While the Hama Hama Co. oyster farm has certainly grown, it’s not what you’d call large. About 30 people make the briny goodness happen.
THE SKY IS the ceiling of the Oyster Saloon. It has no walls. It is surrounded by enormous Douglas firs with strands of gray-green moss trailing from their shaggy branches; the craggy peaks of The Brothers, framed in a firred notch above the two-lane highway winding past; a pile of oyster shells bleached pure white by sun and rain, big enough you can drive a car up onto it; the sparkling or cloud-coated waters of Hood Canal, sometimes with tideflats. The oysters you eat at the Oyster Saloon come from right there. The distance from where they grow to your mouth is a matter of yards.
This is the almost unbearably scenic Hama Hama oyster farm, family-run for five generations. It’s located where the Hamma Hamma River meets Hood Canal. The spelling hadn’t been settled yet when the land was, and the joke (or maybe the truth) is that great-great-grandpa left out the extra M’s to save on ink. If you go just a little ways farther along the curve of Highway 101, you’ll see the elegant, antique arc of the bridge that crosses the south fork of the Hamma Hamma — a drawing of the bridge is the logo for the family’s work.
A plan to spray some Washington oyster beds with a neurotoxic pesticide has oyster fans and some environmental regulators alarmed. But the geology of the Hama Hama Company’s setting and the careful environmental stewardship practiced there keep its intertidal zone balanced and biodiverse. Read more about the oyster and pesticide issue in this column by Danny Westneat and story by Bethany Jean Clement.
The saloon itself has been in existence for just one year. Last spring, Lissa James Monberg, who’s in charge of retail and marketing, got the idea that it’d be fun to feed oysters to visitors on site, in addition to what they can get at the company store to take away. (The company store itself opened after passers-by would stop, knock and ask if there were oysters for sale.) So alongside the Hama Hama Co.’s notably modest world headquarters, a bit of the world’s prettiest parking lot was cordoned off, with wire-contained columns of oyster shells around the perimeter.
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More oyster shells hem in a fire pit, around which you may sit on a plank-and-stump bench or a cinder block. There are a few picnic tables, laid with hot sauce, salt and pepper, and paper napkins. Two cedar-and-fir pavilions offer shelter in inclement weather; the windows came from an old bathhouse. Lissa likes the way their raised plank floors sound like a boat’s deck, she says, tapping them with her rubber boot.
The saloon name came from the big, old-time places in New York City where oysters were cheap bar snacks and the floors were covered in sawdust. The bar here, beneath an overhang, has eight metal stools, beer and cider, and an unbeatable smell to go with the unbeatable view: salty air mixed with pines and the smoke of oysters cooking on the grill.
GRILLED OYSTERS are the standby of Lilliwaup, the unincorporated community along this particular stretch of shore, though people around here would more prosaically call them barbecued. Locals pretty much eschew oysters on the half-shell, while lots of visitors — barring traffic, Seattle is 2½ hours away by the pretty route, two by the fast one — have never had them cooked.
The goodness of a grilled oyster is difficult to explain to the uninitiated; they’re custardy in the middle, crisped around the edges, somehow both more and less oceanic than raw ones. You tend to eat them so fast that the memory is only a ghost that, when summoned, demands more.
Of course, the saloon serves raw oysters, too, and Hama Hama’s are prized for their sea-sweet, clarion flavor on the half-shell. It’s a taste that rings like a bell. Their fried oysters, with the oysterness concentrated and encased in a crisp, delicate, cornmeal crust, are a deeper brown than most; they’re pan-fried instead of deep-fried, which would be easier. The saloon sells them to pop in your mouth serially or on a po’boy.
Lissa’s brother, Adam James, runs the day-to-day that gets the oysters from Hood Canal to the platter. Their mom, Helena James, makes Dungeness crab cakes for the saloon, for the store and for the Ballard and University farmers markets. Asked if it’s a secret recipe, she laughs. She got it from Gourmet magazine years ago, though she didn’t have Old Bay seasoning, so she used Spike. “I think you could probably find something very similar on epicurious.com,” she says, smiling.
