Wild-Harvested South Carolina Oysters are little bites of heaven. Harvesting a wild bushel of muddy, craggy clusters of oysters native to our region’s salt marshes often requires hours bent over in the high winds and cold drizzle of a Lowcountry winter morning. Nothing can stop the passion of watermen like Craig Reaves of Sea Eagle Market who often goes out at 5 a.m. to fire up the diesel engine on his battered 21-foot aluminum boat. He and his brother, Cameron, are already a couple of hours into their workday, when they finally are ready to board their craft. Craig bustles about the open vessel, checking the engines and gear. At last, he pulls in the lines that secure the craft to the weather-worn pier on St. Helena Island and eases out of the slip.
Painting by Mark Kelvin Horton – Horton Hayes Fine Art, Charleston https://www.hortonhayes.com/
It’s the tide, high winds, and fouling seas he often must think about. Undaunted by the weather, or the tidal pulls, Craig heads out full throttle toward the Broad River, waves breaking across his bow. He will wind through places only he and God understand for the secrets of these pristine waters rest within him, hidden to all others. Nooks and crannies along the shoreline yield the undiscovered jewels of the mighty river.
He’s one with the river, his boat, at home in himself and his way of life and the endless search for hidden bounty along the shoreline and murky waters. He has embraced the waterman’s life and entrepreneurial hard work.
The ebb and flow of the river have shaped and reshaped life along the salt marsh for centuries. Those living close to the water’s edge know this river will provide.
Artist Michael Harrell
The life of a waterman is rugged and often treacherous but there are moments when these waterways, rivers, and marshlands rise up and steal your soul. These fishermen take a lot of risks, but theirs is a life of many freedoms. No cubicles to have to work within, no walls around them. Their livelihood depends only on the strength of their faith, the weather, the oysters, and the market.
Take a bite of an oyster from the river – it’s the taste of last night’s tide.
I find oysters fascinating on many levels. People have an almost ancient connection to this food. I love reading old cookbooks where you find them prepared every which way with the briny liquor used for making soup. But there’s nothing like perfectly fried oysters – crisp and juicy morsels, as the author Pat Conroy says, “the sea made flesh.”
Here is my favorite recipe for fried oysters inspired by my friend and whiteboot hero Craig Reaves of Beaufort, SC.
(Sea Eagle Market, 2149 Boundary Street, Beaufort, SC.)
I love to serve these crisp, yet juicy morsels in their shells with the remoulade sauce underneath. Fortunately for those of us in the Lowcountry, this is the land of fresh oysters, and it’s easy to find pints already shucked. I like to use the bottom oyster shells as serving platters for these crispy cornmeal-fried oysters. The sauce sits in the bottom shell, and the oyster is on top. If you want to get real fancy, put a little caviar on top!
Fried Oysters with Remoulade Sauce
Peanut oil, for frying
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
Dash hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
36 shucked oysters
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon coarse mustard
1.4 cup rinsed and chopped capers
2 tablespoons sweet pickles, chopped fine
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon finely diced onion
1/2 teaspoon paprika
dash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1 teaspoon white vinegar
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon