OYSTER CULT(URE): CELEBRATING ONE OF THE LOWCOUNTRY'S MOST ICONIC FOODS
When travelers come to the Lowcountry and expect an introduction to the regional cuisine, they’re often sat down in front of several menu items: cathead biscuits. The ubiquitous Lowcountry boil. And the oyster, without question the oyster.
This protein-packed morsel can be eaten raw, gently steamed, grilled, fried, baked, broiled and every way in between, and is usually found on the menus of most restaurants up and down the coast, from Myrtle Beach to Amelia Island. Though the cold Atlantic waters of our northern neighbors often get the credit for being the nation’s oyster-eaters,
there’s no place where oyster culture is more revered than right here at home.
OYSTERS & NUTRITION
Oysters are “filter feeders,” and each one can filter organic matter like sediment and algae from up to five liters of water per hour; it’s estimated that the abundant oyster population in Chesapeake Bay could filter the entire estuary in three or four days, a process which would take their human equivalents a year to accomplish. Maybe that doesn’t make them sound particularly appetizing, but our coastal ancestors have been surviving on them for thousands of years, so not only have they maintained our environment at a standard which we can’t begin to match, they’ve provided crucial protein and nutrients like vitamin D, copper, zinc and manganese to huge populations of people, too. Atlantic oysters sustained colonists and indigenous groups from Dutch New Amsterdam all the way to the Florida coast until overfishing made them a rare delicacy in places, but they have almost always been a Lowcountry staple.
OYSTERS & THE ENVIRONMENT
In the Lowcountry, oysters have provided environmental support not just by filtering the water of pollutants but by providing a habitat for other marine animals and protection of the coast from violent storms and erosion. Oysters were the primary economic driver of the tiny Gullah-Geechee village of Pin Point, near Savannah on Skidaway Island, from its founding in the late 1800s by people who had been enslaved on the nearby sea islands. At Pin Point the A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory employed the men of the village in the harvesting of the tidal marshes of the Moon River, and the women and many of the children in the factory, shucking oysters and picking crab and then canning the meat. The men would go out individually in their own bateau, a flat-bottomed, shallow-draft boat long before the sun rose and return at high tide with as many as 30 bushels of oysters, in excess of 1,000 pounds. The older boys would unload the day’s catch with pitchforks and giant rakes and hose the mud off the shells before the oysters were dumped into chutes to where the women and girls stood at shucking stations. After the meat was removed, the shells were discarded into another chute to send them back onto the docks, where they would be taken back out into the marsh to re-seed the oyster beds (why were our predecessors always so much better at sustainability than we are?). The factory sustained the people of Pin Point until it finally shut down in the 1980s and villagers found work in surrounding communities or moved away. The old Varn & Son factory is now the Pin Point Heritage Museum, a beautiful testament to the hardiness of the Geechee people and to the history and culture of oyster harvesting and life on the marsh, maintained by the Coastal Heritage Society, and a hidden gem not-to-be-missed on a day trip to Savannah.
THE OYSTER ROAST
Although some sort of elevated oyster dish is served as high cuisine at most of the fine dining eateries from Pawley’s Island to the Georgia-Florida state line, there’s nothing more communal or approachable for Lowcountry locals than an oyster roast. This is where we go to church, figuratively speaking. You should bring your own oyster knife and a sturdy glove or towel to protect your hand, though tools are often provided, and be prepared for warm, casual conversation while standing shoulder-to-shoulder around a table covered in newsprint with shovels-full of steaming oysters piled on at intervals, punctuated with laughter and cold beer. Also provided will usually be saltine crackers, horseradish, hot sauce (seven times out of ten there will be a good-natured argument about which hot sauce is the best for oysters), cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Oyster roasts serve as an opportunity for a casual get-together or a chance to celebrate just about anything: engagement parties, holiday gatherings, corporate events (who needs a company picnic when you could be having an oyster roast?) or sometimes even wedding receptions are the perfect opportunity to host an oyster roast.
