Let’s have a holiday backyard Oyster Roast – Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum!
This first oyster roast ranks high on my list of most spectacular moments I have experienced since I arrived in South Carolina. An oyster roast on a cold winter afternoon beside the Beaufort River produces a euphoria one never can forget.
When I first arrived in Beaufort several decades ago, I had never attended an Oyster Roast, eaten a raw oyster, a fried oyster, or an oyster stew. However, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that Beaufort was an oyster lover’s paradise and if you were caught without a blunt-nosed oyster knife in the glove box of your car it was a sure sign you weren’t from here. The Lowcountry is the land of the winter oyster roast, where friends and neighbors come together with gloves and oyster knives in hand. It’s a right of passage to be able to open one and slurp it down while armed with an ice-cold beer.
Holiday time is always the most popular time for a backyard roast – and at our house it is now a New Year’s Day tradition. After this first Oyster Roast experience at Marshlands, I was hooked and knew I loved oysters just about any way you can fix ’em. Here’s the way it was.
One of the very best outdoor experiences I have ever participated in was an oyster roast held at the Old Point on the banks of the Beaufort River at Marshlands, the home of Lt. Governor Brantley Harvey Jr.
Marshlands is one of the most beautiful and historic properties in all of Beaufort County. His father, Brantley Sr, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and the South Carolina State Senate, was living next door at the time.
On that cold afternoon, the crowd was mostly lawyers and dignitaries from Columbia and across the state who had arrived to support the Annual Ducks Unlimited Oyster Roast. Conversations centered around discussions about which river produces the most flavorful oysters: the Broad River, the Colleton, the May or was it the Chechessee? The camaraderie and the sheer joy of the crowd set the tone of this most memorable afternoon.
Broad River Oysterman by Michael Harrell
Piled high beside an oak fire were heavy burlap sacks filled with succulent oysters. Three men tended to the fire that had a metal plate laid over it on cinder blocks. Once the plate was hot enough, they shoveled bushels of oysters, many in clusters, onto the plate and covered them with the wet burlap sacks. The juices from the oysters began hissing against the metal plate while a brawny weathered gentleman dumped a shovel full onto a nearby table to distribute to the waiting crowd. A hole was in the center of the table for discarding shells.
Eat ‘em quickly while they’re still steaming hot, dipped in a bath of catsup and horseradish, hot butter, or simply savor its briny essence just as it comes out of the shell. I later learned that men in white boots, with long-handled tongs and chisels, had stood bent over for hours in the near frigid temperatures of a January morning along the banks of the Broad to gather each cluster.
Oyster Roast paintings by Shannon Smith Hughs, Anglin Smith Fine Art, Charleston
At the communal table, all participants found common ground. Oldtimers showed newcomers how to use the knife near the hinge rather than the outer shell, popping it open from the bottom. I learned that with a cluster, never, ever give up. The big one is always in the middle, but whether large or small, each one holds the taste of last night’s tide. There’s a sense of living in the joy of the present moment beneath ancient oaks and chilly winds that seems to overcome any differences or heated debate of any sort. We’re all in this together, and would you pass the hot sauce. please?
Beaufort is known for the grandeur of its antebellum homes, elegant architecture, and refined Southern hospitality, but here beside the saltmarsh of the Beaufort River, I gained a new perspective. The grandest of all culinary traditions was laid out before me on a rickety plywood table.
Should you decide to try it – keep it simple.
Oysters are the heart and soul of Lowcountry cooking. Some folks are so fanatical about it they have a rustic giant cable spool in the yard just for the roast because they are the perfect height for opening oysters, which is always done while standing.
I’ve driven by many a historic home with one in the backyard. A log fire is built on the ground and concrete blocks support a piece of sheet metal that sits a foot above the fire. Raw oysters from the surrounding marshes are laid on top of the sheet metal, then covered with soaking wet croaker sacks to steam the oysters open. All you need are packages of saltines and bowls of cocktail sauce made with a mixture of tomato catsup and horseradish for dipping. Have guests take turns manning the fire and shoveling the oysters onto the table.
A serious oyster eater can devour a bushel but I usually get a bushel of oyster for every five people invited.
Be sure to have plenty of ice-cold beer nearby!
My sincere appreciation to Anglin Smith Fine Art for the use of the oyster paintings by Shannon Smith Hughs.