Archive for July, 2009

Cookbook author Steven Raichlen a while back set out to determine who invented West Marin’s practice of barbecuing oysters. In BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes From All Across America (Workman Publishing Company, 2003), Raichlen writes, “As I talked to folks in these parts, one name kept coming up: Anastacio Gonzalez.”

Anastacio, who lives in Point Reyes Station, told Raichlen that “the barbecued oyster was born after a shark-and-stingray fishing tournament in 1972.”

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Anastacio Gonzalez, who in June retired as head of technical maintenance at West Marin School, on Tuesday spooned his “famous oyster sauce” into shucked oysters grilling on his barbecue.

I myself moved to Point Reyes Station in 1975, and I’ve watched Anastacio’s invention spread around the Tomales Bay area. Now it’s about to go statewide. Jars of Anastacio’s Famous BBQ Oyster Sauce have just gone on sale in Marshall, Point Reyes Station, and Inverness Park. Within the next few weeks, the sauce will be sold at the meat counters of 31 supermarkets stretching from Los Angeles to San Diego. Here’s the story.

The 2000 census found that more than a tenth of West Marin’s population is Latino. Many — but not all — are immigrants or their children from three neighboring small cities not far from Guadalajara: Jalostotitlán, San Miguel el Alto, and Valle de Guadalupe. Anastacio’s family is from Valle de Guadalupe, and before he arrived in West Marin, his brother Pedro had come up from Mexico and taken a job on Charles Garzoli’s ranch near Tomales. Anastacio visited Pedro in 1968 and “liked the area,” he told me Tuesday. So in January 1969 he emigrated to West Marin and went to work as a milker on Domingo Grossi’s ranch.

bottle_1He later moved to Joe Mendoza Sr.’s ranch on Point Reyes. “By then I was legal [had been officially granted US residency], so I bought a car and drove to Mexico for three months.” Meanwhile, Pedro had moved to Anaheim, Orange County, where he was working for a company that made electrical wire. At Pedro’s urging, Anastacio reluctantly went to work for the company and stayed two years. “I started as a coiler and worked my way up to extruder operator. The day they gave me a raise [of only 10 cents per hour] I quit.”

In 1972, he came back to West Marin and began working for Point Reyes Station rancher Elmer Martinelli, who also owned the West Marin Sanitary Landfill. “I worked at the ranch parttime and at the dump parttime pushing garbage [with a bulldozer].”

Always amicable, as well as hardworking, Anastacio was invited to join the Tomales Bay Sportsmen’s Association, which held a two-day “Shark and Ray Derby” every year. “At the end of the second day, Sunday, we always went back to Nicks Cove,” he recalled. Then-owner Al Gibson provided association members with a deck where they could party and barbecue their catch.

In 1972, Anastacio was grilling shark and stingray fillets when Leroy Martinelli, Elmer’s son, showed up with 50 oysters and told him, “See what you can do with these.” With Al’s permission, Anastacio went into the restaurant’s kitchen to see what ingredients he could find. “I put together the sauce my mother used to use for shrimp,” he told me. “I customized it a little bit, and it turns into this [his now-famous sauce].” Part of the customizing would surprise many people. “In my town, the guy who used to make the best carnitas [shredded pork] used Coca Cola,” Anastacio noted, so he did too.

The Nicks Cove owner was as impressed as association members. “We can sell this,” Al told Anastacio and offered him a job barbecuing oysters. Anastacio was already working six days a week, but he finally agreed to do it. “We got oysters for six cents each and used to sell them barbecued three for a dollar.” Nowadays, the price is often $2 apiece.

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“I was there for about three years. Then Tony’s Seafood offered me a better deal, a percent [of sales]. Nicks Cove used to pay me $20 per day. When I went to work for Tony’s, I doubled the money or better.” From Tony’s, Anastacio took his barbecuing technique to the Marshall Tavern, which was owned by Al Reis, then of Inverness. “I was barbecuing 4,500 oysters on a weekend. Sunset magazine interviewed me in 1980. That’s when everything went crazy.

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Ad in The Point Reyes Light around 1980.

“After Sunset, I’d get people from Sacramento asking, ‘Are you the one?'” Jose de la Luz, better known as Luis, regularly assisted him. “We were working 12 hours a day to catch up,” Anastacio recalled.

