COLUMN – Josh Terry; Creative Director
As the Creative Director of a restaurant branding agency, I feel like I should enjoy oysters. I feel like I should enjoy all food and drink and for the most part I do– except oysters. Believe me though, it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve sought out these briny bites up and down the coast from Swan Oyster Depot, to L&E, to Olympia Oyster Bar. Every time thinking that this will be the time that wins me over.
Why would I subject myself to all this unsatisfactory slurping? Because I really FEEL like I should enjoy oysters. And pretty much everyone I’m with loves them. They go nuts for them. And when everyone’s eyes light up as an icy plateau of shellfish is paraded across the restaurant, I’m always there to kill the buzz with an unenthusiastic “meh.”
Oh but I’ve seen the pearly light! (Figuratively, pearls would probably be a choking hazard). All it took was a trip up to the Hog Island Oyster farm in Tomales Bay. In my day, I’ve eaten some weird stuff produced by interesting processes (think Sun Cooked Stew in Africa and Live-Shrimp in Cambodia) so when it came to this hang-up, I realized maybe it was the process that was missing. Sometimes I need to go through a gastronomic gauntlet to really appreciate the product. In this case, it was shucking my own oysters.
Hog Island is a simple setup. It’s a working oyster farm, so the frills are for function not form. That’s a welcome treat for someone who has worked in an industry rife with overdone design and empty restaurant concept development. Past the piled up nets, buoys, and gurgling troughs of oysters in various stages of processing there is a “pick-up” window. You place your order and get a quick demo to hopefully reduce the amount of self-stabbings and bits of broken oyster shell you consume. Armed with the requisite amount of instruction and appropriate tools: oyster knife, protective glove, and cold beers- we carried our tray of 60 (you basically order by the dozen…or five dozen. That’s commitment.) assorted Sweetwaters, Kumamotos, and French hogs over the to picnic/shucking zone.
By about the 5th or 6th oyster you really start getting the hang of it. By the 12th, I was a machine and by the 20th+ I was a machine covered in sea-water, bits of shell, and beer. Pro tip – be wary of the beer-to-oyster ratio, as your newfound shucking skills may regress. By the end of it all, I had put down more oysters in that one sitting then I’d probably had in my entire life. Shell yes! Shuck yeah!
I now love oysters.
First off, let’s clear up the location. Afrikaburn. It’s like Burning Man but in Africa. If that still doesn’t put an image in your head then imagine the cast of Mad Max: Fury Road having a huge party in-between takes (actually any Mad Max film…and yes – there is an actual Thunderdome at Burning Man sans Tina Turner). That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the magic of this event(s) but I just want to give you a visual.
So flash to the big event. I’m crouched on a thatched-bamboo platform in Southern Cambodia, about to eat a mouthful of live shrimp. Actually, they’re called Dancing Shrimp. The cute name doesn’t make it any better as I’m now picturing a playful group of “Off-Broadway” shellfish, passionate about their performance and a brood of brine on the way. My appetite and curiosity (and peer pressure) is about to end that life. Damn that second rule.
To the best of my understanding, I’m supposed to give the clay-pot in front of me three hard shakes (the shrimp are probably pissed-off enough without being rigorously agitated), rip off the lid, and scoop the contents into my mouth. The group of Cambodian teens that have convinced me to do this are at the edge or their floor-cushions and I’m getting the feeling this is one of those times that humor is the point over pride. Whatever.
I shake the pot, pop the lid, and like Pandora’s box little shrimp shoot out in all directions. Spoon in hand I dig into the container and heap a pile into my mouth. To any animal rights activists, I say this in the most compassionate and remorseful way possible. The shrimp were extraordinary. The initial shock of their flicking was quickly surpassed by an intense blast of scolding chili, garlic and cooling citrus. I chewed quickly but guiltily savored what could be described as the weirdest/best/freshest ceviche I’ve tried. Although wide-eyed and grinning, no one laughed. I had another scoop.
Karma typically dictates against eating unconscious crustaceans, but in a predominantly Buddhist country I’ll believe their sacrifice was probably deserved and definitely delicious. Would I eat it again? No. But that one-time guilt is easily diluted with an afternoon/evening/morning of beers with new friends.
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I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m an Anthony Bourdain groupie. Ok, there is a little bit of shame so let me clarify. It’s not that I’m into him specifically but the lifestyle he portrays on No Reservations, The Layover, and now Parts Unknown. Traveling, great food, wild nights, and interesting times. I don’t chat about him on fan sites or stalk him at speaking engagements. Hell, I haven’t even liked him on Facebook (I like you Anthony, I just don’t like like you). I’m a follower of his adventures and that’s the lifestyle I want to lead. Eat, Drink, Travel, Repeat.
I realized this as I was perched on a curb, devouring the greatest sandwich of my life. As a lover of all things between two pieces of bread, I had remembered one of his episodes about Bahn Mi. A quick Google search placed me right there on the Bourdain Trail in Hoi An, a sleepy, cobble-stoned village on the central-coast of Vietnam.
Positioned between an alleyway and a shoe store, Bahn Mi Phuong is nothing more than a display case and a small kitchen with a round-plastic table and a few stools (additional seating can be found on the curb). Despite their fame, they’ve been slinging sandwiches out of the same unpretentious location for over 20 years. Behind stacks of crispy baguettes, fresh produce, and mounds of pork, two cooks are working with impressive speed and precision, churning out irresistible sandwiches to the masses.
If Subway has “sandwich artists” then these guys make that “art” look like stick figures sketched by toddlers. With only a few options which I’ll call “The Works” and “The Works with Egg,” I can see how they’ve perfected their craft. There may be more varieties, but I don’t speak Vietnamese and I was too hungry to care. It was 9am and I wanted sandwiches (I’m writing this at 4pm and I REALLY want sandwiches again. Always plural). I pass them 30,000 VND, about $1.50 USD, and watch them split open two huge baguettes, slather them with paté and homemade mayo, lay down a charcuterie of different pork parts, and top that with a pile of thinly julienned cucumber, green mango, carrots, daikon, and a secret sauce rendered from roasted pig. Topped with fresh cilantro and an egg, the two masterpieces slid off the line and straight into my hands.
No chairs, no table, no napkins and I managed to make quite a mess of myself, perched on a curb, with motorbikes streaking by inches from my feet. It wasn’t one of my more refined eating moments (though to be honest, there aren’t many), but I don’t care because these are the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. My mouth is on fire but I still don’t care because there is another curb around the corner that I can perch on and drink frosty 5000 VND beers. That’s only 25 Cents. Vietnam is heaven.
Now that I think about it, I’m not AS ashamed to call myself a Bourdain groupie. If it results in amazing food in interesting places then I’ll follow him anywhere. So, thanks Tony, I may even “like” you on Facebook someday.