Wed 29 Jul 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.”
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.
He 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.
“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.
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.”
And 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.