She and Lissa both make it clear that service at the Oyster Saloon can be a little rough-and-tumble. Last summer was much busier than they thought it would be, just from signs by the roadside and a couple Facebook posts, “And it was full of mishaps,” according to Helena. Getting your order or your bill sometimes took awhile, Lissa says. Her grandpa — Helena’s dad, Bart Robbins, who recently moved from Lilliwaup to a retirement home in nearby Shelton — came with friends, and he got his lunch, but the friends’ order got lost.
“We’ve had a steep learning curve on being a restaurant,” Helena says, laughing.
Luckily, Lissa says, people visiting Hama Hama are generally in a good mood. They’ve often been on a hike nearby — the company store has a book of them, or the affable guy manning the grill will tell you where the waterfalls are. There’s the canal to look at and, on a sunny day, the beer you have here is the best one you’ve ever had.
THE OYSTERS, originally, were incidental. Bart Robbins remembers the logging camp up the Hamma Hamma River Valley, where 300 men harvested timber, and life was rough-and-tumble indeed. Bart’s a tall man, somewhat taciturn. His nose is carved away on one side, the aftermath of a lifetime on the water in the days before sunscreen.
His grandfather, Daniel Miller Robbins, came west from Minneapolis and started accumulating timberland in the late 1800s. “He worked for J.J. Hill, building railroads,” Bart says. “It was all logging back then.” His grandfather didn’t even know he was getting the family into the oyster business.
Hama Hama facts
• The Oyster Saloon at the Hama Hama Company is two hours from Seattle by the fast route (Interstate 5 south to U.S. 101 north) and 2½ hours by the pretty route (via the Bainbridge ferry), traffic permitting.
• The Hama Hama Oyster Rama — a day of oyster revelry with beer, live music and more — is May 9, but tickets go fast: hamahamaoysters.com
• Hama Hama recommended reading/watching: The books “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell” and “Sex, Death & Oysters,” and “Oyster Farmer,” a 2004 Australian movie.
Back in the day, the oysters were sold off the beach in bulk. Then, during the Great Depression, it helped a lot to not have to feed the stock at Hama Hama; oysters eat algae and waterborne particulate plant matter. The virtues of pulling a nail out of a board and saving it, of building something yourself instead of paying someone to do it, were still handed down. In the 1950s, Bart moved out to the farm and made money any way he could, selling shake bolts, Christmas trees and more. He started shrimping, driving his catch into Seattle to sell, and then began including oysters in the deliveries. Invoices were payable to the Hama Hama Logging Company. Around 1975, the family leased the shellfish operation out; in the mid-1980s, they took it back under their wing.
There’s logging at Hama Hama still, done sustainably on a 60- to 80-year rotation. It’s true second growth up on the hills, and the way it’s managed, Adam James says, “allows the woods to get a little older, a little more decadent.”
He can show you where the railroad tracks used to lead right up to the beach for the shipping of the timber, and if the timing’s right, that might be exactly where you see a plump, sinuous river otter, closer than you can believe. The Hama Hama land’s also home to massive Roosevelt elk (sometimes visible from the bridge), blue herons, bald eagles (sometimes known to eat the baby blue herons) and several kinds of scoters (who like to eat Hama Hama clams — hence the nets out on the tideflats).
The gravelly soils brought down the valley with the river help make this such a sweet spot for oysters, building up the tideflats into the beds on which they rest and flourish. For a long time, the oysters that are now gourmands’ half-shell pleasure were all shucked and sold in jars, ready for frying or oyster stew. This is how the shell pile got so monumental. The half-shell part of the Hama Hama operation, with oysters shipped whole and alive, didn’t begin until around 1960, at Bart Robbins’ suggestion.
“We were selling through the Oyster Growers Cooperative,” he says. “All you heard about in the East was half-shell oysters, and it wasn’t out here at all. So we got started doing that. It’s certainly grown since then.”
The use of the land and the waters are now the charge of a board made up of members of the extended family. Historically, the presidency of the board went father-son, but the newest president is Kendra James. She’s Adam and Lissa’s boss when it comes to the oyster company, and she’s also their sister-in-law. It’s the first time the board president has been a woman or an in-law. Lissa says Kendra’s doing a great job.
