WHY IS AN oyster whose historic range covered much of the West Coast of North America called the Olympia oyster? I never found a definitive answer in my research for this week’s story on efforts to restore the native bivalve.
Natural oyster reefs were abundant in the South Puget Sound, and many of the first commercial enterprises to cultivate native oysters were located in and around Olympia. E.N. (Earl) Steele, later mayor of Olympia, described rolling into town from Iowa in 1903. “My first meal consisted of a ‘Doane’s Oyster Pan Roast,’ ” he wrote in his 1957 publication, “The Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster.” “I had found the spot where the manna from heaven was to be had.”
(Capt. Woodbury J. Doane was born in Maine, fetched up in California for the 1849 Gold Rush, then piloted steamboats in British Columbia before establishing his famous Oyster House on the corner of Fifth and Washington.)
When other Washington cities tried to usurp Olympia as the state capital, city boosters and businessmen hosted “pro-Olympia” oyster feeds around the state. Olympia kept its political seat, “and the oyster dinners were given the credit,” Steele wrote. Some journalists described the oysters as Olympia’s “succulent lobbyist.” Oyster and city became inextricable, and the name stuck.
But an earlier account holds that a pioneering oysterman named Joseph Gale was the first to attach the city’s name to the bivalve as a branding maneuver. Gale worked beds originally owned and tended by his Coast Salish wife Katie Gale and her family, and was trying to sell the oysters in San Francisco. But nobody was buying because, “Nobody knew anything about them.” So Gale hired shills to go into restaurants and ask for Olympia oysters, “and thus worked up a field for them.”
I didn’t have the chance to taste the oysters during my reporting. While summer is the best time to tromp around with shellfish biologists — daytime low tides! — it’s not the best time to eat the bivalves. Tim McMillin, of Olympia Oyster Company, doesn’t sell them in the warm months because they’re spawning.
While I’m waiting for my chance, how about you? Have you ever eaten Olys? If so, let me know what you think — and what to expect.