Archive for October, 2010

Halloween, which will be celebrated Sunday, has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The name comes from an Old Irish word meaning summer’s end.

The ancient Celts of the Iron Age and Roman era believed the border between this world and the Otherworld was thin on Samhain, allowing both good and evil spirits to pass through. This, in turn, inspired the Celts to disguise themselves with masks and costumes to avoid the evil spirits.

With the Catholic celebration of All Hallows Even, — the night before All Hallows (Saints) Day — falling at the same time of year, the two events came to be blended into Halloween. Trick-or-treating originated in the Middle Ages as a practice of poor people going door to door and receiving food in exchange for praying for the dead.

A great horned owl I photographed from my deck at twilight last week.

The symbols of Halloween eventually came to include, along with costumes and masks, jack-o-lanterns (which in the British Isles were originally carved from large turnips), black cats, bats, and owls.

Nor are owls, bats, and black cats the only spooky apparitions around my cabin this Halloween. A deck wraps around two sides of the cabin with steps leading down to the ground at both ends, and at 6:20 a.m. today I was awakened by the sound of footsteps scurrying past my bedroom window.

When I looked outside, I was amazed to see three foxes holding footraces back and forth around my home. Two of them were neck and neck with the other in a distant third place.

A winsome fox steps inside my kitchen.

As previously noted, three gray foxes have taken to dropping by each evening, hoping I will put out bread or peanuts for them.

For three or four years, I have periodically put out the same snacks for my raccoon neighbors, but now the raccoons must compete with the foxes.

They get along with each other fairly well, and I have seen a fox and raccoons eating peanuts nose to nose without conflict. Last night, however, my friend Lynn Axelrod saw one sly fox snatch a slice of bread from between the paws of a raccoon that was about to partake of it.

When the fox tried to do it a second time, however, Lynn cut loose with a Halloween-style “Boo!” and the fox ran off. From the raccoon’s perspective, Lynn had probably just fended off an evil reynard from the Otherworld.

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.

While barbecuing oysters, Anastacio ladles melted butter on top of his sauce.

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.

The most recent wildlife adventures around my cabin began three weeks ago when I started down my driveway to pick up the morning Chronicle. There in the dirt at the edge of my parking area were several large paw prints, too large for the critters I usually see around here. Roughly 25 feet away, other tracks showed where a deer had kicked up dirt as it ran off.

A check of my tracking guide confirmed a mountain lion had probably been on my property the night before. That was an exciting but not altogether surprising discovery, for I’ve heard reports of mountain lion sightings along Tomasini Canyon Road, the next road to the north.

A gray fox eating bread on my deck.

With so much wildlife on this hill, my cabin has become a sort of blind for observing it.

In the past week, up to three foxes at a time have shown up on my deck. I sometimes feed them a few pieces of bread or a few peanuts, but judging from their scat, with which they mark my property (including the roof of my car), their main diet these days is blackberries.

On several occasions, I’ve watched encounters on my deck between raccoons and a fox. Neither seemed overly alarmed by the other, and at times the fox approached a raccoon within a few feet.

This is not to say that no other wildlife alarms raccoons. One kit sprang onto a post of the deck railing tonight and was about to climb to the top when suddenly it froze and flattened itself against the lattice.

For half a minute it hung there with only its head peeking over the top. Eventually the kit climbed on top of the railing, paced back and forth, but went nowhere. About this time, a couple of deer walked by just beyond the railing. Only when they were gone did the kit feel free to resume its meandering.

The foxes, however, seem not to be alarmed by any creature around my cabin.  Sunday night when I scattered some tortilla chips on the deck and left the door open, this fox was curious enough about my kitchen to look inside before chowing down on the chips.

The foxes are usually skittish enough to run off a few feet when I open the kitchen door, but they quickly return.

And twice when my friend Lynn Axelrod stuck a piece of bread out the door, a fox took it from her hand.

Three, four, and even five raccoons have shown up simultaneously on my deck in the last week. They too enjoy snacking on bread, but except for one older male, they enjoy peanuts even more.

I occasionally put out a few handfuls of honey-roasted peanuts for their dessert, and I’ve had raccoon kits so enthusiastic that on occasion they grabbed my hand with their paws before I was done. Very odd to shake hands with a raccoon. Thank God they grabbed with their paws and not their teeth.

Because raccoons use their paws in eating, they wash them in my birdbath afterward, as well as take long drinks — no doubt thirsty from the salty peanuts.

Also taking advantage of my birdbath is this pine siskin.

A pine siskin swoops down to join five other siskins eating birdseed on the railing of my deck.

Pine siskins are an irruptive species, meaning that their populations can increase rapidly and irregularly. A type of finch, they are particularly plentiful this year because their main source of food, seeds, is also plentiful.

Also enjoying birdseed on my deck are roof rats, which on some evenings show up even before the birds leave.

There are noticeable variations in coloring among roof rats, with the one on the right demonstrating why they’re sometimes called black rats. I’ve written quite a bit about roof rats previously, and I won’t repeat it all here.

Canada geese fly over my cabin almost every evening. I always know by their honking when they’re coming. Some evenings several flocks in a row will head west overhead. Naturally a migratory bird, the geese used to only winter here, but in recent years West Marin has developed a large year-round population.

Also announcing themselves around my cabin these nights (in fact, I hear their yips and howls right now) are a number of coyotes. Like the gray foxes, coyotes are members of the dog family, canidae. However, unlike gray foxes, they can’t climb trees, which is a blessing for us all.

Point Reyes Station’s levee road (AKA Sir Francis Drake Boulevard) should flood less often during heavy storms in the future thanks to a county Department of Public Works project now underway.

Road supervisor Pete Maendle (left) of Inverness Park this week told me a box culvert under the levee road had become completely clogged with silt. This has sometimes led to a drainage ditch from Silver Hills causing flooding near the White House Pool parking lot.

Part of the project involves cleaning out sedimentation basins that are supposed to trap the silt, which consists of decomposed granite, before it reaches the culvert.

The channel downstream from the culvert empties into Papermill Creek, and county creek naturalist Liz Lewis said workers so far have found two juvenile steelhead, six to eight sticklebacks, and two prickly sculpin in the project area.

The state Department of Fish and Game has told the county to complete the project by Oct. 15 in time for winter rains and fish runs. County superintendent of road maintenance Craig Parmley said today he hopes the $25,000 project will require only five or six days of work.

Although the work isn’t expected to last very long, Lewis and Parmley both noted it has taken seven years to get the many state and federal permits the project required. The biggest delay was in getting permission from the Army Corps of Engineers, Lewis said.

Fortunately, the permits will allow the county to carry out ditch maintenance in the future without going through the permit process again, Parmley noted.

While the project is underway, a series of cofferdams keeps ditch water out of the worksite. Water in the dams is being pumped into Olema Marsh.

Once this project at White House Pool (in background) is completed, the county hopes to carry out similar work in Inverness, Inverness Park, and Bolinas, superintendent Parmley said.