The most crucial rule of oyster culture is that you don’t eat raw oysters in any month that doesn’t have an “R,” which would be May, June, July and August. Wisdom abounds as to why: many think it’s because the warmer waters during months without an “R” mean that the creatures are exposed to more bacteria and/or harmful algae blooms; others say it’s because the summer months are when oysters are spawning, and their texture becomes fattier and less flavorful. Some say the rule applies only to raw oysters and some insist you shouldn’t eat any preparation during the off-season. But whatever your preference, you can get oysters practically anywhere in the Lowcountry, and certainly at any time of year. Another interesting facet of oyster lore is the pea crab, a teensy little soft-shelled crab that you may sometimes be surprised by when popping your oysters open. Yes, technically it’s a parasite, attaching to the oyster’s gills and living off of the same material the oyster is filtering out of the water, but they’re considered a delicacy in the places where they can be found, and the Lowcountry coast is where they are most abundant. Not only that, but pea crabs are considered lucky and were even said to be one of George Washington’s favorite foods, so if you find one, it can’t hurt to pick up a lotto ticket on your way home. Just like their oyster hosts, pea crabs can be eaten raw and right out of the oyster shell.
WHERE TO DINE ON OYSTERS
Raw bars abound along the Lowcountry coast, from landmarks like 167 Raw in Charleston to Sorry Charlie’s in Savannah, serving up fresh, salty delectables and traditional preparations like Oysters Rockefeller or Casino. Near Pin Point on Isle of Hope, Savannah’s Pearl’s Saltwater Grille serves Oysters Florentine with a marsh-side view like nowhere else in town. Savannah Seafood Shack on busy Broughton Street is probably the most approachable entrée into oyster enjoyment: not only can you get a very well-prepared Oyster Po’ Boy sandwich, but their Fried Oyster Cone is becoming an item to tick off your Savannah bucket list. The menu item consists of a waffle cone (not unlike those served just a few doors down at Leopold’s Ice Cream) filled with fried oysters, a lightly dressed house cole slaw and special sauce.
Other stand-out dishes highlight unexpected and highly composed ingredients, providing an oyster presentation that can be had nowhere else: FARM in Bluffton is known for its Roasted Lady’s Island Oysters, featuring a sea urchin sabayon, lemon, tarragon, shallot and butter saltines. Savannah’s Alligator Soul puts its oyster dish at the head of its menu with Oysters a la Soul: oysters on the half-shell stuffed with a blend of Savannah River Farms bacon, Louisiana crawfish, trinity mire poix (that’s sauteed green bell pepper, celery and onion), and scallions in a creamy hilbo spiced roux sauce, topped with toasted breadcrumbs and served alongside Alligator Soul’s Creole Belle Habañero Hot Sauce (which is not to be skipped). The Darling Oyster Bar in Charleston offers a variety of raw options and several unique preparations like Baked Oysters with Alabama White Sauce and Bacon. The oyster institution Delaney Oyster House serves its Seasonal Dressed Oysters with a Smoked Seaweed Chimichurri, and The Ordinary’s raw bar features a range of oyster varieties including Capers Blades Oysters with a Gazpacho Mignonette.
One of the most popular preparations taking hold is wood-firing: a wood-burning brick oven can reach temperatures between 500 and 800 degrees, which helps to seal the oyster’s briny, oceanic flavors inside rather than letting them escape while it cooks. Kiki & Rye’s Wood-Fired Oysters starter dresses the six roasted oysters with parmesan cream, swiss chard and a toasted ‘nduja gremolata for a tangy, savory, slightly spicy bite. Tavern & Table in Mt. Pleasant serves its Wood-Fired Oysters with a take on a traditional Oysters Casino preparation, with “casino butter,” bacon, peppers, garlic and parmesan. Similarly, Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill on Market Street does its fire-roasted oysters Rockefeller-style, with watercress, garlic and Pernod. Roasting oysters in a fire seems a most-appropriate way to enjoy the local favorite dish, cooking over hot coals rather than steaming with professional equipment or a grill, or baking in a traditional oven.
So what does the Lowcountry taste like? What is the region’s official cuisine? Sure, the Lowcountry boil puts up a good fight. But the humble oyster--this precious eco-warrior who happens to taste good too--ought to be the official food of the region. When you’re in Maine, eat lobster. In Boston, clam chowder. In the Lowcountry, order a half dozen local oysters on the half shell.