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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All this sophisticated equipment, of course, is relatively new. From the late 1800s to the mid-20th century or so, oyster farmers used simpler technology; they built low wooden dikes in the flats to trap a few inches of water at low tide and insulate the oysters. The great years of Oly production in Puget Sound began to wind down in World War II, with the loss of skilled Japanese labor to internment camps, which increased the incentive to replace Olys with faster-growing Pacifics. Then came the paper mills. News accounts from the 1950s document a virtual political war between oystermen and the mills, which discharged chemicals that destroyed beds. Lawsuits and regulations eventually reduced pollution. But the damage was done: In commercial terms, Olys were driven to near-extinction.

It was Jon Rowley, a self-described professional dreamer and a consultant to Pacific Northwest restaurants, known in the region as a prominent advocate of local, traditional food, who helped revive the Oly. By the early 1980s, Rowley recalls, Olympias were not to be had even in local restaurants. “It was something people might have heard of,” he says, “but not something they actually ate.” So Rowley went out to Shelton, to the venerable oyster business then overseen by Justin Taylor (who died last year at age 90).

The Taylor family’s ties to native oysters go back to the late 19th century, when an ancestor, J. Y. Waldrip, gained title to 300 acres of tideland. A figure very much in the Twainian tradition of knockabout frontier speculator, Waldrip had worked as a pharmacist, blacksmith, gold miner (or gambler) in Alaska and breeder of army horses in Alberta before he finally settled on oyster farming. Even during those years when the Olympias were falling out of favor, the Taylors continued growing some, mainly (as Twain might have been unsurprised to learn) for a California niche market provided by the Swan Depot and a handful of other restaurants.

A turning point of sorts in local appreciation of the shellfish—and the culmination of Rowley’s collaboration with Justin Taylor—came at Ray’s Boathouse Restaurant in Seattle one night in 1983. “We wanted to celebrate what we called ‘the return of the Olympia oyster,’” Rowley recalls. One hundred twenty guests dined on a single course—raw Olympias—washed down with sparkling wine. For most, the taste was entirely new; to Rowley, that moment signified the return of a heritage flavor. “At first you get kind of a sweet, nutty taste, and then as you chew, you get layers of flavor—they finish with this metallic, coppery taste at the end. It screams out for a clean, crisp-finishing white wine.”

I doubt there’s any better way to taste Olys than on the shores of Taylor’s Totten Inlet, in the company of Jon Rowley on a gray afternoon. Rowley scarfs down freshly shucked specimens with the gusto that Twain would have brought to the task. “Open one up and slurp it down,” he instructs. I do, chewing slowly to release the deep mineral flavor. “Nothing on them,” Rowley says. “They’re so good by themselves.” Even the no-frills aura of Swan’s seems relatively tame and domesticated compared with the experience of eating Olys straight out of cold waters freshened that morning by snowfall. Here, they belong; here, they’re perfect.

Twain, to his great regret, never returned to San Francisco after 1865. If he had, he would have found the city’s oyster culture much altered. With so many Easterners longing for briny Virginicas, merchants began sending shipments to California immediately after completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. In October of that year, the Daily Alta California reported that “the first carload of Baltimore and New York oysters in shells, cans, kegs, all in splendid order, has arrived.” A decade later, 100 freight cars of oyster seed were arriving in San Francisco annually, sustaining the cultivation of Eastern oysters in the bay.

Nevertheless, Olys would remain a distinctive element of San Francisco cuisine for years; in 1877, Scribner’s Magazine declared that “in San Francisco you win the confidence of the Californian by praising his little coppery oysters and saying [that] the true taste of the ‘natives’ is only acquired in waters where there is an excess of copper in suspension.”

These days, when Olys are to be had at Swan’s (current market price is $2 apiece), they’re most often served as a cocktail. “These are great eating,” Tom Sancimino says, handing me an Oly on the half shell, dressed with fresh tomato sauce intensified by a few drops of lemon, horseradish and Tabasco. That’s a lot of sharp, acidic flavor; still, the distinctive, metallic Oly comes through. I suspect Twain would have liked several dozen. “I never saw a more used up, hungrier man, than Clemens,” William Dean Howells, the legendary 19th-century editor of the Atlantic, once wrote of Twain. “It was something fearful to see him eat escalloped oysters.”

Twain’s final opportunity to sample Olys likely came in 1895, when a round-the-world lecture tour took him to Olympia, Washington. We don’t know exactly what dishes he enjoyed during his stop there, before embarking for Australia. But it’s easy to conjure up an image of Twain tucking into the local oysters. I like to think that the taste of this American classic, food that truly speaks of place, summoned memories of his San Francisco years; I can imagine that, as his steamer put to sea, carrying him from the West Coast he would never see again, Twain was dreaming of oysters.

Mark Richards is based in Mill Valley, California. Benjamin Drummond lives in Washington’s Northern Cascades Mountains.

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