JIM CARTER (originally published 12/20/2011)
Upon arrival at Ella’s, a hand written sign declaring oyster roasts were in season greeted us. For Thanksgiving week this year, Melinda and I decided to head for the Carolina beaches to relive our youth. For lunch the first day we headed for Ella’s of Calabash, North Carolina, founded over sixty years ago and just across the border from South Carolina. When Ella’s was already twenty years old, I ate there with college friends. Going to “the beach”, where one danced the shag to beach music, drank beer, cruised up and down Ocean Boulevard, and met members of the opposite sex, was a rite of passage back then. Though Ella’s is now under third generation ownership, not much has changed.
We had to have the oyster roast, one-third of a bushel. The oysters were succulent, served wet, dry or medium, and with house-made red sauce and drawn butter. In this day, when regional foods seem to spread so quickly by television and Internet, oyster roasts still seem to be confined to the Carolina Lowcountry during the “r” months.
I first enjoyed roasted oysters as a youth at family gatherings. During the fall months we would head for the coast to get fresh oysters, then roast them and sit down at a picnic table to enjoy this coastal custom. In the Lowcountry oyster roasts are a traditional way of celebrating with family or friends.
My first restaurant roasted oysters were at Bowens Island Restaurant near Foley Beach, South Carolina, a restaurant even older than Ella’s. Back then, forty years ago, the oysters were roasted in an open fireplace under wet burlap bags and then shoveled onto newspaper-covered tables. When we drove up to the rustic building after traveling down a long country road, I was surprised to find the parking lot full of high-end luxury cars. The restaurant was the secret of the in-crowd of Charleston. When we entered, everyone there was eating roasted oysters. I’m not sure they served anything else in that day. There was a pier just outside, where the fresh oysters were brought in each day. (The original restaurant burned in 2006, but has now been replaced.)
If you want an authentic Carolina oyster roast, I recommend either of these restaurants during the “r” months. Ella’s is at: 1148 River Road, Calabash, NC 28467. Bowens Island Restaurant is located at: 1870 Bowens Island Road, Charleston, SC 29412. If you can’t wait until your next trip to South Carolina, there are two traditional ways to prepare an “oyster roast” in the Lowcountry tradition – grilling and steaming.
Grilling is simple. Prepare coals in your grill; layer oysters in their shells on top of the grate and wait for the bivalves to begin to open. Remove them to the table and wait for them to cool a little. Then just pop them open with a small knife, preferably an oyster shucking knife, and enjoy with lemon, cocktail sauce or drawn butter.
Steaming can be done on a grate as was done at Bowens Island. Again prepare coals with little or no flame, layer the oysters in their shells on top and cover with wet burlap bags. Keep the bags wet and off the coals so that they do not burn. When the oysters begin to open, they are ready for the table. Steaming, also, can be done in a Dutch oven or similar pot on top of the stove or in the oven. The key is to heat them until they begin to open.
In preparing this short article, I realized why oyster roasts have not spread as many regional foods have. They are really simple, but oyster roasts are not about food, oyster roasts are about getting together with friends, socializing and having a great time; the oyster roast in the Lowcountry is really a state of mind.