Anastacio worked at the Marshall Tavern about four years “until the IRS closed it.” After that, he barbecued oysters at Barnaby’s by the Bay in Inverness for half a year or so and then moved to Mi Casa, which was located where the Station House Café is today. Each time Anastacio moved to a new restaurant, the one he’d left would continue to barbecue oysters, trying to duplicate his recipe. “Whenever I left,” he told me with a laugh, “I left my footprint.” All the same, he added, “the customers were following me wherever I went.”

100_2613And throughout all this time, Anastacio repeatedly volunteered his barbecuing for a variety of worthy causes: West Marin Lions Club (of which he is a former president), Nicasio Volunteer Fire Department, Sacred Heart Church, Western Weekend, and St. Mary’s in Nicasio (where one day’s barbecuing brought in $4,500 for the church’s building fund). During the Flood of ’82, Anastacio barbecued 6,500 oysters for the National Guard, who were staying at Marconi Conference Center.

Barbecuing oysters on Tuesday, Anastacio ladled melted butter on top of his sauce.

Now after 37 years of barbecuing oysters with his special sauce, Anastacio is ready to sell it. His stepson Matt Giacomini lives in Oregon where he has been working with a chemist at a bottling company to duplicate the recipe. Jars of Anastacio’s Famous BBQ Oyster Sauce are already in the Palace Market, Toby’s Feed Barn, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, the Marshall Store, and Perry’s Inverness Park Store. Drakes Bay Oyster Company will stock it as soon as another shipment arrives from Oregon.

The biggest outlets, however, could prove to be 31 Northgate Gonzalez supermarkets, which are owned by Anastacio’s cousins, who also own a bank. “One of the owners [Antonio] is married to my brother’s daughter,” he explained. These Southern California supermarkets plan to sell the sauce at the meat counter rather than just stock it on the shelves. “Antonio is in charge of the meat departments of all the stores,” Anastacio noted.

Even with the sauce, there is an art to barbecuing oysters. Anastacio ladles melted butter on top of his sauce while the oysters are on the grill. And he stresses that the oysters need to be shucked before barbecuing. Cooks sometimes try to skip the shucking by placing unopened oysters on the barbecue and letting the water inside the shells steam and pop them open. It may be less work, he said, but “you ruin your oyster.” It becomes overcooked and rubbery.

And while it’s called oyster sauce, Anastacio’s creation has other uses as well. I found it delicious on hamburgers, and as a bartender at Nicks Cove discovered when he ran out of V-8 juice, it’s also a great Bloody Mary mix. Just add lemon juice and Tobasco sauce.

For the moment, virtually all the oyster barbecuing anywhere is occurring around Tomales Bay, Anastacio said. However, with any luck at all, people throughout California will soon be giving it a try.

One of the joys of living in Point Reyes Station is the variety of wildlife that comes with it. To demonstrate my point here’s an assortment of photos from the past week.

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After living on this hill for more than 30 years, I saw chipmunks on my property for the first time Sunday.

I knew there were chipmunks in the area, for I’d seen them in the Point Reyes National Seashore, and Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evens writes about them in his Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula.

The species of chipmunks around here are Sonoma chipmunks. They can be found from San Francisco Bay to Siskiyou County. On the Endangered Species List, the Sonoma chipmunk is rated a species of “least concern.”

Various authorities suggest the name chipmunk comes from an Odawa or an Ojibwe word meaning red squirrel and may have originally been spelled in English as chitmunk. Others attribute the name to the noise they make, a chipping sound for an alarm with a harsher version for courtship.

The Sonoma chipmunk is a “common resident of open forests, chaparral, brushy clearings, and streamside thickets from sea level to 6,000 feet [in elevation],” the California Department of Fish and Game reports.

“They forage among small branches of bushes and on ground for acorns, fungi, and seeds of manzanita, ceanothus, and gooseberry.” The rodents, in turn, “may be preyed upon by long-tailed weasles, bobcats, badgers, gray foxes, and various hawks and owls.”

Sonoma chipmunks, Fish and Game notes, “breed from February to July [with] one litter per year of three to seven young.”

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A key reason for the variety of wildlife on this hill are two stockponds where all manner of critters go for a drink. Sunday night, coyotes next to this pond entertained my neighbors and me with an extended chorus of yips and howls.

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The ponds also attract Great blue herons (such as this one spotted Monday afternoon), along with egrets and ducks.

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Monday morning I looked up from making breakfast to find this young buck staring in the kitchen window at me.

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Raccoons are nightly visitors on my deck.

Their favorite food appears to be moths on my windows lured there by the light indoors. As happened last Wednesday, a raccoon will occasionally go to the effort of climbing onto my roof to pick moths off a dormer window.

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Wild turkeys (seen here Monday) have become year-round residents on this hill.

The turkeys eat seeds, berries, acorns, and insects, along with small frogs and salamanders. Their hunting and pecking is often memorialized by pockmarked fields.

possum-closeup_1This young possum (seen Sunday) is a frequent visitor to my deck. He’s not fond of the raccoons, but he likes to drink from my birdbath.

Needing to get rid of some rancid peanuts a while back, I decided to leave them on my deck for whatever critter came along. Not realizing the possum was just outside my kitchen door, I opened it a crack and started to lay a handful down, only to have the possum suddenly emerge from the dark, stick its nose in my palm, and start nibbling on the nuts.

The possum made no attempt to bite me, but I quickly pulled my hand back lest I get nipped accidentally. It is rare for possums to carry rabies; their body temperature is too low, 94 to 97 degrees compared with 102.8 for raccoons and an average of 101 for domestic dogs. All the same, I highly recommend against hand feeding these cute little marsupials. You may have less luck than I did.

In his documentary Sicko, director Michael Moore includes a “confession” by a long-time Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) physician, who was speaking before Congress.

“My name is Linda Peeno,” she began. “I am here primarily today to make a public confession: In the Spring of 1987, as a physician, I denied a man a necessary operation that would have saved his life, and thus caused his death.

“No person and no group has held me accountable for this because, in fact, what I did was I saved a company a half a million dollars… And furthermore, this particular act secured my reputation as a good medical director, and it insured my continued advancement in the healthcare field. I went from making a few hundred dollars a week as a medical reviewer to an escalating six-figure income as a physician executive.

“In all my work, I had one primary duty, and that was to use my medical expertise for the financial benefit of the organization for which I worked. And I was told repeatedly that I was not denying care; I was simply denying payment.”

Throughout the United States, as Moore’s film reveals, such stratagems pervade  health insurers’ medical decisions and are evident in the way health-insurance policies are written. Here’s one patient’s experience with Kaiser Permanente, a not-for-profit health plan insuring 8.6 million members. Its website reports revenues last year topped $40 billion.

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Linda Petersen, ad manager of The West Marin Citizen, suffered 11 broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, two broken ankles, a broken leg, a broken kneecap, a broken arm, and a punctured lung when she fell asleep at the wheel June 13 and hit a utility pole in Inverness. This week she had another disastrous collision, this time with her Kaiser Permanente medical-insurance policy.

It’s kind of insane,” she told me Thursday when I visited her at The Rafael: Assistance for Living, a convalescent hospital in San Rafael. “Having health insurance doesn’t mean you’ll be covered.”

Linda, as can be seen in the photo, still wears casts on both legs and her left arm. Her head and neck are immobilized by a steel-and-carbon “halo.” Although she remains physically helpless, Kaiser told her yesterday her hospitalization costs will not be covered after next week until she’s ready for more-advanced physical therapy.

What’s the rationale for stopping coverage? “A Kaiser representative said I was fulfilling the physical-therapy goals by being able to transfer to a wheelchair,” Linda explained. “They’re looking for all these bureaucratic excuses.”

It’s not that she can get into a wheelchair on her own, mind you. It takes a physical therapist to carefully lift her to the edge of the bed, help her balance and pivot on her right foot (which isn’t as badly broken as her left), and then seat her in the chair. Once she’s in it, all she can do is sit, which she does for an hour a day.

Kaiser yesterday told Linda that next week the lower-paid staff at The Rafael will be trained so that one of them can take over from the two therapists who have been moving her.

This may be penny wise and pound foolish since moving her requires expertise; on Friday, after this posting originally went online, a skilled therapist lost his grip while moving her, and she had to catch herself by standing on her broken left leg and shattered ankle. Now she can barely move the leg, which had begun to heal.

100_7617_11The Rafael, Linda explained, is one of three hospitals in Marin County with which Kaiser has convalescent-care contracts. “I have no option to go anywhere else,” Linda said, and “I can’t be kicked out.” But starting a week from now, she’ll have to pay The Rafael $1,750 per week for at least the next month.

Linda with her elderly dog Sebastian who died in the crash.

