling the empty shells into mounds known as “middens.” That’s an archeological fact.

Then, too, M.F.K. Fisher, the legendary food writer—who chronicled far more than just gourmet dishes like oysters Rockefeller and oyster bisque—served them chilled on the half shell, along with champagne, to guests at her Sonoma Valley home in Glen Ellen.

Oak Hill Farm’s Anne Teller still savors those seductive and unforgettable evenings with Fisher and friends—the oysters cold, the champagne even colder.

Readers of Fisher’s books are not likely to forget her mouthwatering descriptions. “The delightful taste of the oyster in my mouth, my new-born gourmandize, sent me toward an unknown rather than a known sensuality,” Fisher wrote in a buoyant essay titled, “The First Oyster,” in which she describes her initial encounter with the lowly bivalve when she was a teenager in 1924. She writes as enthusiastically about her first oyster as she might her first sexual experience.

Food and sex have been inseparable throughout history, and perhaps no food is linked more explicitly than the oyster. Harvested from Cape Cod in New England to Drakes Estero on the Marin County coast, it has long been thought to be gustatory gold. Recent scientific studies prove its powerful aphrodisiac effect, crediting the high levels of zinc. Wow! Fortunately for Wine Country oyster lovers and for head-over-heels lovers of all kinds, oysters are available at various local restaurants, including Meritage Martini Oyster Bar & Grill, just off the Sonoma Plaza, the Glen Ellen Inn in Glen Ellen, where they’re served baked, fried, and raw, and at Valley Ford Hotel where they serve delectable “Rocker Oysterfellers.”

 

 

As every oyster lover by now surely knows, Drakes Estero oysters are at the heart of a rumpus that has turned into an uncivil war. The fracas has also generated mounds of local and national news stories with citizens such as Senator Dianne Feinstein and chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse—the foodie’s flagship restaurant in Berkeley—adding zest and sparkle. Diehard environmental groups, land trusts in Sonoma and Marin, farmers of the sea and of dry land, plus tea-baggers from far-off Louisiana—where locals and tourists alike love their oysters deep fried in po’ boys—have also weighed in.

On one side of the controversy, there’s Drakes Bay Oyster Company, owned by Kevin and Nancy Lunny. Drakes Bay claims to produce 40 percent of the commercial oysters in all of California (opponents say that’s impossible, that 70 percent come from Humboldt Bay). It even supplies other oyster companies, such as Hog Island in Tomales Bay, when their supplies run low. On the other side of the controversy, there’s the powerful U.S. Department of the Interior, which aims to turn Drakes Bay into a marine wilderness. Last fall, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came all the way to Point Reyes to tell the Lunnys in no uncertain terms to get out of the waters of Drakes Estero and to close down their funky Oyster Shack.

For Salazar and supporters of the conversion to wilderness, the issue couldn’t have been simpler: the Lunny’s lease was up, their time had run out, and like all tenants in the same or a similar boat, they had to vacate. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness System, commercial operations, such as Drakes Bay Oyster Company, are incompatible with wilderness areas, where human activity is supposed to be minimal.

For the Lunnys and their supporters, who include many environmentalists as well as foodies, the issue has never been as clear as Salazar and some wilderness lovers have made it seem. In fact, the lease argument isn’t bulletproof, some claim, since the California Fish and Game Commission signed a renewable 25-year lease with the Lunnys, good through 2029. Opponents say it’s canceled unless the feds approve, and they don’t. But cattle ranchers all around the oyster company have long-term leases, and when the Point Reyes National Seashore was created in the 1960s the idea was to
incorporate ranching, oystering, backpacking, hiking, picnicking, bird-watching, and more. That’s what former Congressman and co-author of the Endangered Species Act Pete McCloskey says, and he was in on the deal from day one. What’s known these days as “working landscapes” were to co-exist with wild places. Kevin and Nancy insist they weren’t pipe-dreaming when they thought that their lease might well be extended and that they could continue to plant and harvest oysters as they’d been doing for years.

Now everything and everyone seems to be in upheaval on the foggy, windswept peninsula that’s buffeted by the Pacific Ocean. Soon after the Lunnys were told they had to leave, longtime ranchers began to worry they might be on the chopping block next, though agriculture has become sacrosanct in Marin. Cows and sheep on the coast are as much a part of the landscape as seagulls and pelicans. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) fights fiercely for farmers and for protection of the environment, too. Any government agency that aimed to dispossess the ranchers on the peninsula would have to wage a costly battle against MALT and against a whole community.

In the American tradition, the Lunnys hired lawyers and took their case to court soon after Salazar told them they had to leave. The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in mid-May.

Meanwhile, the Lunnys continued to harvest and sell oysters, perhaps more than ever before and not just to foodies. The publicity has been good for business. Folks from all over California—including waves of Asians and Latinos—have been driving to Drakes Estero to devour the bivalves in great quantities.

