“Hot oy-sters!” shouted a vendor at last year’s Lowcountry Oyster Festival in Mount Pleasant, a town near Charleston, South Carolina, that hosts one of the largest festivals of its kind.
“Come on over, sir,” she coaxed with a lilting drawl.
Sir needed little persuasion. His spot at a communal table was just a pile of empty shells and saltine cracker crumbs, so he was ready for seconds. With gloved hands, the vendor scooped up a bucketful of the steaming bivalves and handed them over with a smile.
In Charleston, oyster roasts are as common as palmetto palms and antebellum homes, but this outdoor festival hosted by the Charleston Restaurant Foundation is the granddaddy of them all. It returns Jan. 26 to Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, where more than 10,000 hungry oyster lovers will gather beneath a canopy of moss-strewn oak trees to shuck the beloved shellfish. Before the day is done, they will consume more than 60,000 pounds of local and Chesapeake Bay oysters, leaving behind nothing but a mountain of shells and empty bottles of Red Clay hot sauce.
Prying out the meat is serious business. Pros deftly wield their oyster knife, easily popping out the gelatin-like gems and slurping them down again and again, while neophytes struggle to free their prize, seemingly in danger of impaling a finger.
That’s when Southern hospitality comes to the rescue.
“Locals love to help anyone with shucking challenges so that everyone becomes a master by the end of the day,” said Jonathan Kish, president of the Charleston Restaurant Foundation.
But only the master of mollusk masters can win the oyster shucking contest, a three-minute competition where hopeful contestants dig, twist and pry until they are told to “drop your knife, and step away from the table.” The winner receives a small cash prize and community wide adoration.
Other festivities include live music, food trucks and dishes prepared by some of Charleston’s finest restaurants.
If your Charleston visit doesn’t coincide with the oyster festival, no worries. A number of restaurants serve the briny beauties year-round.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar
You could forgo the tedious shucking altogether and eat your oysters deep fried and stuffed into a buttered bun. The two-fisted oyster po’ boy sandwich topped with piquant tomatillo salsa verde is a best-seller at Rappahannock Oyster Bar.
This cavernous seafood paradise with its prominent copper-topped horseshoe bar is housed in The Cigar Factory, a 19th-century building across from the Cooper River.
If you find yourself sitting at that bar overwhelmed by the bounty of raw seafood, spare yourself some tough choices and get it all. The Holy City Tower ($120) is a virtual seafood cornucopia, what manager Kyle Anderson describes as “a tasting version of the raw bar experience.”
The double-tiered serving dish is heaped with clams, mussels, shrimp and octopus salad nestled in a bed of ice, but the star of this seafood extravaganza is the triumvirate of oysters: Rappahannock River, Rochambeau and the beloved Olde Salt oysters, famous for a sharp brininess that captures the very essence of the sea.
Each has a distinctive flavor, largely due to what Anderson calls “merroir.” The concept is similar to terroir in wine making. Just as the location of a vineyard changes the taste of a grape, and ultimately the wine produced from it, the location and characteristics of the water in which an oyster grows impart a unique flavor.
The oyster trio allows uninitiated oyster eaters to discover their preference.
Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop
The char-grilled oysters at Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop, a hipster hangout in a refurbished auto-repair shop, have made oyster lovers out of those who vowed never to put one of the slimy-looking creatures anywhere near their mouth.
Oysters are a polarizing food, after all. People love them or hate them, but occasionally a “hater” will change teams. It’s all about the preparation. Someone who would never slurp the mollusks raw off the half shell may savor the smoky flavor of char-grilled oysters smothered in garlic butter and melted parmesan cheese. This simple preparation produces irresistibly complex flavors as the garlic butter tames the aggressive salinity. It’s completely acceptable to soak up every last drop of the pool of garlic butter with your bread.
Grilling also changes the texture, the big ick factor for some, producing plump, meaty little gems that go down easily.
For those who think cooking oysters is a sacrilege, the raw version is always available. Freshly shucked oysters served on the half shell are presented on vintage beer trays.
You may not expect an extensive wine and beer list in a place with a concrete floor and mismatched chairs, but Leon’s delivers. Wash down those oysters with a glass of Champagne or go with a local beer like the Pluff Mud Porter brewed by Holy City Brewing.
In Charleston, the world is your oyster, and the oyster is your world.
More oyster festivals
If you can’t make it to Charleston this month, check out these other oyster festivals around the South.
Hatteras Island Oyster Roast. Dine on fresh oysters, seafood chowder, corn bread and more while listening to live music. 1-4 p.m. Feb. 1. $25 advance, $35 gate. Odens Dock, 57878 NC 12, Hatteras, North Carolina. www.outerbanks.org
Amite Oyster Festival. In addition to oysters and other seafood dishes, this three-day celebration includes a parade, talent show, oyster eating contest, oyster scavenger hunt and live entertainment. March 20-21. Downtown Amite, Louisiana. www.amiteoysterfestival.com
IF YOU GO
2020 Lowcountry Oyster Festival. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 26. $17.50 advance, $25 at gate. Food and beverage tickets purchased separately. $160 VIP includes unlimited food and beverage. Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, 1235 Long Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. 843-884-4371, www.boonehallplantation.com www.lowcountryhospitalityassociation.com/oyster-fest
Where to Stay
The Vendue. A dedicated art hotel in the heart of Charleston. $159-$259. 19 Vendue Range, Charleston, South Carolina. 843-577-7970, www.thevendue.com
Where to Eat
Rappahannock Oyster Bar. Entrees $21-$36. 701 E. Bay St., No. 110, Charleston, South Carolina. 843-576-4693, www.rroysters.com
Leon’s Fine Poultry and Oyster Shop. Entrees $14-$48. 698 King St., Charleston, South Carolina. 843-531-6500, www.leonsoystershop.com
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