The Decades-Long Comeback of Mark Twain’s Favorite Food

When America’s favorite storyteller lived in San Francisco, nothing struck his fancy like a heaping plate of this Pacific Northwest delicacy

A plate of assorted oysters at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. (Mark Richards)
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To Mark Twain, San Francisco was coffee with fresh cream at the Ocean House, a hotel and restaurant overlooking the Pacific. He also had a decided fondness for steamed mussels and champagne. But most of all, San Francisco was oysters—oysters by the bushel at the Occidental Hotel, where the day might begin with salmon and fried oysters and reach its culinary climax at 9 p.m., when, Twain wrote in 1864, he felt compelled “to move upon the supper works and destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles” until midnight, lest he offend the landlord. Every indication is that his relationship with the landlord was excellent.

Having abandoned Mississippi riverboats in 1861 for fear of being drafted into the Union or Confederate army, Twain had lit out for the West, where he mined silver and crushed quartz in Washoe (in present-day Nevada), and began working as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. In 1864, the 29-year-old writer on the verge of fame arrived in San Francisco, a city he called “the most cordial and sociable in the Union,” and took lodgings at the Occidental, where he would live for several month-long stints (likely as much as he could afford) during the next two years. The hotel’s cuisine was a great attraction, and he soon reported that “to a Christian who has toiled months and months in Washoe, whose soul is caked with a cement of alkali dust... [whose] contrite heart finds joy and peace only in Limburger cheese and lager beer—unto such a Christian, verily the Occidental Hotel is Heaven on the half shell.”

Twain’s views on such matters are worth taking seriously; he was a man who knew and loved American food. Several years ago, I set out in quest of his favorite dishes for a book, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. I had been inspired by a kind of fantasy menu that the great author jotted down in 1897 toward the end of a long European tour, when he was likely feeling homesick, if not hungry. Twain listed, among other things, Missouri partridge, Connecticut shad, Baltimore canvasback duck, fresh butter beans, Southern-style light bread and ash-roasted potatoes. It occurred to me that many of the American foods Twain loved—such as Lake Tahoe Lahontan cutthroat trout and Illinois prairie hens—were long gone, and that their stories were the story of a vanishing landscape, the rushing waters and vast grasslands of his youth obliterated by an onslaught of dams and plows. But what about the oysters he so enjoyed in San Francisco?

Not everyone would have considered the oysters at the Occidental to be a celestial dish. Like all fresh oysters in San Francisco at the time, the Occidental’s were Olympias, the true West Coast natives. Eastern oysters, whether briny Long Island or sweet Texas varieties, belong to a single species (Crassostrea virginica) and tend to be large and plump. By comparison, Olympias (Ostrea conchaphila) are small and their flesh maroon or even purple, imparting a distinctive metallic or coppery note on the palate. Many Easterners were aghast. “Could we but once again sit down to a fine dish of fresh, fat ‘Shrewsbury’ oysters, ‘blue pointers,’ ‘Mill pond,’ ‘Barrataria,’ or ‘Cat Islanders,’” moaned an anonymous journalist, “we should be willing to repent all of our sins.”

Still, other newcomers to the city, including Twain—straight from the Nevada desert with its pickled oysters and an appalling coffee substitute he dubbed “Slumgullion”—developed a taste for the tiny, coppery Olympias. The Oly, as it was called, was the classic gold rush oyster, a staple of celebrations and everyday meals in San Francisco restaurants and oyster saloons. Olys appeared in oyster soup and stew, stuffed into wild poultry and, of course, raw. Perhaps the most distinctive local dish was a “Hangtown fry” of oysters, bacon and eggs.

My search for Olys leads to the venerable Swan Oyster Depot, which moved to its current Polk Street location only six years after Twain’s favorite hotel, the Occidental, collapsed into rubble in the great earthquake of 1906. On a wall inside Swan’s, among photographs and sketches of what appear to be every fish in the sea, hangs a framed 19th-century advertisement, darkened and faded nearly to illegibility: “Oh Friend Get Yours/We Serve Them/Olympia Oysters.”

Actually, Olys are quite rare these days in San Francisco, even at Swan’s. As co-owner Tom Sancimino explains, the oysters are both small and extremely slow growing, making them relatively unprofitable to farm. He sometimes orders them special; he did so recently for a regular customer’s 90th birthday. “We have a real old-time customer base,” he says. “Our customers know what Olys are.”

In Twain’s day, some Olys were harvested in San Francisco Bay. But even then, before silt from hydraulic gold mining in the Sierras sluiced down into the bay to bury and destroy the vast majority of wild oyster beds, most Olys came from the far more productive tidelands of Shoalwater Bay, now known as Willapa Bay, in southern Washington State. Today, Swan’s—or any San Francisco oyster bar wanting to serve the kind of oysters prized by Twain—must look farther north still, to the coves and inlets of Puget Sound.

Even at Taylor Shellfish, a family business in Shelton, Washington, founded during the Olys’ 19th-century heyday, there isn’t a huge market for the diminutive native oysters. At the company’s processing center, countless bins of mussels, clams and other oyster varieties—Totten Inlet Virginicas, Kumamotos, Shigokus, Pacifics—are cleaned, sorted and shucked. Toward the rear of a cavernous room, just a few black-mesh bags of Olys await culling. Once the only product harvested by Taylor, the Oly now approaches a labor of love, raised on perhaps five of Taylor’s 9,000 acres of Puget Sound tidal beds.

Olys require three or four years to reach harvestable size, even under ideal conditions engineered for farmed oysters. In the Taylor hatchery, Oly larvae swim in clean water pumped from a nearby inlet, feeding on algae grown in cylindrical tanks. After a period of rapid growth in a FLUPSY (Floating Upweller System), where giant aluminum paddles provide a constant stream of oxygen and nutrients, the oysters are placed in polyethylene bags to reach maturity in Totten Inlet, situated at the confluence of clean open water and a nutrient-rich salmon run.

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