I’ve been to the Lunnys’ Oyster Shack a few times to eat oysters on the half shell and to bring them home. In my kitchen, I’ve made oyster stew, oyster bisque, and oysters Rockefeller, following the recipes that M. F. K. Fisher provides in her classic, Consider the Oyster, which taught me the basics of oyster cuisine, oyster biology, and oyster history. Moreover, unwilling to accept the stories I read online and in newspapers, I signed up for a tour of Drakes Bay Oyster Company near the very point of the Point Reyes Peninsula, where I felt instantly like I was at the ends of the earth. Indeed, you can’t go any farther west, except into the Pacific Ocean, perhaps the last real wilderness on the face of the earth.

Scott Yancy, a big, burly, good-natured fellow from back East, has adjusted nicely to life on the edge of the Pacific. He is one of the mainstays at Drakes Bay. “We call it Little Alaska,” he tells me. “The women who work here say they don’t get old, they just get rusty.” A graduate of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, where he learned about the Ming Dynasty and the Chinese emperors, Yancy knows the history of the oyster inside and out. “Oysters clean the water, promote eel grass and biodiversity,” he tells me. “What we do here is sustainable farming. We’re good stewards, and oysters are a great food supply—they’re a fantastic source of protein. If you were truly green you’d support us. We’re well worth saving.”

Soon after Yancy showed me the works at Drakes Bay Oyster Company, I had lunch with the Lunnys—who have become modest local heroes—at Rancho Nicasio, where the waitress recognized them and told them she informs all her customers about their cause. (I ate oysters; they had salads.) These days, you can hardly find a restaurant around Wine Country where the Lunnys don’t have warm friends and close allies. A sign outside Sonoma’s Meritage reads, “Save Our Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm.” Similar signs have popped up across Marin and Sonoma counties and on websites, too.

 

In many ways, the Lunnys are as unlikely a couple as any you’ll find to be engulfed in the kind of knock-down-drag-out fight that has roiled the community and upset patterns of rural life. But the bitter feud and the often-vitriolic language that accompanies it haven’t embittered or discouraged them. “The beauty in all this is that we’re not in it alone,” Kevin tells me over lunch. “The community really cares and they’ve come to our aid.” Listening to him, I get the feeling that he’d much rather talk about the acidification of the Pacific Ocean, which threatens oysters from Washington to California, and about the coastal grasslands and prairies where his own herds of cattle graze—than argue about the facts in the court case or discuss the foul language that rural folks have hurled at one another.

Still, Kevin enjoys talking about wilderness and the Point Reyes Peninsula, where he has lived and worked most of his life. The son of parents who were ranchers, he went away to college at UC Davis, and then came home because he loved the land and the coastline. Nancy shares that passion and she’s a powerhouse in her own right. Over the last few months, Kevin has thought long and hard about Point Reyes, and about the government’s long-ago designation as a “potential wilderness.”

At the heart of the debate seems to be the question of what it means to transform the “potential” Point Reyes wilderness into an “actual” wilderness. For some residents, including West Marin writer and rancher Mark Dowie, it’s a matter of semantics. How, indeed, does one define “wilderness”? Few words have been as thorny in all of American history. Hundreds of books have been written about the subject and yet bewilderment reigns. Kevin tells me, “I don’t know of a place around here that you could point to as truly wild.” He adds, “A wild place, a real wilderness, is where man does not have a significant footprint. Look around here. You’ll see roads, parking lots, power lines, barns, and fences. You’ll hear cows mooing. It’s very civilized. Don’t get me wrong. Nancy and I and our kids love wilderness. We go hiking in the Marble Mountains. The trails there don’t have 2,000,000 visitors a year as Point Reyes National Seashore does. In summer this place is mobbed with tourists.”

Proponents of the wilderness idea—at least “the purists” among them—insist that the oyster shack is inconsistent with plans to transform the National Seashore into something primitive and elemental, something closer to the way the land and sea were before Europeans and Americans arrived. The purists claim that the oyster operation has inflicted damage on sea life and sea creatures. They point to debated data that, according to a scathing letter by California’s senior U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, is potentially fraudulent. In a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Feinstein charged, “The Park Service has falsified and misrepresented data, hidden science, and even promoted employees who knew about the falsehoods, all in an effort to advance a predetermined outcome against the oyster farm. Using 17-year-old data from a New Jersey jet skis case as documentation of noise from oyster boat engines in the estuary is incomprehensible.

“It is my belief that the case against Drakes Bay Oyster Company is deceptive and potentially fraudulent.”

That opinion is shared by eminent neuroscientist Dr. Corey Goodman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and winner of the prestigious Dawson Prize in genetics, who lives in nearby Marshall. Goodman took apart, piece-by-piece, the environmental allegations that the Park Service and its supporters made against the Lunnys, and concluded that the oyster operation did not disrupt the habitat of the beloved harbor seals, interfere with the birthing of seal pups, or contaminate the estuary. In fact, it appears that kayakers and hikers often intrude into waters and shoreline that are, or should be off-limits, in the wilderness part of the estero, and that they thereby caused real harm.

