RAYMOND, Wash. — It might be the acid-test question for oyster eaters. Oyster dressing with your holiday turkey: gourmet treat or just plain wrong?
In my straw poll around a lunch table here, four out of five fellow diners gave oyster dressing a big thumbs-up.
Of course, you might call this a biased crowd. We were just down the road from South Bend, self-proclaimed "Oyster Capital of the World," at the edge of southwest Washington's Willapa Bay, America's largest producer of farmed oysters.
And we were lunching on oyster stew, from Nana Rose's special recipe.
"My mom makes this every Christmas Eve!" said Amy Dennis, the stew's preparer, who is part of the family that runs the Dennis Company, a spunky local variety-store chain that started in 1905 and now gives a nearby Walmart a run for its money.
The stew was creamy and rich, with fresh mollusks from the local Ekone Oyster Co. — a mix of extra small and "yearlings," the tiniest oysters sold, in a region where people know their bivalves and like them petite.
"The extra large are like meatloafs!" joked Jerry Bowman, curator of Raymond's Northwest Carriage Museum, whose backroom became our lunchroom during my tour of the town.
But those big oysters are popular in Asia, I'd learned the previous day, when I'd gotten a glimpse of what goes into putting local oysters on the table.
On a sunny afternoon between autumn rainstorms, I'd ducked shell-laden hydraulic scoops as they pivoted over the deck of the 45-foot oyster dredge Nancy N., named for one of the daughters of the Nisbet family, owners of Goose Point Oysters, which ships worldwide.
We were far out on Willapa Bay, framed by a horizon of low, forested hills and the Long Beach Peninsula's northward-jutting finger. At 25 miles long, the sparkling expanse of blue-green water required lots of neck-craning to take in, but the high-seas feeling was illusory. The dredge's skipper pointed to a depth sounder showing only four feet of water beneath us.
"The bay is 90 percent dry at low tide," which makes it good for oyster farming, said Roberto Quintana, 37, Goose Point's oyster-farm manager, who holds a master's in fisheries and aquaculture from Louisiana State University.
Picking through oysters on the boat's deck, he pried open two small samples. We each slurped one down, creamy as pudding and as briny as the Pacific breeze blowing in over Leadbetter Point.
Like oystermen elsewhere, Quintana wrestles today with global issues such as seawater acidification, but he's happy for the advantages he starts with on Willapa Bay. "It's pristine," he said, a word repeated time and again around these parts.
Along the winding highways bordering the bay, bridge after bridge cross lazy rivers and sloughs that bring nutrients oysters feed on. At river mouths, pretty prairie-like salt marshes bristle with reeds the color of wheat straw, capturing erosion-caused silt that might choke shellfish. With a largely undeveloped shore — the only heavy industry is a Raymond sawmill — Willapa is an oyster's dream home. Often shrouded in mist, it's a dreamy landscape to look at, as well.
"The worst polluters of Willapa Bay are wildlife," I heard from Steve Rogers during a stop at his little storefront historical museum in South Bend, population 1,600. "Sometimes, south of town, you'll go through three elk herds!"
A retired high-school principal, Rogers is like many in these small towns who wear multiple hats. He's head of the historical society, chairman of the school board and president of the Kiwanis Club.
His museum and Raymond's Willapa Seaport Museum are places to learn more about the history of local oystering, which dates to the mid-1800s when San Francisco's appetite for the exotic, fueled by the California gold rush, sent schooners here to return crammed with baskets of bivalves.
Like other locals I met, Rogers is a kayaker, a recreation perfectly suited to a bay fed by more than 1,500 miles of tributaries. Rivers such as the Palix, Nemah and Niawiakum meander among firs and spruces dripping with Methuselah's Beard lichen.
"I can put my kayak on my car and be on any of five different rivers in about five minutes," Jerry Bowman had told me earlier.
"I love that, at age 3, my son loves to go kayaking," said Kathleen Nisbet, Goose Point's 26-year-old plant manager, who graduated from South Bend High School and then studied marine biology at the University of Hawaii. "Up the Palix, there's a really pretty waterfall."
If oysters figure in your holiday dining plans, you can get them hours-out-of-the-water at the Goose Point plant on Highway 101 near Bay Center (ask for a quick tour, including the noisy, lightning-paced shucking room) and at other nearby outlets.
Or just get your fill while you visit, of this incredible edible — low in calories, rich in omega-3 fatty acids — which legend links to everything from helping you live long to making you randy as a billy goat.
South Bend's best-known oyster eatery, exposed to the world after a 2007 visit by a New York Times food critic, is the 114-year-old Chester Club and Oyster Bar, in the center of town on Highway 101. Don't get too excited — it's your basic small-town tavern. (Among bumper stickers plastered behind the counter: "I used to miss my ex, but my aim is getting better.")
But the cook is friendly, the oyster burger ($7, with fries) is something to savor and there's Mac and Jack's on tap. Since freshness makes a good oyster the way the right zing of horseradish makes a cocktail sauce, here's what counts: This place is just yards away from an oyster processor, and its backroom even hangs out on pilings over the water. So, as a local blogger put it, "If oysters could crawl, they would be in your lap."
Hard to get fresher than that.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Raymond and South Bend are on the Willapa River at the north end of Willapa (say "will-uh-PAH") Bay, about 2 1 / 2 hours by car from Seattle.
FINDING FRESH OYSTERS
For retail sales:
—East Point Seafood, on Highway 101 in South Bend. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 360-875-5419 or http://www.eastpointseafood.com.
—Goose Point Oysters, on the west side of 101, just north of the Niawiakum River (follow 101 South about 10 miles from South Bend). 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. 360-875-6629 or http://www.goosepoint.com.
—Seasonal Seafoods, 306 Dike Road, Bay Center. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. 888-905-9079 or http://www.baycenterfarms.com.
For old-world charm, take a scenic 20-minute drive from Raymond on Highway 105 to the bay-front Tokeland Hotel, which dates to 1885. Winter rates: $48.50 for double with shared bath. 360-267-7006 or http://www.tokelandhotel.com.
Russell House B&B is a turreted Victorian mansion on a South Bend hilltop. $60-$130 offseason. 888-484-6907 or http://russellhousebb.com. Bonus: The website includes maps of local kayaking rivers.
Summerhouse, on farmland overlooking the Willapa River east of Raymond, sleeps seven; starting at $75 (for two). 360-942-2843 or http://www.willapabay.org/(TILDE)summerhouse.
Two neighboring museums are at Third and Alder, just off Highway 101, in Raymond:
Northwest Carriage Museum features 27 impeccably restored horse-drawn carriages from near and far; $1-$3. http://www.nwcarriagemuseum.org.
Willapa Seaport Museum features a salty collection of marine artifacts; admission by donation. http://www.willapaseaportmuseum.org.
In South Bend, Pacific County Historical Society Museum is in the center of town on the east side of Highway 101. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, http://www.pacificcohistory.org. Just up the hill, take a gander inside the century-old Pacific County Courthouse, on the National Historic Register, with an art-glass dome.
TRAVELER'S TIP: If you visit the Long Beach Peninsula, look for fresh Willapa Bay oysters in Nahcotta or Oysterville.
MORE INFORMATION: http://www.willapaharbor.org