To understand the South Carolina oyster roast, you must first understand the oysters in South Carolina.
South Carolinians don’t walk into a restaurant, order oysters and envision briny jewels nestled in their shells fanned out on a bed of ice. In South Carolina, the oysters aren’t quite as pretty to look at. They typically come in knobby clusters of shells that are difficult to separate. While you could expend hours of energy breaking them down into individual servings, it’s easier, and much more fun, to have an oyster roast.
Which is to say, a party. A South Carolina oyster roast usually is thrown in the winter months, when you can start up a great big bonfire in the backyard and invite friends over for beers and bivalves.
Makeshift tables are set up for eaters to lay out their oyster accompaniments. I grew up near Charleston and my father Steve used to keep a giant piece of plywood with a hole cut out of the middle. He would prop this up on sawhorses and put a huge garbage can under the hole to catch the shells. We would have oyster roasts either at our house or at my dad’s best friend Larry Davis’ house.
South Carolina sounds, rivers and bays are connected by an elaborate network of waterways that wind through a vast saltwater marsh. The oysters grow in clumps along the banks and on the mud flats. They grow in sets on top of each other and can reach a foot or more in thickness. You can see that this does not lend itself to refined shucking.
For an oyster roast, the Official South Carolina Tourism website suggests starting with a bushel basket of oysters, because “a 10-quart bucket won’t be quite enough for 6 to 8 people.”
With a sturdy stick or piece of pipe, pry the oysters apart and wash off the mud. Then start a wood fire and burn until you have good, hot coals. The tourism folks recommend cooking the oysters over the coals on an iron grill about 2 ½ feet by 5 feet, or a piece of sheet iron with some holes drilled in it. The mesh should be fine enough that the oysters won’t fall through. Layer the oysters on the grill (but not too thick) and hold the grill over the fire with some bricks at the corners.
“Sometimes when the oysters start getting done the shells will start popping so look out for flying pieces of shell,” the tourism site warns. “When the mouths are well open – that is when there is a crack in the shells – they are done.”
When I lived in South Carolina, I maintained my own oyster preparedness kit. While it’s a matter of personal preference, mine consisted of an oyster knife, heavy-duty gardening gloves (to protect from the shells), a box of Saltine crackers, dishtowels and Crystal hot sauce. Other variations include fresh lemon juice and cocktail sauce.
If you can’t fire up an oyster roast on your own and you happen to be near Charleston, you’ll want to head to Bowens Island restaurant near Folly Beach. The Bowens started serving local oysters harvested by low-country oystermen in 1946. Their grandson, Robert Barber, carries on the tradition today. Bowens has been given a James Beard Award for being an “American classic.” The restaurant slogan says it all: “an island … a restaurant … a state of mind.” It’s not hard to find the place because it’s literally an island unto itself. They serve oysters and seafood all harvested from the surrounding waters. The real draw, though, is the oyster roast.
Head up the rickety staircase and place your order. You’ll be given a ticket to go back downstairs to “The Oyster Room.” A cook will be waiting for you and will roast your oysters to order. Some people like them firm and dry, while others prefer them juicy and full of oyster liquor. If you don’t know, say “medium.” When I was younger, I liked my oysters cooked until rock hard. Now I like them a little more wobbly.
You take your tray of oysters back to the dining room – a room covered in graffiti, stickers and flyers. It is a shack, in the best sense of the word. You’re surrounded by fellow diners as you fight and claw your way through a mountain of craggy oysters to find the payoff – the big oyster in the middle of the cluster. It’s a religious experience. And it’s pure South Carolina.