DRAKE'S BAY, Calif. — "This is a good life if you don't mind the cold, the wet and the odd hours," said Ben Johnson while maneuvering a weather-beaten, paint-chipped boat in one of California's most scenic and isolated ocean inlets.
In an alcove of the Point Reyes National Seashore, Johnson and his extended family raise some of the sweetest, freshest-tasting oysters on the West Coast . . . maybe in the country.
The Johnson Oyster Co. is one of only a handful in the state that is farming this celebrated shellfish with a success ratio worth the envy of East Coast fishermen and marine biologists plying the Chesapeake Bay's oyster haven. The family has maintained an oyster farm here since 1958, and the operation spreads over more than 1,100 acres of water.
Johnson second-naturedly motors about the bay pointing out the various areas and methods of commercially growing oysters with one hand on the outboard's tiller and the other clasping a cigarette. Thirty years of work in this coastal refuge have not dulled Johnson's Missouri twang, but have certainly contributed to an occasional spell of orneriness.
"This is one of the hardest bays to work I've ever been at. It's cold, windy and shallow. The cold wind blows day and night this time of year. The wind never lets up," he said while zipping an insulated jacket a bit higher. "And when you work with the (bay's) tides there are odd hours."
Despite Johnson's criticism, this area of California, about 70 miles north of San Francisco, appears to be a beautiful setting. Virgin green, grass- and brush-covered bluffs slope gently into thin slivers of sandy beach untouched by the armies of tourists and weekenders traversing two-lane roads several miles away.
The Johnsons, including brother Tom, father Charles and a long list of in-laws, nephews and the like, lease the necessary land and bay from the federally operated park. The area's protected status ensures that real estate development will elude this part of the coast and that the oysters can grow undisturbed except for an occasional predatory crab or starfish.
The dramatic ocean setting is only part of the Johnson Oyster Co.'s appeal. The firm's ramshackle processing area and sales counter is a celebrated stop for seasoned Point Reyes visitors. The oysters and the Johnsons' personalities are near-legendary despite being well off of Highway 1 and accessible only by a twisting, dirt road.
The vast portion of the estimated 65,000 gallons of shucked oyster meat sold by the Johnsons each year are tossed to customers over a makeshift metal counter housed in a shed. The remaining 15% or so is distributed to Bay Area restaurants and markets.
On an average weekday afternoon, several visitors crowd the slight wooden structure, buying oysters in three versions: whole, shelled and packed in jars, or the irresistible oyster cocktails for only $1. On weekends the place is likely to be wild and crowded.
The place reached a frenzy the Saturday before the 1985 Super Bowl when fans of the San Francisco 49ers descended upon the shed in a non-stop procession to purchase oysters to barbecue during tailgate picnics the day of the game played in Palo Alto.
"It was the darnedest thing I've ever seen," said Johnson, who sold a record 130,000 oysters that day.
Although barbecuing oysters seems to be a popular Northern Californian preparation, there are many who lack the self control needed to transport and enjoy the oysters at home on the grill. They simply splash lemon juice and hot sauce atop a few cocktails and savor these sweet, sprite seafood morsels on the spot.
However, the Johnsons have not designed their compound for the comfort of guests or customers. There are no picnic tables or soft drinks available. A lone, scraggly pine provides the only shade among a series of buildings and mobile homes where many employees live. The remnants of countless shells litter the lot.
Nevertheless, the Johnson oyster is praised for its flavor, an accomplishment due to the growing techniques developed over the years by the family and the algae found in this area upon which the shellfish feed.
"We've learned a lot (about oyster farming) the hard way," Johnson said. "For instance, you can't raise oysters on the bottom in California because the stingrays and crabs will eat you up. We lost a hell of a lot in the first few years growing on the bottom."
Keeping the oysters from the bottom turned out to be a blessing for the company. By suspending the shellfish from wires on wooden racks or attached to iron stakes, the bivalves are kept in a clean, constantly circulating sea current apart from the sediment, dirt and other undesirable items lurking on the bay's floor.
Mild, Clean Taste
Johnson attributes the unique flavor of his oysters to this off-bottom method. The oysters from this bay do, in fact, have a mild, clean taste and a wonderful color. One gourmet magazine reviewed Western farm-grown oysters, such as the Johnsons', and called the breed "exquisite."