When all the stars in my life align properly in any given January, I get to take a week off from my routine and traipse through the Low County of South Carolina on horseback, looking at Bald Eagles, black squirrels, bouncy white tail deer, and magnificent dogs. This is a week of serenity in nature punctuated by an occasional shot. The birds are mostly safe with me in pursuit, though following these dogs and the men who train them through a marsh or pine stand is a true privilege.
While in South Carolina, we are treated to a wonderful Low Country tradition, the oyster roast. The process could not be any simpler. Fire, oysters, steam, oyster knife, eat. Our fire man and oyster chef, Earl, talked to me about the relative usefulness of burlap or fluffy bath towels for the steaming process, but that is just about the only choice involved.
Oysters are bi-valves. “Valve” refers to the shell, and it is a “bi-valve” because there are 2 shells. They are filter feeders, meaning they suck nutrients out of the water through the shell and consume them. Oysters are in the precarious position of being the most natural means of balancing the content of any waterway because they each filter an extraordinary amount of water each day, and suffering the effects of being inadvertently forced to try to filter some of the waste that we let go to the waters.
I would say that I am very low on the totem pole of environmentalists in this world, but I recognize that the oyster, much like the honey bee, might be one of the most valuable, if overlooked, heroes of the planet. They actually work for us. And when you hear a story about someone getting sick from eating oysters, it is usually our own fault either through the degradation of the oyster habitat or from bad handling practices. This is certainly another moment when I will take a chance to encourage you to find a reputable fishmonger or seafood vendor. Especially for the land locked, this is the difference between a sweet and succulent oyster and a funky one.
In coastal South Carolina, this isn’t a problem. My hosts get their oysters from the Bluffton Oyster Company. The May River of South Carolina has a long and storied oyster history. Oystering is a job that has run in families for generations, be it the oystermen or the shuckers (the shuckers have for years been primarily women who pry open thousands of oyster shells in a day, producing gallons of oysters). The Bluffton Oyster Company has a very interesting history, including a stint as an employee owned co-op, when the employees bought and maintained the company so that it wouldn’t go under and the oystermen would have a market for their hard work. Suffice to say that it is a miracle in my eyes that you can consume any given oyster for less than a dollar. And by the time they reach the land-locked, this is doubly true given the distances they have to be shipped.
Luckily, oyster producing states are proud of and passionate about this industry. The oyster beds are monitored for contaminant levels, and if an area of water has unsafe levels of contaminants the beds are closed to harvest. So if you have a reputable fishmonger or seafood distributor, you are probably going to get a good oyster.
Things to know. Oysters are alive, or rather, should be alive if you buy them in the shell. They need to be kept cool and moist, but never store them in cold water or you will literally suffocate them. Kept properly, you can store them in your refrigerator for a few days. But consider the road trip your oyster takes. If you are not on the coast, your oyster has to be harvested, properly stored, shipped, properly stored, and purchased by you before getting into your gullet. You will want to cut down on the days spent in transit from the briny goodness of their home to yours. My understanding is that oysters spend their time during these days using the contents of their shell for nutrition. The longer it sits, the less of the delicious juices you will get. People will tell you the oysters stay fresh for “x” number of days, but the fact remains that fresher is better. Luckily, there are many options for getting exceedingly fresh oysters.
Oh, I could go on and on but I fear I would lose you. See the list below for some interesting oyster resources and articles.
A bushel of live oysters (lovingly harvested and properly stored)
Here are my disclaimers: If you don’t buy good oysters, if you burn your house down building a fire for the roast, if you stab yourself with an oyster knife, if you trip over and fall onto the fire, I don’t want to hear about it. There are several levels of common sense needed for this adventure, and if you aren’t up to taking it seriously, please don’t do it. PLEASE USE CARE!!! Build your fire away from your house, in an area that will not burn, and definitely consult your local statutes to make sure you will not get in trouble for having an open fire.
But if you decide to have an oyster roast, you are going to love this. You will stand around this fire with your best people whacking shells, slurping warm oysters, dripping all over the place, telling stories, and tasting the salty seas and briny rivers of the most beautiful places on the planet.
You will need fire wood, a few cinder-blocks or thick logs and a 7 to 8 foot piece of corrugated metal roofing material. You will also need a throw-away bath towel or a big piece of burlap for steaming the oysters. Burlap is cuter, but the towel holds more moisture. Both work great. In South Carolina, there is an abundance of Spanish Moss to pull out of the trees and use for make-shift gloves. You will need to provide your guests with dish towels or gloves or something else with which to pick up the hot oysters off of the tin. You will also need oyster knives.
