Nov/Dec 2019The Pearl of Lowcountry CuisineBy David Lucas
Fall leaves and chilly evening temperatures signal that it’s time for an oyster roast.
How delicious is a salty South Carolina oyster fresh from the water? Amazingly delicious, as Palmetto State residents have known for thousands of years.
Long before explorers of the New World arrived, oysters were a staple protein source for Native Americans living along the coast. We know this because they left plenty of evidence in the form of giant shell rings on barrier islands like Pockoy, part of the SCDNR’s Botany Bay Heritage Preserve and WMA. Shell ring sites at Pockoy were discovered in 2017, and excavations at the site commenced in July of that year and continue today with the help of numerous volunteers. You can read more about them in SCW’s September-October 2018 feature “The Shell Rings of Pockoy” at scwildife.com.
According to SCDNR Heritage Trust Archaeologist Sean Taylor, the Pockoy shell rings — or middens — are the remnants of an ancient Native American culture that is between 3,000 to 5,000 years old. In the South Carolina Lowcountry, the known shell ring sites stretch from the Sewee ring near Awendaw down to Daws Island in the middle of Port Royal Sound. Taylor theorizes that, far from being simple hunter-gatherer societies, the people who built the shell rings were members of highly organized communities with elaborate social structures and rituals. The excavations at Pockoy will continue to increase our knowledge of how these ancient societies functioned, but one thing is for certain, those folks enjoyed eating oysters every bit as much as we do today.
ROAST OR RAW BAR?
At a raw bar or a nice seafood restaurant, a dozen oysters on the half-shell might set you back anywhere from $15 to $25, maybe more, depending on their size, pedigree and availability. If you’ve never tried oysters this way, you should — it’s the oyster in its most pure state, and lots of oyster connoisseurs take their oyster-tasting every bit as seriously as wine experts judging a fine merlot. Wine aficionados call the theory that grapes grown in a certain region pick up trace minerals or other distinctive character traits from the soil they are grown in “terroir.” It works the same way with oyster fanciers, only they call it “merroir,” which is all about the water the oysters are grown in. And South Carolina’s estuarine waters provide awesome merrior.
That’s all great, but your average oyster-loving Joe or Jane Sandlapper is more likely to encounter a fresh South Carolina-harvested oyster at a good old-fashioned oyster ROAST, which is an entirely different affair. Come one, come all oyster roasts — often organized in support of a good cause, or just a good time, or both — are a Lowcountry tradition too, albeit one that, thanks to the miracle of modern refrigeration, has traveled far inland.
Despite the name, what you’ll find at a typical oyster roast is actually a steamed oyster, often prepared in large quantities using gas cookers. And friends, there is nothing wrong with that — I have eaten thousands of oysters served that way with great gusto. But as the word “roast” might imply, there’s a simpler, slower, lower-tech way to cook an oyster in its shell that delivers a rustic pleasure that is hard to beat.
It is a somewhat slower method (and hence not ideal for feeding a large crowd), but there’s something about the hint of hardwood smoke that gives oysters cooked over an open fire a little something extra, compared to oysters steamed in a pot. Part of it is the ambiance — after all, there’s nothing like standing around a bonfire on a crisp fall evening with a group of friends, waiting for the next round of steaming clusters to reach their peak to build anticipation and appetite. But I believe oysters roasted under damp burlap on an open fire also don’t cook quite so hot, which makes for a juicier bite — a little closer to raw than its steamer-pot cousin. If you’d like to try it the “old-fashioned” way for your next outdoor get-together, it’s actually pretty simple.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED TO GET STARTED
- A bag (or two, or three or more, depending on the size and eating habits of the expected guests) of South Carolina-grown oysters. Some call them “bushels,” but each bag weighs about forty pounds (mostly shell) and will feed four adults (less if they are all big eaters — I always get extra and shuck and freeze the leftovers for stew). Your purchased bag should have a tag on it describing the location and date it was harvested — if it doesn’t, buy elsewhere.
- A solid sheet of metal to hold the oysters over the fire. I use one approximately 3x3 feet and 1/2-inch thick that I purchased from a local scrap or recycling yard, and most places like that will cut a piece to suit your dimensions, and maybe even weld you on some rebar handles (for a fee) that will make getting it on and off the fire easier.
In a pinch, you can try this method using a grill with the cooking grate wrapped in several thicknesses of heavy-duty aluminum foil (though gathering around the Weber on a chilly night lacks a certain ambiance). One thing you never want to do, however, is use a piece of galvanized roofing tin. The chemical coating used to prevent it from rusting will burn off and give the oysters a poor flavor, not to mention possibly releasing toxic fumes.
- A fire pit and/or some cinder blocks. I’ve found that a small fire pit, such as the kind sold in hardware stores, works great when paired with four cinder blocks arranged around it in a square to hold the metal sheet about six to eight inches from the fire. If you don’t have a fire pit, take a spade and remove squares of grass from a section of your lawn. Lay your fire there. When the party is over, put the grass squares back and water them well. In a few weeks you’ll never know there was a fire.
- You will also need: heavy gloves, tools to move clusters on and off the fire (a flat-bladed garden spade works well or a heavy-duty set of BBQ tongs for smaller quantities), a container to carry the finished oysters to the shucking table — like a shallow wooden box or a bucket and burlap sacks (sold at farm supply stores) — and some old towels.
First, clean the oysters. A garden hose with a pressure nozzle works great. I prop up one edge of a piece of plywood with a couple of bricks, spread out the clusters, spray generously and let the runoff carry away the mud and small bits of shell clinging to them. This step is not 100 percent necessary if the oysters you buy were cleaned well at the dock, but they always miss a little bit, and your guests will appreciate the extra step. Keep the cleaned oysters in a cool place until time for them to go on the fire. A 150-quart cooler placed in a shady spot works great.
Lay your fire and be sure to get a good heavy bed of coals going first, then toss on a few more pieces of good oak wood, and place your metal sheet over the fire. Let it heat up. In the meantime, soak the burlap sacks or old towels in a bucket of water.
When a splash of water sizzles and dances on the metal cooktop, it’s go-time. Dump a single layer of oyster clusters on the metal sheet and cover with the wet fabric. Steam should immediately start rolling off the cooktop, blended with smoke from the fire. It will look cool, and your guests will be impressed. Give it a few minutes, then lift a corner to check. A batch is done when a good number of the shells have begun to open. Personally, I err on the side of a little undercooked, but some people like them well-done. Rake the done oysters off the fire and into your serving tray, take it to the table, where your hungry guests await, armed with oyster knives and towels or gloves to hold the hot shells, dipping sauces of your choice (hot, cocktail or drawn butter are popular), saltine crackers and plenty of cold beverages. Hot dogs and a pot of hearty chili are a traditional accompaniment for adult guests and children who don’t eat oysters.
Be sure and place some large trash cans nearby to collect your shell so that it can be taken to the nearest SCDNR SCORE program collection site when you’re done. By doing this, you are helping to create and maintain the reefs that protect the estuaries where native oysters grow. Learn more at score.dnr.sc.gov.