Speaking before the Sonoma City Council in June, Goodman said he had filed a “scientific misconduct” claim against the Park Service. “There is not a shred of evidence that the oyster farm is doing any harm to the Drakes Estero,” he insisted.

It is, nevertheless, easy to understand the passion of the wilderness proponents. After all, the planet is increasingly paved; urban and suburban sprawl seems almost everywhere, even in Wine Country. Pollution of air, land, and water has reached critical levels. We’re suffocating in our own trash, the oceans are rising, and global climate change is upon us. “Please, please,” citizens practically beg, “give us the wilderness” which, as Henry David Thoreau noted in Walden, is a “tonic.”

Jules Evens, the author of a compelling guidebook, Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, looks back to a time before Sir Francis Drake arrived in 1579 at what is now Drakes Bay. Evens waxes poetic about a past before Punto de Los Reyes became the modern Point Reyes. “In the old days, before the dams, when the streams were free,” Evens says, “the people began to prepare for the return of the salmon when the days shortened and ravens soared in circles over the ridge.” It’s a powerful and a seductive myth that he conjures—the myth of a primitive past that’s untamed, pure, and pristine.

The myth of the oyster is no less compelling. Eating an oyster seems sometimes akin to swallowing the wild of the world itself. At Meritage, chef Carlo Alessandro Cavallo offers the Lunnys’ oysters as well as bivalves from the East Coast—both raw and cooked —and sells them as fast as he can shuck them, as many as 2,000 a week. “I’ve been doing this for 14 years,” he tells me. “We’ve had a long run. I like oysters with a little lemon juice and very, very cold. They have to be well chilled. And what they say about oysters as an aphrodisiac is true. Take it from me. I know.”

Over the last six months, I’ve eaten more oysters than ever and have come to enjoy them thoroughly. Along with oyster lovers across the country, I feel a personal stake in the outcome of the trial, and I look forward to reading the decision of the Ninth Circuit.

Some observers believe that Constitutional issues are involved and that the case may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, perhaps, when all the different sides are articulated, we’ll have far more accurate information than we do now. The ideal solution, it would seem, is for wilderness and sustainable “mericulture” —there’s a fairly new term—to co-exist. After all, Thoreau, the archnaturalist and patron saint of conservationists, farmed in the woods at Walden Pond. And now, more than ever, we need food that’s locally and organically produced.

In May and June, while the judges at the Ninth Circuit deliberated, 10 to 20 million oysters at various stages of development went on flourishing in the clear, clean, nearly pristine waters that the Lunnys leased. Mexican farmworkers—such as Jorge Mata—almost all of them from Jalisco, went on planting, tending, and harvesting bivalves. Maybe the fate of the Mexican crew ought not to figure in the legalities of the case, but their plight is caught up with the plight of the oysters, the Lunnys, the park, and the wilderness itself. They’re all a part of the same whole. If the oyster farm closes, so will the world of Jorge Mata, his family and his co-workers. Closing Drakes Bay Oyster Company will put them all out of work. Many wise and thoughtful people believe farming and wilderness can coexist, and that farmers and ranchers can be some of the best stewards of land and sea. Maybe now’s the time to turn that wild idea into a civilized reality and to end the uncivil oyster war that has divided citizens all across Northern California.

How To Shuck An Oyster

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” so said satirist Jonathan Swift.  Bold or starving. Not sure, but lucky for us he did and discovered one of nature’s most desirable delicacies. If you’re lucky enough to indulge, here’s how to shuck a fresh oyster.

Scrub the oysters under cold water with a stiff brush. Using heavy gloves, to protect you from the knife and razor-sharp shell, hold the oyster firmly in one hand and an oyster knife or dull butter knife in the other. (An oyster knife is your best bet. Designed for the task, it has a short and stout blade with a downward curve at the tip, to make shucking safe and effective.)

Have a small bowl handy to catch the juice. Position the oyster so the curved side faces into your hand and the flat side faces up. Slip the tip of the knife between the top and bottom shell near the hinge and run it around the oyster. With gentle force, using a twisting motion, pry the shell apart. Using the knife, cut the muscle away from the top shell, bend the shell back, and discard it. Carefully run the knife underneath the oyster, sliding against the surface of the bottom shell to loosen. Keep the shell as level as possible to save the juices inside. Collect any spills in the bowl—you’ll want to pour this flavorful juice over the oysters on the half shell. Nestle the opened oysters in a bed of crushed ice or rock salt.

Choose oysters that feel heavy and full in your hand. Oysters lose moisture once removed from the ocean; the heaviness indicates they were freshly harvested. They should smell briny and almost sweet like the sea. Keep unopened until ready to serve. Store the unopened oysters between two beds of ice, deep-side down to retain their juices and consume within one day. Oysters must be eaten alive or cooked alive. Never store in fresh water—they will open, consume available oxygen, and die. Ideally, shuck the oyster within two hours of serving. The flavor and texture of the oyster is enhanced the colder it is, and the colder the oyster the easier to open.

—Therese Nugent

 

Reprinted from the summer 2013 issue of SONOMA magazine

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