“It’s completely out of your hands,” proprietor Mark Reynolds of Torrance’s Jolly Oyster Market says about the travails of mollusk farming.
And yet Reynolds’ hands are scarred by cuts acquired from years of oyster shucking. These are the same hands that were once defined by the manicured digits of a high-finance banker. The African-born Englishman, who had spent time working in Dubai and Hong Kong, knew that he wanted to live an international life, and in England, the way to do that, he says, was in petroleum, diplomacy or banking. Despite having sworn he would never sell his soul to the world of big money, that’s exactly the route he chose, working for the bank that would become HSBC, now infamous as the bank of choice for drug cartels and international terror organizations.
But redemption was in the cards for Reynolds, who went to Scotland and studied agriculture. Encouraged to find a product he could sell, he opted instead for a product that, as Reynolds says, is out of your hands. And, aware of the toll that seafood production is having on the planet, he’s running his operation sustainably and humanely.
“It takes seven pounds of trash fish to feed one pound of farm-raised salmon,” he says.
But feeding on algae, oysters don’t need to be fed. Furthermore, you sell them to people who love them. “What could be better?” he asks.
“Every single oyster farmer is a millionaire in his head,” he says, adding, “but in reality, is broke.”
He tells me that an oyster farm is only as good as the waters in which you locate. The waters of Chile were good but the years Reynolds spent there weren’t. That’s where he earned the name “Mr. Grumpy,” an identity that 180 degrees from the guy who lovingly talks to his oysters. Yeah, you read that write, he talks to his oysters — in Italian, no less: “Bella,” “Bellissimo.”
“The Italians talk to their food,” he says as he perfectly unhinges and detaches a Jolly oyster from its shell, “it makes it taste better.”
Reynolds strives for perfection, whether it involves the opening an oyster or living a meaningful life. He endeavors at both equally, with the attention of a Buddhist monk.
“Are oysters an aphrodisiac?” he asks, rhetorically, for the sake of expounding upon its virtues. “They make you present,” he answers. And it’s true. Think about the last time you ate oysters, then consider the last time you ate, say, French fries. Did you relish those fries with the same zen-like awareness of the eating act or did you suck them down mindlessly while talking? Or watching TV? Or driving a car? Ever eat oysters while you’re behind the wheel?
You generally eat them with someone you’re romantically involved with (or would like to be involved with, at any rate), Reynolds, points out; you tend to enjoy them with Champagne; and, of course, there’s the obvious sensual associations that have traditionally inspired the aphrodisiacal claims.
After walking me through the proper shucking method (“If you’re very, very clever, you can open it without touching it”) Reynolds hands me a small shell filled with a thumb-sized gelatinous-sort of fleshy blob that smells of the ocean. “Chew it as long as you can,” Reynolds advises me as I throw back the juvenile Kumamoto. He explains that I should first experience a mouth-watering sensation, followed by an umami taste in the back of my mouth. Sure enough. In a moment, my appetite is whetted for another.
Jolly has been open for about two months now, residing in an Asian strip mall on 183rd Street. Diners buy them to eat immediately on a neighboring patio or take them to enjoy at home. The market is the extension of Reynolds’ original location, the Shuck Shack, aside a Ventura beach featuring a dog-friendly, BYOB picnic lawn.
And while Reynolds might not be a filthy rich banker, laundering millions for brutal dictators and drug kingpins, he is Mr. Jolly, and the world is his oyster.
The Jolly Oyster – Torrence, Ventura, or Mobile
2143 W 182nd St.
Torrance, CA 90504
911 San Pedro St
Ventura, CA 93001
Scott Bridges is an L.A.-based journalist who has worked as a police-beat reporter, a community newspaper editor, and a food and travel writer. He currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to The Huffington Post and Bizjournals.com, among other sites. He is a native Californian who lives on the Westside.