We're now well into the "R" months, and that means that, in the Lowcountry, at least, it's time for oyster roasts. Prime time — those three or four weeks on either side of Christmas — is still a little way off, but we're definitely in the pre-season, and now is the perfect time to polish up on some of the finer points of oyster roast etiquette.
Don't throw garbage in that hole in the middle of the table.
This is an easy one to slip up on, especially when you finish a beer and need a place to toss the empty. But, inviting as it looks, please don't throw that can (and, it better be a can, as we'll soon address) into that round hole in the middle of the impromptu wooden tabletop laid over sawhorses. That bin inside is for oyster shells only, and they're destined to end up getting recycled back into nearby waters to seed beds for the next generation of bivalves. Baby oysters love latching onto old oyster shells; onto Budweiser cans: not so much.
If you do slip up (as one is bound to do, especially later in the afternoon), don't panic. Apologize gently, then lean over and extract your offending trash. No one will care because, heck, we've all been there.
Bring beer. In cans.
The larger, better-organized oyster roasts will have beer trucks dispensing thin, watery brew in plastic cups, and if that's the case then roll with it. But, if it's a bring-your-own affair, convention dictates that you bring your beer in cans. Why? I have no idea. It's just the convention.
As for slow-aged bourbon, fine white wine, bubbly champagne ... well, let's just say you really need to stick to beer. In a damn can.
When it comes to the kind of beer, that's more of an open question. You really can't go wrong with any brand that advertises during a Sunday afternoon football game. If those aren't high-falutin' enough for you, you can always bring some craft beer and endure a minimum of abuse from your tablemates as long as it's in a can, and it would help if you tuck it away inside a coozie, preferably a promotional one from a local realtor or roofing contractor.
For those folks whose palates are too finely tuned for Miller or Bud, we've turned to our resident beer savant Eric Doksa for a few recommendations here.
Bring your own knife, but don't make a big deal out of it.
Depending upon who's staging the roast, there will probably be at least some knives provided to pry open the oysters, but odds are they'll be those little rickety things with bulbous wooden handles and thin blades that jiggle around ineffectually when you try to wedge them into the rear hinge of the shell. If it's a smaller affair, there may not be enough knives to go around. So, it is perfectly acceptable, even advisable, to bring your own — preferably a stout, heavy-bladed number well worn from use.
But, if you do bring your own knife, here's the key: don't make a big deal out of it. Only a cad who has owned an oyster knife less than a month would make a point of highlighting that he brought his own (and, at risk of being insensitive, I submit that anyone who makes a big deal about bringing his own oyster knife to an oyster roast is almost certainly a male). Just slip it quietly out of your back pocket and go to work.
Bring your own glove, but just one.
The glove doesn't have to be anything fancy, but I would recommend a good sturdy leather yardwork glove and not one of those thin white cotton things. The leather glove is far more resistant to knife pokes, and it won't get saturated with oyster juice nearly so quickly. But don't bring anything that you plan on wearing while you prune the petunias the following weekend. That glove is going to be a tad fragrant after you're done shucking and slurping and leaving it in your car trunk overnight while you sleep it off. You won't want to use that mitt for anything in the future other than gripping oyster shells.
This part may go without saying, but it's important to the etiquette: you need a glove only for your off-hand — that is, your left-hand if you're right-handed and vice-versa. That glove is for holding the oyster firmly with while you go to work on it with a knife in your dominant hand so you don't slice the bejeezus out of your palm when the knife slips, which it will.
Now, some people may grab a pair of gloves from the garage and think: heck, I'll bring both and maybe someone can use the other one. DO NOT DO THIS, unless you are left-handed or a sadist. If you are right-handed, the gloveless person who needs to borrow your extra one is going to find themselves with a glove on their right hand, which means they will be trying to open oysters with the knife in the left hand, which by all odds is not the hand they need to be using for such a task. The fact that they arrived at an oyster roast without a glove means they are probably newbies, and you are just setting them up for disappointment and failure. And that's not very nice.
Bring your own mignonette. I guess.
In just the past year or so, I have on multiple occasions encountered people who have shown up at oyster roasts with a little glass jar of their own homemade mignonette for dipping — a little vinegar with some diced shallots and black pepper floating in it. I'm not at all sure how to feel about this innovation. Is it a sign that we're stepping forward in our culinary sophistication or just the height of effete snootery? I suppose the rule here should be the same as with an oyster knife: bring a little of your own personal special sauce if you like, since tolerance is the name of the game at oyster roasts. But don't make a big deal out of it. And be sure to share with anyone who expresses interest.
Shuck for the squeamish.
There are actually quite a lot of people who like to eat oysters but either don't want to get their hands soiled with all that juice or find that their enjoyment of the occasion is impaired by the manual labor involved. There is plenty of room at the table for such people, and, fortunately, there are also a lot of folks who find it downright pleasant to open far more oysters in the space of an hour than they could ever fathom eating. Nature has a way of striking a balance, so if you find yourself in a shucking mood, by all means pop open a few extra, swipe that knife along the bottom of the shells to free the flesh, and then lay them out on the table for the non-shuckers to enjoy.
Don't eat all the oysters the generous shucker is shucking.
Here's the converse rule for those who find it better to receive than to give: if you do manage to attach yourself to a generous shucker, by all means regulate your intake so that you let him or her at least suck down an oyster or two in between feeding ones to you.
Toss oysters your neighbor's way.
When it's reloading time, the guys toting the big baskets of oysters are going to come dump them in a massive steaming pile in the middle of the table. The polite thing to do is, first, get the hell out of their way so they can dump the thing. And next, once you've stepped back up to your position, use the tip of your knife to level out the big steaming pile and be sure everyone around you has a reasonable number of oysters in front of them. There's plenty enough for all.
During oyster season, the Pearlz in West Ashley hosts regular Sunday afternoon roasts. $12 gets you all-you-can-eat oysters from 2-5 p.m. 9 Magnolia Road. (843) 573-2277
A good bet for experiencing a typical oyster roast is at Bowens Island, where they shovel heaps of steamed oysters on to the oyster room tables. They're open from Tues.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. and will let you eat oysters until you can't eat no more. 1870 Bowens Island Road. (843) 795-2757
Host your own backyard oyster roast. Buy bushels of local oysters from your neighborhood seafood market (Crosby's, Huff's, etc.), hose them down, and throw them on the fire or in the steam pot. It's a cheap and easy way to entertain a crowd. For more on how to do this, watch Jeff Allen's video on the subject below.
As the season gets going, the City Paper's event calendar fills up with oyster roasts usually held for benefits and fundraisers. Keep an eye on the oyster roast category and hit one up to see how it's done.