Find a safe place for your roast. Keep a bucket of water or a hose nearby to put out any wandering fire. You will build one small fire for one side of the metal and leave the other side without a fire. Then, as the oysters start opening up, you can push them down to the end without a fire and they will stay warm but not become over cooked.
You want to build the fire in advance by at least 15 or 20 minutes so that you will have good coals burning. Your fire timing will depend on the type of wood that you choose.
Procure a big bucket of water and place your towel or burlap into the water.
Inspect your oysters. Spray them off with water and clean them up a bit, if necessary. Before cooking, oysters should not be open. If they are open and don’t pop shut when you whack them on the shell, they are dead and you should not eat them. Take the cleaned oysters and pour them out onto the hot metal. Take your burlap or towel out of the water and lay it out over the oysters. You will see the steam rising up. This is a good and beautiful thing. Re-soak the burlap several times over the following minutes and lay it back out on the oysters. As the hissing and popping begins, you will see some of the oysters start to open up a bit. Either move them down to the non-fire side or just start eating. Grab a shell, pry it open with an oyster knife, loosen the oyster from the strong muscle that attaches it to its shell and slurp it down, enjoying all of the juices. This year’s batch of oysters were full of these great little oyster crab, so that in every 5th or 6th oyster, you also got to pop a crunchy tiny crab. Very tasty. If you are new to oysters or have an aversion to the texture, start with the oysters that are a little more cooked and leave the big wet ones to the veterans. And, I am one of the only ones in my group that uses Tabasco. I think it might be argued that one loses a lot of the sensory experience when one drowns the oyster in seasoning. But, again, I am just starting my oyster journey. Next year, no seasoning. Straight shooting, for oysters and quail.
My friend Jane Powell tells a story about her mother telling her and her sisters when they were kids that the crabs were poisonous and that it was terribly important that they bring them to her right away. The jig was up, so to speak, after several years when one of the girls turned around to find her mother popping the succulent little bites into her mouth. They are delicious. If you come across one, eat it.
If I were in South Carolina right now, I’d be moving toward the horses to spend an afternoon in the woods and marshes of Jasper County. Next year again, perhaps.
If you are in South Carolina, try Bluffton Oyster Company.
If you are in Texas, it is highly likely that wherever you get your oysters, you are getting them from Louisiana Foods. They supply oysters to many of the Dallas area restaurants and seafood sellers, including Central Market and Rex’s. Jim Gossen recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his company and his love of oysters and some of the interesting things going on in the world of Gulf seafoods. You can order directly from Louisiana Foods by looking at their website or calling 1-800-799-3134. Or have confidence getting his oysters locally at Central Market or Rex’s Seafood.
Louisiana Foods is a big sponsor of Foodways Texas. If you love Texas foods, Texas heritage, and Gulf seafood, there is no better way to show it than by becoming a member of Foodways Texas and joining some of the most interesting people in Texas food culture at one of their many local gatherings. I am a member and I hope you become one too.
If you are on the Pacific Coast, I have received a lot of good recommendations for Taylor Shellfish Farms. Check out their website. They ship. And the west coast has different species of oysters than those we find in the Atlantic waters so if you want a variety, consider some Pacific oysters, as well.
If you are interested in getting a great oyster knife, the Kitchn ran a post several years ago on a great selection of oyster knives.
And, for an interesting read about all things oyster, consider buying the Robb Walsh book Sex, Death and Oysters. I just ordered my copy. I have two of his other books and they are some of the best around.
If you are interested in the important shell recycling program going on in South Carolina, read this article by the South Carolina fish and wildlife folks. For a small compilation of information on oysters from the Texas perspective, read this piece from Texas Parks and Wildlife. For more good information on the Bluffton Oyster Company, consider looking at this (pdf) article in Savannah Magazine.
And, a final random note, many of the centuries old homes in South Carolina were made of tabby, a building material made up largely of oyster shells. It is actually difficult to walk around South Carolina and not feel the historical impact that this little being has had on that state. Gulf and Pacific oysters have had a similar cultural and economic impact on their respective home states. To compose a bibliography of interesting oyster reads would take a lifetime. These are merely a few hints to get you on your way. The history and lore surrounding the humble oyster and the effect it has had in this country are substantial. I am a relative newcomer to the love of oysters. But I have this feeling that if we all celebrated the oyster, we would actually be doing ourselves a favor.
I am grateful for the advice of Earl, Jane Powell, Jim Gossen, Jon Rowley, and Robb Walsh for their help with this post. You can follow Gossen, Rowley, and Walsh on Twitter if you want to keep up with the oyster life.