Oysters to Ashes 

A fire claims a local treasure but fails to extinguish our traditions

click to enlarge Owner Robert Barber surveys the damage at Bowens Island, the legendary oyster house opened by his grandparents in the 1940's - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Owner Robert Barber surveys the damage at Bowens Island, the legendary oyster house opened by his grandparents in the 1940's

In the months since a fire brought down the hallowed oyster room at Bowens Island, I have often imagined what the final few moments must have looked like -- the scrawled recordings of generations peeling from the walls in sheets of agony, the old steel plate bending finally under the pressure of an all-consuming inferno, the blackening char reclaiming the scene of a million feasts -- and I am sad. This singular, devastating event reminds us that even the best things in life eventually cease to exist. Bowens represents a dying breed of authenticity in the Lowcountry. When places like this go, we inevitably open the door to modern development.

click to enlarge The haunting, charred remains of Bowens Island show an undoused spirit - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • The haunting, charred remains of Bowens Island show an undoused spirit

I worry not just because Bowens Island is the best seafood joint in the South, but because its loss would threaten an entire commercial ecosystem built around decades of shared work and sacrifice. Before the fire, the Barber family did more than serve real Lowcountry food -- they had created a timeless place where citizens gathered, regardless of wealth or station, to be satisfied together, collected in an intimate shrine and directly connected to the fruits of the sea and the people who gather and prepare them. If you wanted to get close to the natural source of your food, a hot trend these days, there was no better place. You consumed the food and appreciated the community that produced it in that old muddy shack.

Fortunately, Bowens will go on. If all has gone to plan, people are already back eating on the deck and dock as this issue of Dish hits the streets, but I'm not sure it will ever be the same place. When a shiny new dining room appears, conforming to myriad codes and regulations, the role architecture plays in the dining experience will be plainly obvious. Many New Years will be rung in and many people will pass through the door before it reclaims that warm patina of yesteryear -- and the great chance that it never recovers, or morphs into a shadow of its former self, always looms large.

click to enlarge LESLIE MCKELLAR

Sometimes I think -- and I imagine Robert Barber does as well -- that maybe it was just Bowens' time to go -- that legendary places need to come to an end at some point, to go out swiftly, like The Anchor Line did this fall, before they are snatched up by some restaurant group and turned into high volume tourist barns hawking T-shirts or "reinterpreted" by nouveau-cuisine chefs who would plaster them in suede and serve oysters in edible "molecular" shells.

But then I think of what we would lose. Splendid spaces like Bowens become places through their content, and that content lives and breathes. They echo with the memories of times past but also vibrate with the present -- the people who toil there and those who come to be served; the oystermen knee-deep in pluff mud, procuring mountains of shellfish; families like mine, seating four generations around the steaming shovelfuls and cold beers.

click to enlarge Despite the total destruction of the graffitied dining room, the old oyster shovel stands ready - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Despite the total destruction of the graffitied dining room, the old oyster shovel stands ready

To lose the places like Bowens would mean the death of the Lowcountry, its transformation into an up-market Myrtle Beach complete. Bowens will be a new vessel, but it will continue to contain the same energy that has defined its authenticity across the years -- and that is something worth saving.


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