Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The oysters and the starfish

Every Christmas since the beginning of time*, my dad’s family gathering has included oyster soup. (*Nobody is sure when this tradition actually started, but we believe it can be traced back to our English heritage.)

The central dish at what is now referred to as Smith Oyster Christmas features fresh oysters cooked in melted butter and whole milk.

This year our fresh Pacific oysters came from an oyster farm in Washington. Did you know that it takes two to three years for each oyster to grow to a harvestable size? Oyster farmers “plant” baby oysters in the shallow waters of ocean tidelands and then wait for them to grow. The tide brings in phytoplankton and microalgae, which the oysters consume by filtering them from the water. A single oyster can filter 25 gallons of water a day, which makes them very beneficial to coastal environments.

After my grandmother passed away, my aunt Konnie took over making the oyster soup. For 34 years now, she’s taken care of special ordering the shucked oysters, individually rinsing them by hand, and then carefully turning them into our family’s Christmas tradition. Carefully, because if the soup heats too fast, the milk will scorch.

Last year, though, my sister made the oyster soup, because Konnie couldn’t.

Konnie was living at a nursing home, recovering from the septicemia that nearly claimed her life the October before. The inflammation resulting from the infection damaged her kidneys and left her needing dialysis. The months-long hospitalization left her wheel-chair bound and in need of physical therapy. Even at the nursing home, she was in and out of the hospital with complications.

During one of her hospitalizations, one of Konnie’s more pessimistic doctors gave her just months to live.

But that doctor was wrong. Konnie’s kidneys started working again, she regained strength, and she was cleared to return home. She’s still mostly wheel-chair bound, but she manages just fine in her house. My dad and uncle and sister help her get to her doctors appointments and the other places she needs to be.

And this year for Christmas, Konnie once again made the oyster soup. She ordered the oysters. She made sure my uncle had butter and milk, so that when she arrived at his house two hours before our gathering, she could make the soup. But first, she rinsed the oysters at her house. The way she always has.

And while Konnie was rinsing the oysters, she found something unexpected, something special. A starfish. A teeny little starfish, about the size of a silver dollar. But a starfish, nonetheless.

Konnie brought the starfish along to Christmas to show the kids and said, “All the years I’ve been rinsing oysters, I’ve never found a starfish.”

We all oohed and aahhed in disbelief over the starfish. We didn’t realize at first that starfish eat oysters, so it made sense that the starfish could have got scooped up when the oysters were harvested.

There were lots of jokes about what would have happened if Konnie hadn’t rinsed the oysters and the starfish had ended up in the soup.

There was lots of talk about how the starfish that ended up in the container of oysters as a good omen. A special reminder of how Konnie beat the odds that were stacked against her, returned home, and and was able to celebrate another Christmas with her family.

But then I got to thinking about it last week. And I did a little research. Oysters are harvested with boats that skim across the shallow water of the tidelands and mechanically collect the oysters. Then the oysters are shucked by hand before being packaged for sale. An oyster shucker can shuck up to 5,000 oysters per shift. That means our little starfish would have had to sneak by one of the shuckers.

I called a west coast seafood association and the oyster company that grew, harvested, and packed the oysters we ate in our soup. I wanted to know what the odds were that this little starfish joined us for Christmas.

Both people I talked to laughed in disbelief when I told them we got a starfish with our oysters. Neither one had ever heard of such a thing. They said the odds were far greater than one in a million.

So I guess we were right when we said it was some kind of sign.

While we were ogling over the starfish at Christmas, Konnie told a story about collecting starfish. On her last trip to the ocean, several years ago, she really wanted to bring one of the dead starfish they found home and dry it. But before they got home, the starfish turned to mush and turned their RV trip into a fishy, smelly ride.

I did a quick search about preserving starfish, found some instructions, and offered to try drying the little starfish for Konnie.

The directions worked. The starfish, which had been an oyster-y gray color when Konnie found it, returned to its peachy color and dried down into a perfectly collectible starfish.

The next time we go up north, I’ll bring the starfish along and Konnie will get her one-in-a-million starfish.

This story first appeared as a column in the January 16, 2016 issue of the Dairy Star.

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