Travel to Willapa Bay, Washington

The Nancy N. dredges for oysters on Willapa Bay in southwest Washington. (Brian J. Cantwell/Seattle Times/MCT / November 17, 2011)

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.