Oyster roasts have been a part of Southern social life dating back to the middle of the 20th Century. Lowcountry natives were raised with this tradition and understand the ins and outs of this culinary experience, but newcomers face their first experience with trepidation and concerns over not fitting in.
Before we offer some general oyster roast etiquette, let’s dispel the myth around what months are best for oysters. You may hear people around the Lowcountry mention prime oyster season is only during months that end in “R”. Actually, Charleston’s oyster season includes all months that have an “R” in it, running from September to April. Over these months, the water temperature drops and the oyster beds are ripe for picking.
If you’ve never been to an oyster roast, or felt a bit awkward during your first experience, we’ve compiled a list of things that are good to know before you start shucking.
1. Come prepared. It’s a good idea to bring your own oyster knife. Knives will be provided, but they are sparse and you’ll look like an old pro if you bring your own. Charleston Cooks on East Bay Street has a nice selection. The Messermeister Oyster Knife is our favorite. It’s good to use a cloth or glove when handling the sharp shells, so bring your own glove. We’ve been told it’s a “Southern thing,” but it’s never a bad idea to bring your own beer koozie, too.
2. Know how to open an oyster. When oysters are steamed they start to open up a little. Many people think it’s best to open the oyster at this seam. On the other side of the oyster is a hinge. If you open the oysters from this angle, it’s cleaner and takes less time.
3. What to drink. Beer is the drink of choice at most casual Southern affairs. If you’re looking for a local brew, check out Coast Brewing Company. When it’s cold, Bourbon is always a good choice. Bloody Marys are great because they play on the cocktail sauce and lemon. Some of our favorite mixes are Charleston Bloody Mary Mix and Fat and Juicy Mix. If the night lasts long enough, you could end up making Oyster Shooters—a combination of vodka, cocktail sauce and a raw oyster. Although champagne is often paired with oysters, you can bet a longneck Bud you won’t see one.
4. Talk like you’ve done this before. Throw “‘bo” around whenever you get a chance. Bo’ is local vernacular and short for “boy”, i.e., “Hey ‘bo, you gotta check out these oysters. We got them from up around Bull’s Bay”.
These days most oysters are steamed in an aluminum pot attached to a propane tank. Purists still use a fire pit with a sheet of steel on top. The oysters are placed on the sheet, covered with a wet burlap feed sack and steamed to perfection. Ask your host if they’ve ever roasted their oysters the old-fashioned way. Might win you a few points.
5. Know the college allegiance of your host. Chances are you’ll be attending this party during football season. Buying a Clemson Tiger themed gift would not go over well with a South Carolina Gamecock fan. If you’re looking for a hostess gift, try Charleston’s Cocktail Sauce, a Tervis Tumbler or a couple of extra oyster knives.
6. What to wear. Despite being Southern traditions, oyster roasts aren’t fancy affairs. Jeans and khakis are always welcome. Footwear is key as you will be outdoors and possibly near a bonfire. Ladies, skip the heels and pick boots for comfort. If you really want to dress the part, King Street is lined with stores that can outfit your evening. Dumas is the perfect store for a gentleman’s preppy Southern attire.
Did we miss anything? If you have others tips to help readers fit in better at their next oyster roast please share.
And, you can put your new-found knowledge to use this weekend, as Charleston celebrates the 29th Annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival. Head to Boone Hall Plantation on Sunday to participate in the “World’s Largest Oyster Roast”.