Bake 'em, roast 'em, grill 'em, stick 'em in a stew - you can do all this and more with oysters. South Carolina has some of the best, thanks to pristine growing conditions and advanced aquaculture practices. In fact, the state's coast is part of what's called the "Napa Valley of Oysters," with harvests often selling out from high demand by restaurateurs, locally and across the country. Though true connoisseurs prefer them raw, the bivalve is a versatile meat that lends itself to a variety of cooking methods and presentations.
You'll find fresh South Carolina oysters on restaurant menus during months that contain the letter "R." During the season, experience unforgettable aqua farm-to-table dining. Among the many South Carolina restaurants where you'll find local oysters are Bowens Island Restaurant on Folly Beach, Leon's Fine Poultry and Oysters, The Darling Oyster Bar and The Ordinary, all in Charleston; Nance's Creekfront Restaurant in Murrells Inlet and Toomer's Family Seafood House in Bluffton, a division of Bluffton Oyster House which harvests the oysters from local waters and shucks them by hand.
SC oysters are more briny and crisp than those found in the gulf and other regions, creating a distinctive taste. To ensure you're getting a local product, ask your server if the oysters on the menu are from South Carolina.
Eating like locals
While oysters are often enjoyed raw, lightly battered and fried, or served Rockefeller style - baked in the half-shell with toppings of breadcrumbs, butter, onion, spinach and cheese - South Carolinians get their oyster fix in other ways, too.
Each season, heaps of oysters are downed across the state at oyster roasts, a much-anticipated tradition carried out at festivals, fundraisers and myriad backyard get-togethers. At these informal outdoor gatherings, roasted oysters are shoveled off steaming pits onto long tables, then shucked and eaten on the spot with crackers, sauces and other condiments. If you're in South Carolina during the season, don't miss this quaint, fun experience, and don't let a lack of shucking skills deter you. With a little practice, you'll soon get the hang of prying an oyster from its shell. There are usually plenty of friendly and skilled "masters" on hand to give you a few pointers, too.
Arrive with this list of tips in mind:
Arm yourself. You'll need a couple of tools, usually provided by the oyster roast host: a glove or towel to protect your non-dominate hand and an oyster knife to wield with the other.
Be aggressive. When you see those steaming oysters piled on the table, stake your claim, grab one and hold it in your gloved hand.
Gently work the tip of your knife into the hinged end of the oyster where the two halves meet to a point.
Give it a twist. Once the tip is in, it's all in the wrist - twist the inserted blade to separate the halves and pop the shell apart.
Sever ties. Using your knife, cut the muscle by sliding the blade through the hollow of the top shell. Then, free the oyster completely by sliding the knife beneath the meat to sever it from the bottom.
Top and slurp. Slide the oyster onto your blade and eat, or put the meat on a saltine cracker and top with your choice of condiments - hot sauce, cocktail sauce, lemon - the classic oyster roast treatments for ultimate slurping.
Make at home
If you'd like to enjoy roasted oysters on a smaller scale, prepare and heat your grill to a medium-high temperature, place South Carolina oysters on the rack and top with a triple layer of wet burlap. Roast uncovered for about 10 minutes, or until the shells begin to slightly open. Remove them with a large spatula to a bowl and transfer to the table. Don't forget your tools and condiments. And then take your discarded shells to your local recycling station.
Look for these local varieties
Capers Blade - Harvested by Clammer Dave's in McClellanville
Single Lady - Harvested by Lady's Island Oyster Company in Beaufort
Baritaria Blade - Harvested by May River Oyster Company in Bluffton
Otter Island, Ace Blade, Otter Roasters and Charleston Salts - Harvested by St. Jude Farms in Green Pond
Oyster stew is another longtime regional favorite. A simple but nourishing dish first concocted by African slaves, this stew is often made with a milk-base to which sauteed onion and celery have been added, as well as plenty of chopped, meaty South Carolina oysters. Chef Sean Brock of Husk fame makes a version using stock thickened with flour made from heirloom benne seeds, or sesame seeds as they are commonly known. The result is a thick, brown, nutty-flavored stew that sticks to the ribs.
Try this easy-to-execute recipe from Magnolias, one of Charleston's most iconic restaurants.
2 Tbsp. lightly salted butter
1/4 cup celery, finely minced
1/4 cup yellow onion, finely minced
1 Tbsp. chives, chopped
4 cups half & half
1 dash of freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
3 dozen oysters, cleaned and shucked
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat.
2. Add the celery, onion and chives and saute, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onions are translucent.
3. Add the half & half, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and oysters. Stir to incorporate.
4. Heat only until just below the boil, at which point the oysters will being to curl up.
5. Remove the pot from the heat and serve the stew immediately in warmed soup bowls.