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Bill Oyster Cult

The unparalleled bivalves of Bill the Oyster Man are a Santa Cruz institution

By Steve Billings

Certain people and certain products just possess a mystique. They are inexplicably intriguing. As with wine, people are drawn to oysters.

I greedily eat oysters, craving them sometimes, but I don't know why. Maybe it's the setting, the bed of shaved ice, the choice of condiments to augment and add flavor, the sheer oddity of eating something which is at once alien, earthly, alive.

Bill the Oyster Man has a theory.

"I think people crave the minerals," he says. "There's minerals in oysters and it's a form that people like. Also, I think oysters are sensual and people eat them in sensual settings. Sometimes, people eat the oyster and they shudder. They involuntarily shudder. People's bodies physically react."

If anyone can talk authoritatively about oyster shakes, it's Bill Callahan, better known as Bill the Oyster Man. Through 30 years of involvement with oysters, he's found his niche in the local food chain.

Callahan began this journey with bivalves after receiving a degree in Oceanography from Humboldt State University in 1977. Since then, he's had his hands and feet in all aspects of the oyster business, from farming to growing to selling to buying,

A Santa Cruz resident for 30 years, Callahan sold his farm and gave up growing oysters a decade ago so he could raise a little one (the Oyster Daughter?) of his own, and pursue his burgeoning interest in teaching. His decision caused a near panic at area farmers markets, where Bill the Oyster Man was an institution.

"The people who ran the markets told me, 'Do whatever you need to do, but don't stop," says Callahan. "I kept that part of my business, and catering."

Though he stuck with the farmers markets, Callahan made it clear to the market directors that he would no longer be a grower. He continues to provide great product supplied by people to whom he used to sell his own oysters.

Today, Bill's oyster bar is a fixture at the Wednesday Santa Cruz Farmers Market and the Cabrillo Farmers Market on Saturdays, and, if you are really jonesing, you can drive the Bentley over to Los Gatos and join him there for some shucked ones on Sundays. At Bill's bar, customers have come to expect good oysters and good conversation, which has translated into a die-hard following among his regulars. Some of them hire him for private events.

"I've been at one house doing a party once a summer for 16 years," he says. "I've been able to watch kids grow up. That's one of the great things about the business."

If you spend enough time around Bill's oyster bar, you might even get a free ticket to an interpretive dance performance. "We have one girl, we call her the Hopping Girl," he says. "When she eats an oyster, she gets happy and she hops."

I don't think I've hopped from eating an oyster, but I may have shuddered and even done a little jig. I think Bill's oyster hypothesis is right: the minerals, the sensuality and beyond that the distilled essence of the ocean sipped from its own cup is an invigorating sensory experience.

If you haven't yet bellied up to the bar, Callahan urges you to do so, even if it is just for a chat and a chance to expand your community. But if you are there for the oysters, different varieties have their own flavor profiles and characteristics and should be tried, al solo, at least once.

"I think you should always eat an oyster that way [raw] to taste it," he says. "Certain oysters, like a Kumamoto, should only be eaten without a lot of stuff on it because they are pretty delicate; they are like eating butter for the first time. With Miagis, you can put a bunch of stuff on it and you will still taste the oyster. The flavor comes through. The East Coast oyster [sometime loosely and incorrectly called the Blue Point] is quite bland and if you put a lot of stuff on it, you lose the oyster."

Bill the Oyster Man is at the Santa Cruz Farmers Market at Lincoln and Cedar streets every Wednesday 2:30-6:30pm and at the Farmers Market at Cabrillo College in Aptos every Saturday 8am-noon; www.billtheoysterman.com.

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From the August 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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