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(Oyster) Shots!

(Oyster) Shots!
Photo by Tim Hussey


What hasn’t been written about oysters? We know that the Greeks and the Romans feasted on oysters. They were a staple food item for coastal Native Americans 3000 to 4000 years ago, well before Columbus dropped by around 1492. Around 1730, Mark Catesby, the English naturalist, was so enamored over the natural abundance of oysters, he wrote “At low water there appears in the rivers and creeks immense beds of oysters covering the muddy banks many miles together; in some great rivers extending thirty or forty miles from the sea; they do not lie separate but are closely joined to one another and appear as solid rock a foot and a half or two feet in depth with their edges upward.” History reveals that even Kentucky born Honest Abe threw oyster parties at the White House during his terms as President.

The local oyster tradition began in the 2nd Millennium B.C. We know that because one of the massive, archeologically rich shell rings known as Fig Island located near Botany Plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places. Chipped stone implements, early oyster shucking tools, have been found there as well as pottery fragments and blackened oyster shells: a sure sign that cooking and eating was going on.

Photo by Tim Hussey
Photo by Tim Hussey

Oysters have been an important food item on Charleston tables since Colonial and Ante-Bellum times. Many of the locally consumed oysters were harvested by the African-American crews of the “Mosquito Fleet,” and brought to town to be sold by street vendors who peddled their shellfish from carts pushed along downtown streets.

Although the tradition of the oyster roast as we have come to know it exists from coastal North Carolina to South Georgia, nowhere else does it occur in such frequency and with so many oysters as it does around Charleston. Although it is possible to obtain safe-to-eat oysters year around, the oyster roast season typically runs between the middle of October to the end of April. That is not to be confused with the local oyster-picking season, which runs between October 1st and May 15th. The former is optional the latter is mandatory. Around Charleston it is simply too hot to be hanging over a table of steaming oysters during hot weather.

But when the first breezes of cold air descend in October people begin thinking about planning their fall and winter entertainments. There are numerous caterers who do oyster roasts, this writer being one. It does not take a rocket scientist or a professionally trained chef to put one on. Experience, as with any other enterprise, is a big help.

Most caterers provide oyster tables sufficient to serve the number of guests. They also provide oyster knives (shuckers) and gloves to protect hands and fingers from sharp-edged shells. Other items include an oyster dip or cocktail sauce in individual small containers, rolled paper towels (oysters can be messy) and sleeves of saltine crackers. Some caterers include the oysters in the price, others charge separately.

The rule of thumb is generally seven people per South Carolina bushel (55 pounds) or forty-pound box of Gulf singles.

Most all S.C. oysters are gathered off the banks at low tide and are clusters. The Gulf oysters grow in the deeper bottoms of the bayous and tend to grow as individual oysters or “singles.” A good local oyster picker can work down a cluster to two or three of the larger attached oysters and produce what is called a “single select.” South Carolina singles are very rare, some are cultivated, and they are too expensive for use in an oyster roast.

Oyster Feature_Photo by Tim Hussey
Photo by Tim Hussey

The old way to “roast” oysters was to stock up on a large quantity of fire wood, scoop out a pit in the dirt or build an elevated base over which a heavy metal plate could be placed directly over a blazing fire. The oysters were then poured atop the plate and covered with a heavy layer of wet burlap bags. After they were cooked the oysters were carried a shovel-full at the time to the table. Nowadays most caterers use steamers capable of large-scale production, which can feed, at decent intervals, hundreds of people at the time. For smaller affairs simply place them in a single layer, cup side down, (oysters have a flattish side and a cupped side. The cupped side is down to hold the liquid) in a rimmed baking or pizza pan and sticking them in the oven under high heat until they begin to open. Have a thick layer of newspapers on the kitchen table along with knives and rags and containers of butter and lemon juice and SAY AMEN!

For those oyster aficionados who want the whole experience of harvesting their own shellfish, it is possible in South Carolina, with the purchase of a state saltwater fishing license, to access managed public and state shellfish beds, where one is permitted to gather a personal limit of two bushels a day not more than twice a week.

Meanwhile, let us enjoy this succulent, briny treat while they are abundant and available as part of a long continuing Lowcountry food tradition.

Oyster Shots
from TLP‘s Test Kitchen

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