Wed 20 Oct 2010
More than a year ago, I posted a story about Anastacio Gonzalez of Point Reyes Station starting to bottle his famous sauce for barbecuing oysters. The sauce has now been refined by replacing high-fructose corn syrup with sugar, so this a good time to update the original posting, much of which is repeated here.
The sauce was already so popular that Anastacio would occasionally receive orders from as far away as Florida. Whole Foods stores, however, prompted him to refine it when they told him they were interested in carrying the sauce but not as long as it contained high-fructose corn syrup.
Anastacio this week told me he is “very pleased” with the new version. “It’s not exactly the same, but it’s very close.” On Wednesday I sampled the new version, and the main difference I noticed was a hint of celery and onions now in the sauce.
Anastacio’s Famous BBQ Oyster Sauce is bottled in Portland, where his stepson Matt Giacomini lives. The first shipment of sauce without high fructose corn syrup sauce has just arrived and will be delivered to West Marin merchants next week.
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 told Raichlen that “the barbecued oyster was born after a shark-and-stingray fishing tournament in 1972.”
Anastacio Gonzalez, who in June 2009 retired as head of technical maintenance at West Marin School, spoons his “Famous BBQ 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. Jars of Anastacio’s Famous BBQ Oyster Sauce are on sale at the Palace Market, Toby’s Feed Barn, Perry’s Inverness Park Deli, Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, Hog Island Oyster Company, the Marshall Store, and Golden Point Produce in the Tomales Bay Foods building.
And within the next few weeks, the improved sauce will also be sold at the meat counters of 35 supermarkets stretching from Oxnard (Ventura County) 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 — belong to immigrant families 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. 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 new recipe contains neither the Coca Cola nor the ketchup that Anastacio first used.)
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.
Although Anastacio’s Famous BBQ Oyster Sauce is now sold throughout the Tomales Bay area, his biggest outlets could prove to be 35 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. The Southern California supermarkets 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, it has other uses as well. I found it delicious on hamburgers, and Anastacio told me, “I’ve been using it on chicken, ribs, salmon — on almost anything you put on the grill.” In fact, 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, most oyster barbecuing is occurring around Tomales Bay, Anastacio noted, but with any luck, people throughout California will soon be giving it a try. The main thing he needs now, Anastacio said, is a distributor.