Harvesting A Heritage
She sells sea shellfish, for family and for posterity
Shouting to her two kids across the beach and stashing cocktail-sized Pacific oysters in her Steamboat Island T-shirt as she strolled the tidelands, Laurra Lyden McGregor, who owns Totten Inlet's Lyden Shellfish, seemed more like a conscientious young mother than a shellfish farmer. Actually, this 37-year-old who lives in Ballard is both. Born and raised in Seattle, Lyden McGregor sells her plump Manila clams, Pacific oysters and treasured slow-growing Olympias to some of the city's premier restaurants and purveyors.
Her business, however, isn't just about making money. It's about preserving heritage — her family's as well as the Pacific Northwest's.
With its protected hamlets and nutrient-rich waters, Totten Inlet, near Olympia, has long been revered by local shellfish growers. In the 1950s George and Ethel May Lyden, Lyden McGregor's grandparents, bought a cabin on the inlet. Built from oyster crates, it also came with tidelands. At the time, the Lydens had two young boys and owned a grocery in Auburn. In the 1970s, they retired and formed Lyden Shellfish so they could sell the clams and oysters that grew naturally and abundantly on their tidelands. It was also when Ethel May, who lived through the Great Depression, began playing her own version of Monopoly.
Believing that land always increases in value, Ethel May saved her money and made it her mission to buy as much of the waterfront land in the neighborhood as possible. When the neighboring turn-of-the-century log cabin and tidelands became available in 1973, Ethel May was ready. The homestead had been owned by the Pattersons, a Mormon family with six kids and an oyster farm. The Lydens always gave the kids candy from the store, saying each time, "Now, tell your mama and papa when they are ready to sell their land, we'll buy it." Years later, they remembered, and sold to the Lydens. After that, Ethel May started baking pies, sending them to neighbors. Lyden McGregor recalled how the notes in her scratchy writing said, "When you get ready to sell your property, call me first. Love, Ethel May." By 2000, Ethel May's Monopoly board was complete. She'd collected about 25 contiguous acres of tidelands.
The Lydens' only granddaughter never intended to run the business or become a shellfish farmer. But when Papa died, Lyden McGregor decided to help her beloved "Gaga," and began to learn the business. As the two spent hours together, the farm took on new life. At the time, they were selling to other shellfish companies. But because the harvest changes with the tides, it was difficult to keep regular workers. And, selling to a middleman, Lyden McGregor knew she wasn't getting the best price. She decided she'd market directly to the restaurants and purveyors.
The women formed a company in 2000 and placed a help-wanted ad calling for a "beach master" who worked hard and loved saltwater. Mark McCormack, who fished commercially in Alaska, responded and was interviewed in the company's conference room — Gaga's kitchen. He started two weeks later. With reliable help on deck, Lyden McGregor started marketing the clams and oysters to restaurants and high-quality locally owned grocery stores. Duke's Chowder House, Uwajimaya and Shoreline's Central Market became loyal clients.
The unique aspect of the company is that it has complete control over the entire growing, harvesting and delivery process. McCormack and Lyden McGregor buy minuscule clam and oyster seeds, grow them in homemade floats, plant them on the tidelands and protect them from predators, both human and animal. Each order is dug on demand. McCormack and his wife, Sandy, do it themselves, schlepping around in the prolific mud and hauling 30-pound buckets up to the newly built, immaculate clam house, which sits less than a stone's throw from the water's edge. Mark drives to Seattle and personally delivers the orders the next day. In the winter months, low tide arrives during the night, and McCormack harvests with the help of head lamps.
Though the orders pour in, Lyden McGregor understands the importance of preserving strains and balancing the harvests, even if it means rejecting a sale. When her grandparents were running the farm, they didn't bother selling the Olympias that grew so abundantly around their decrepit, turn-of-the-century concrete oyster dikes. At the time, the market dictated that all barnacles be removed from the shells before selling. Using a razor blade on the tiny oysters was tedious, and so this wild strain of Olympias was left to spawn and mature undisturbed for decades. Trolling the beach, McCormack saw the mass of heritage oysters at hand and encouraged Lyden McGregor to market them again. Anthony's Restaurants picked them up, and demand soared. But fearing she might overharvest this rare local treasure, Lyden McGregor had to stop selling the Olympias regularly.
Ethel May Lyden died two years ago at 91. Lyden McGregor still feels the pain of losing not only her grandmother but a lifelong friend and trusted business partner. Gaga, however, would be tickled to know that so many Seattleites are enjoying the riches of that hard-won Monopoly game. Bill Ranniger, executive chef for Duke's Chowder Houses, says it simply:
"Our guests love their clams. The product we get is consistently great. And, the bonus is we get to work with someone who cares about her product. Laurra is just a salt-of-the-earth person."
Melissa A. Trainer is a freelance food and travel writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.