Autumn is the height of oyster season in New England and the South, when bonfires and the return of football unite with the salty, sweet victory of prying open a Wellfleet, New Haven or Low Country oyster and passing around a hot toddy or jar of bourbon and ginger.
Depending on how many people are in attendance decides how many bushels you purchase from your local fishmonger. Generally, a bushel of oysters for every five people is a hard and fast rule. Decide if you want singles or clusters. Clusters make partygoers actually have to work for their delicacy and most often taste better than singles. Next you’ll need a knock-your-socks-off cocktail sauce recipe, both spicy and non-spicy, a boatload of saltines, a plethora of paper towels, gloves and oyster knives. Every good coastal Southerner has an oyster knife on their person at any given moment in the fall and winter, but backups are needed for the out-of-towners and the generally unprepared.
Many Southerners have their favorite oyster knife. Whether it was passed down between generations or you personalized yours with your initials and alma mater, the oyster knife is sacred to many people. As you utter the words, “oyster roast” the keen Southerner will whip his knife out like a gunman slings his gun in the Wild West.
Before they can show off their wares, the oysters must be roasted. A good old-fashioned roast means actually roasting them over the fire’s live coals. Make sure you spray down the oysters to get rid of any excess mud. You’ll never get rid of all the pluff mud but be sure to try.
To start, build a fire enclosed with cinder blocks. Place a metal grate over the blocks once the fire is really roaring. In order to determine when to throw on your single layer of oysters, splash some water and when it sizzles pour the oysters over the coals.
Place a soaking wet burlap sack over the oysters. Cook the oysters for 8-10 minutes. Make sure the majority of the shellfish are 1-1 ½” open. Then throw them on a plywood table with a round opening for the trash and pry open the oyster with your handy knife. The preferred method is from the back of the oyster. Dip in the homemade cocktail sauce and slide it on a saltine. Try a lemon aioli if you want to get off the traditional script.
The last step in the oyster roasting process is the proper disposal of the used shells. Most areas reuse the shells in order to cultivate and restore oyster beds. The recycling of the shells will help keep this tradition going. Another use for the used shells is a construction material called tabby. Tabby can be used in the building of homes, patios and sidewalks. Cities like Charleston are literally built on the oyster. So be conscious of where you shuck your shell. Otherwise, you might not be invited back.
Leading image courtesy The National Archives.
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