WHILE THE Hama Hama Co. oyster farm has certainly grown, it’s not what you’d call large. About 30 people make it happen, including Juan Aguilar, who’s been shucking oysters and driving them to Seattle for Hama Hama for 18 years, and Teresa Rabbie, who has packed oysters into jars for 22 years. (Taylor Shellfish Farms, by way of comparison, has around 500 employees.) The oysters are gathered by hand from the beach, in what would be backbreaking work if it weren’t time-limited by the return of the tide. But the tide also means that sometimes oysters must be harvested in the dead of night, in freezing winter wind and rain.
You can get a tide-table app for your phone now, but Adam James says it can’t fully account for the waters’ mysteries. Barometric pressure can make a tide change more slowly and go significantly lower or higher. At a conference recently, Adam heard a talk about all the factors that guide the tide; it only confused matters. He’s waiting for the day when he can feel it in his knees, he says with a laugh.
A day for him, tides depending, might start in the early morning with sorting through orders from renowned restaurants like the Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle, L & E Oyster Bar in Los Angeles, Bavette’s in Chicago, and Aquagrill and the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York.
Then he or one of the crew will go out on the barge, which is a platform with a wheelhouse, motor and a crane; on a pretty morning, its noise and angles contrast the canal’s ethereal pearly gray. The horizon can be barely distinguishable, no clear border between water and woods and sky. Mist can suddenly envelop everything.
“It’s kind of like by Braille — we’ve got these buoys out here, and these marker stakes,” Adam says. They could, of course, use GPS, but “that would take the fun out of it.”
As with all farming, there’s a lot of moving stuff from place to place. Some buoys mark big, rusty cages of oysters that will come in to be sorted, then restored to the water, grouped by size, to make dealing with them more efficient down the line. Adam says you’d be surprised to know how much, in its raising, your oyster is touched by human hands: possibly a dozen or more times.
“A lot of the things we do are what Grandpa did,” he says, but they’ve also added modern techniques to old-school wild capture. That pile of shells, for instance, isn’t mounding up as fast as it used to; the leftovers from Juan’s shucking sometimes go back out on the barge to be dumped unceremoniously back in Puget Sound, because, in season, they’re dotted with almost microscopic live baby-oyster seeds. Some seedlings come from hatcheries, too, now. And in 2011, Hama Hama started farming Blue Pools: Like the sought-after Kusshi oysters, they’re tumbled, grown in mesh bags suspended on frames so that the tide agitates them, chipping their edges and making them grow deeper cups.
Customers want different kinds of oysters nowadays, Adam says. The Blue Pools accommodate that, and the tumbling could be called a value-add, though he wouldn’t put it like that. He looks pained talking about other companies’ marketing and brands; there’s one named Naked Cowboy, another featuring imagery of a sexy lady. Hama Hama, in a further accommodation of the contemporary oyster customer, has started distributing another variety of tumbled oyster, from south Puget Sound, but its name is anti-sexy: Sea Cow. The company also partners with independent oyster farmers in Pickering and Hammersley, and has leases for more oyster-growing in Pickering and up north on the Olympic Peninsula, near Port Townsend. The growth is measured, Adam says, not undertaken lightly.
Back on land, he figures out what the crew needs to harvest for tomorrow’s orders and deals with loose ends in the office. Today he runs home and returns with his eldest, Emmett, who’s 3½ years old. The barge is beached in its slip, with more offloading and loading going on.
“Da-Da, why is the water so shallow down there?” asks Emmett.
“Because the tide’s out,” Adam says.
Down on the beach, Emmett runs free, finds a multi-legged sand worm, digs in the sand and goes in the water over the tops of his boots, with glee. Adam reminisces about daring a friend to eat a sand worm sandwiched between two Doritos, a dare the friend took. “He lived,” Adam says.
Bags of Blue Pools, still half-submerged, are slowly loaded onto a boat. Meanwhile, three crew members dig clams, then two of them head out to pick oysters. The Blue Pools get moved from the boat to a truck, and someone runs the oyster-laden vehicle into the only piling anywhere near on the beach, which everyone finds hilarious.
Lissa walks out to the oyster beds as dusk falls. “The gloaming,” she says.
“It’s atavistic,” she says. “You know, we have bags, we have buoys, but people have been picking up oysters forever.”
The wind ruffles the surface of the water, which is the same color as the sky: a darkening, piercing blue. The crew finishes up, and the tide takes the beds back for the night.