“After next week,” Linda said, “Kaiser won’t cover anything until the doctor says I can put more weight on my weight-bearing extremities [e.g. the foot the physical therapist dropped her on]. It’s a matter of what the fine print says in the insurance contract.” Linda, who got her Kaiser policy through her job, noted, “You don’t sit down and read all of it.” Nor would it make any difference if you did.

I felt shocked that they could stand there — when I’m totally helpless — and say I’m not going to be covered,” Linda remarked. “But it’s become general knowledge that’s how healthcare works in this country. It’s mind boggling to me that anyone would vote against universal healthcare.

“As a patient, you’re confronted in a very vulnerable situation. It’s horrible. I was crying this morning. They threw me into turmoil. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. I don’t know how much it will cost.”

“But I can’t sit here and agonize over it,” she added, and — putting on a smile — began poring over today’s issue of The Citizen.

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Linda Petersen, advertising manager of The West Marin Citizen, working from her bed in The Rafael — Assistance for Living, a convalescent hospital on North San Pedro Road in San Rafael.

I’ve been posting periodic updates on Linda Petersen’s condition following her horrific traffic accident in Inverness June 13. Linda suffered 10 broken ribs, a broken arm, a broken leg, a broken knee cap, two broken vertebrae, two broken ankles, and a punctured lung when she fell asleep at the wheel and hit a utility poll along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Since then, Linda has spent time in Marin General Hospital, Kaiser Medical Center in Oakland, and now The Rafael. She wears casts on both legs and on her left arm. Her head and neck are immobilized by a medical “halo” made of steel.

The halo won’t come off for at least four or five more weeks, and until then she is basically stuck. She spends a few minutes in a wheelchair each day, “but it’s not very comfortable,” she acknowledged Monday. “It puts a strain on my neck. This thing was probably invented during the Second World War and hasn’t been been updated since. It weighs a ton.”

Weighed down by the head gear, which is screwed into her skull, and able to move only her right arm, Linda has chosen to fight the tedium of spending a couple of months on her back by getting back to work.

Using her cell phone, she’s already working with about a dozen advertisers, she said, “and as soon as I’m online, there’ll be a lot more.” (Three days later following numerous calls to an ISP her laptop was finally connected to the Internet.)

How do merchants react when she calls them from her hospital bed? “They’re kind of surprised,” she replied. “‘Oh, Linda, how are you doing?’ they ask. ‘We’ve been worried about you. You sound so good.” Does their concern translate into ad sales? “It might give me a bit of an advantage,” she admitted with a laugh.

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Linda has been receiving a steady stream of cards, emails, and phone calls from well wishers. People have brought her flowers, fruit, yogurt, ice cream, books, balm, and magazines. “I’m so touched by that,” she said. “The outpouring of encouragement has really helped me keep a good attitude.”

Linda’s much-beloved dog-about-town Sebastian died in the crash. Here the two of them paused while on a walk at White House Pool.

Speeding Linda’s recovery, her doctors say, is her being in good physical shape at 61 years old. Before her accident, Linda went to the West Marin Fitness gym almost daily. Until two months before the accident, she went horseback riding every week or two, and therein lies a story.

Linda lived in Puerto Rico for more than 20 years, and in March 2000, she was riding her own horse, a Paseo, when it was attacked by a much larger stallion. With the other horse trying to “throw itself” onto the back of Linda’s horse, she leapt off, only to have her horse fall and roll over her lower back.

Her injuries on that occasion consisted of a dozen broken bones, including a crushed pelvis, and numerous internal contusions. Despite major surgery and extensive hospitalization after the mishap, her hip was deteriorating by the time she moved to the Bay Area about five years ago, necessitating a hip replacement in 2006.

After recovering from that hospitalization, Linda resumed riding, accompanying friends on trails throughout Marin and Sonoma counties. Increasingly on her mind, however, was her recent hip surgery and the fact that our bones become more brittle and take longer to mend as we grow older. So two months before her automobile accident, “I decided I better not do anymore riding,” she noted, laughing at the irony.

And then the conversation turned to business. Shari-Faye Dell of The Citizen happened to also be visiting when I showed up at The Rafael, and Linda told her that ads for Osteria Stellina restaurant and Zuma gift store were ready for this week’s issue. “Check with Chris [Giacomini, the owner] at Toby’s,” she told Shari. “If he isn’t there, you can also talk with Oscar [Gamez, the feed barn’s manager].”

Later in the hallway I commented to Shari how remarkably Linda was handling a situation that would devastate many of us. “She’s one of those people whose glass is half full,” Shari responded with admiration.