Shellfish never tasted as good as they did that November day in 1984 at Nance’s Creekfront Restaurant in Murrell’s Inlet, S.C. I’ll always remember my family surrounding me trying to persuade me to try one of Mother Nature’s most anticipated delicacies, the oyster. I was nine and the pressure was coming from my cousins, parents and gregarious great uncle with an intense ability to get what he wanted in all areas of life including introducing his niece to his salty world. “Come on! Down the hatch,” he said as everyone around us was slurping back the steamed bivalves and tossing the shells into the hole in the center of the table. There was nobody there to save me so I took their advice and dove in. I liked what I tasted, and the rest is history.
Chances are, oyster lover or not, there is a distinct memory of the first time you tried an oyster. Some prefer them on the half shell over ice crystals served with fancy accoutrements while others want them covered with a concoction of melted cheese, breadcrumbs and herbs. Others favor the distinct flavor of steamed oysters with their hot briny juices. Who doesn’t enjoy spending time with friends at an oyster roast? I often reflect on my years at the College of Charleston where, on any given day in someone’s yard, makeshift tables of plywood sheets thrown atop sawhorses held a heap of steamed oysters ready for anyone—Lowcountry hobnobbing at its finest!
Although oyster beds don’t exist in the Savannah River, Augustans can still enjoy an oyster roast with a little forethought and some advance planning.
LOW COUNTRY FLAVOR IN AUGUSTA
Recently a group of Augusta couples planned an oyster roast as a benefit for their children’s school. The party was held at the home of Alison and Lee Andrews who had always wanted to have an oyster roast in their backyard. “When Lee was in dental school, we went to many oyster roasts in Charleston. One of our favorites was at Boone Hall Plantation. The long tables of oysters, beautiful people and great setting made for lots of fun oyster shucking. You always meet new people while shucking oysters,” says Alison, who wanted to bring that same feel to friends in Augusta. With unseasonably warm waters in nearby Bluffton, S.C., the resourceful hosts had to expand their sources for the main dish and it did not disappoint! Boxes of fresh oysters arrived from Leavins Seafood in Apalachicola, Fla.
The evening was a success, both for the school’s parent association and for partygoers who were treated to plenty of salty, steamed oysters followed by a seated alfresco barbeque dinner. The party hosts really dressed up the oyster roast, making it a memorable night for those who were in attendance. On this brisk evening, guests were in awe over the Andrew’s newly constructed outdoor kitchen, pool complete with fire lanterns flanking each corner and spacious covered porches. The fire roared and steam billowed from the oyster cookers, signifying it was time to gather around the stand-up tables. An oyster roast really should always be a standup event.
Oyster enthusiasts are serious about their tools. They show up with their personal knives, some with sheaths attached to their belts, ready at a moments notice. Friends milled around, shucking, eating and throwing back cold beer. When planning the party, the hosts thought of everything including extra gloves, oyster knives, cocktail sauce, horseradish, hot sauce and saltines. One of the hosts, Bubba Helton, owns a stainless steel oyster steamer. The hand-welded portable steamer that has made its way around the Augusta oyster roast scene and is proven to be a solid investment time after time when guests get a taste from Helton’s cooker.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
To help create a do-it-yourself guide for hosting an oyster roast, Todd Schafer, executive chef at Abel Brown Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar, shares his expertise. Schafer says there are certain items you must have: good quality oysters, durable oyster knives, a fire, champagne or beer, lemons, cocktail sauce, good ole saltines and hot sauce.
Augusta’s proximity to the coast presents a challenge when planning an oyster roast. Fortunately there are a number of local seafood purveyors and specialty grocery stores that sell oysters. Schafer even touts that he will be more than willing to share his oyster connections with Augusta Magazine readers. “Buying oysters from us is easy. We only need a few days notice, as they are always available.” Prices vary depending on the type of oyster, but plan on $60 – $150 per bag. “I would plan on at least six oysters per person for your roast. You don’t want to run out, and since they are small, its easy for a group of hungry roast attendees to plow through them.”
Honing His Skills
Local knife maker Johnny Johnson of Edgefield has been dedicated to the art of making knives since 1986. He uses premium woods, antlers and man-made materials to craft a variety of knives, including oyster knives. These knives fit well in your hand and have been perfected over the years to pry open even the tightest oyster hinge. Johnson and his wife travel to shows like the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston where they have gained a loyal customer base. Each knife comes with a lanyard that wraps easily around your wrist for accessibility and a protective sheath sewn by his wife Virginia. Contact him directly to order something you can pass down to future generations. You won’t be sorry. Johnny Johnson Knives: 803-637-9723.
For the roast, keep in mind this is a casual event. Schafer likes to compare an oyster roast to a picnic, careful to point out that things get messy. That’s part of it. Before your guests arrive, be sure to wash your oysters well to remove any pluff mud or grit from the shells. Next, choose your technique for steaming or roasting your oysters. There are several methods that will achieve the similar results so opt for what is the most comfortable in your space.
Schafer takes his inspiration from time spent on the coast. “When I worked at the Cloister in the early 90s, we did oyster roasts under a beautiful old live oak.” He remembers that they would dig a two-foot deep hole in a 3-by-5 foot area. “We put in copious amounts of charcoal, and when it was lit, we added hard wood, like pecan or peach.” Schafer says they laid a piece of sheet metal on top of the fire and allowed it to get really hot. Then, they dumped a bushel of oysters on the sheet metal and covered them with moist burlap sacks to steam them. “When the shells start to open, that is how you know they are ready.” He also says its important to taste them after the first batch in order to make adjustments in the cooking time. When it’s time to shuck the oysters, use caution, as the shells will be hot. Heavy-duty dishcloths or gloves will help protect your hands. Insert your knife into the hinge, where the two shells connect and wiggle your wrist slightly to pry it open. Then, wipe your blade before using it to loosen the meat from the shell.
Other steaming methods include using large aluminum steamer pots with self-draining baskets similar to the way a Lowcountry boil is cooked. For the grill lover, Schafer suggests a recipe for grilled oysters. “To grill oysters, you need to wash them really well, open them first and then put whatever you want inside before you put them on the grill. Compound butters and butters with ingredients folded in work great,” he says. Grill them open faced on a 450-500 degree grill for about 6-8 minutes.
When it comes to serving oysters, there’s really no method Schafer hasn’t tried. If he had to choose one way, he’d opt for simplicity. An oyster purist at heart, he prefers them simply prepared on the half shell, but he mixes it up from time to time. At Abel Brown, he’s busy preparing signature oyster dishes nightly. “At the restaurant we fry them, broil them, bake them and of course serve them raw. The oyster imperial we serve is an oyster on the half shell served on ice, garnished with Russian vodka, caviar, crème fraiche and watermelon.” If that doesn’t tempt your taste buds I don’t know what will.
If you need one more reason to appreciate these shellfish, look no further. An oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day so they are helping our waterways and ecosystems. In a way, oysters mirror life. Often we don’t know what we are going to find inside that little shell. There’s a curiosity, an unknown, an excitement, sometimes hard work is involved and who knows, maybe even a pearl. Go ahead—the world is your oyster—down the Hatch!
Our Thanks to the Hosts
Alison and Lee Andrews
Margaret and Bubba Helton
Amanda and Matt Martin
Jennifer and Bill Trotter
This article appears in the February/March 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.