The subtle saltwater complexity of oysters provokes an elemental hunger. And there’s no wrong way to eat them
By Jane Lear
For most folks, their first oyster is a rite of passage, often viewed, if the bivalve is raw on the half shell, with trepidation and/or bravado. Mine was not raw, but an angel on horseback — that is, shucked, wrapped in bacon and broiled until the bacon is crisp. My parents delighted in this inexpensive luxury, and thought to offer me one at around age 8. Never mind that I was adept at filching them from an unattended tray in the kitchen — that suave, salty, officially sanctioned bite made me feel all grown up. I was part of the In Crowd.
We lived in Wilmington at the time, and I soon progressed to the offerings at local “oyster roasts” — the bare-bones seafood restaurants that once flourished out in the country around Masonboro Sound. Our family favorite was Uncle Henry’s, established on Whiskey Creek in 1924 by one Henry M. Kirkum (1872-1954). It remained in the Kirkum family until 1990, when the property was sold and became part of a subdivision. I wonder what they did with the restaurant’s huge midden of oyster shells that had accumulated over the generations.
I remember my mother liked to save the shells that caught her eye. They made practical saltcellars by the stove and on the table, and there were typically a couple on the kitchen windowsill, used to soak seeds before planting or pocket camellia blooms.
My parents started going to Uncle Henry’s when it had a dirt floor and kerosene lamps; after Hurricane Hazel demolished the original structure, it was rebuilt, although aside from the installation of electric lighting and restrooms, there were few concessions to modernity. Everybody liked it that way.
Among the menu’s listings were clam chowder, clam fritters, seafood dinners, chicken and steak. But no one we knew ever ordered anything except “roast oysters.” By the time I became a regular, Henry’s son Elwood was at the helm in the shed out back. He would shovel bushels of oysters in the shell onto a piece of sheet metal heated from underneath, then douse the mound with water and cover it with wet burlap so the oysters would steam in their own briny juices, or liquor. My dad would whistle in admiration. “That is hard, hard work,” he would say. “And he makes it look easy.”
One of my father’s favorite methods of cooking the bivalves was something he called “sweetheart oysters,” because it’s best when made for two people. In a small saucepan, he would melt an enjoyable chunk of butter over moderate heat, then tip in a pint of drained shucked oysters. To prevent them from overcooking, he’d stir them around in the pot with his finger, a trick he’d learned from his mother and grandmother.
It only took a few minutes before the oysters’ edges would begin to curl and stirring became too hot for comfort. He would immediately yank the pot off the stove and spoon the oysters and their sauce — nothing more than pan juices and butter — into warmed soup plates. This simple treatment has become a staple supper at our house, where my husband and I enjoy it with plenty of hot buttered toast and a watercress salad.
What gives oysters their allure is that their flavors — briny, sweet, creamy, buttery, nutty, metallic; sometimes, there’s even a hint of cucumber or melon — come from the waters in which they grow and the microalgae on which they feed. And although each oyster variety is named for the place it’s harvested, they all come from just five oyster species cultivated in North America. The one indigenous to the East and Gulf coasts is Crassostrea virginica, and among the best known North Carolina virginicas are those from Stump Sound, which stretches from Sneads Ferry to Topsail Island. It is one of the saltiest estuaries on the Eastern Seaboard.
“Here in North Carolina, we have so much variation in water salinity and plankton that the oysters taste really different from place to place,” says Chuck Weirich, a North Carolina Sea Grant marine aquaculture specialist. Among other North Carolina oysters you’ll find at local raw bars, restaurants and seafood markets are the Bodie Island and Crab Slough (both from the Outer Banks), Cedar Island Selects and the green-gilled Atlantic Emerald, harvested from the North River in the winter, when the diatom that gives the oysters their tinge of celadon are most active.
Unlike many other forms of aquaculture, which can create an ecological problem with excess feed and waste, the cultivation of filter feeders like oysters is environmentally restorative. Virginia leads the way on the East Coast, and its success has inspired other Southern states, including North Carolina, to invest in the industry.
Thanks to advances in refrigerated shipping and scrupulous handling protocols, oysters are no longer an indulgence exclusive to coastal residents. And as for the old adage about eating oysters only in the r months (September through April), it’s tied into the creature’s reproductive cycle. Oysters begin to accumulate glycogen, a sweet-tasting carbohydrate compound, in the fall, when the water temperature drops. The colder the water, the more glycogen is stored, and the sweeter and fatter the oysters.
Starting in April, when the water begins to warm up, the bivalves gradually convert glycogen to reproductive material, so they become less sweet. In early summer, when the oysters are spawning, they produce a milky substance that looks unappealing — in the words of the late, great oyster expert Jon Rowley, they deserve their privacy — and by the end of summer they turn slack and skimpy, losing much of their flavor in the process.
That’s why many growers are turning to what are known as triploids. “The French call them ‘spawnless oysters,’” says Weirich. “That –oid ending kinda freaks people out.” There’s no genetic modification involved, he explained, but these oysters remain plump and juicy throughout the hot months because they’re bred to be sterile. “Like seedless watermelons,” Weirich notes.
I like seedless watermelons just fine, and I like triploid oysters, too. Still, I tend to consider oysters, like tomatoes, a seasonal delicacy. I don’t eat fresh tomatoes in the winter, and I generally lose my taste for oysters in the summer. But it’s only March, and we still have time.
An oyster roast is one of the world’s great outdoor culinary celebrations. Make sure there are several sturdy surfaces available so guests can open their own oysters; throughout the coastal South, you’ll find large cable spool “tables” upcycled for this very purpose. You’ll want to have plenty of oyster knives (available at seafood markets) and work gloves (to protect the hand holding the oyster) at the ready as well. Don’t forget the beer.
When it comes to embellishments, purists swear by nothing more than a spritz of fresh lemon juice and some saltines as a chaser. And there are those who prefer a ketchup-based cocktail sauce doctored with Texas Pete (which, despite the name, is made in Winston-Salem). I like both treatments, but typically add one more — mignonette sauce. The French, after all, love oysters as much as we do.
A bushel holds about 100 oysters and typically feeds four to six people. It’s a good idea to scrub the oysters briefly under cold water before roasting. And don’t despair if you don’t have the wherewithal to build a cinderblock fire pit complete with sheet-metal cooktop. I get things working in our fire pit as well as on the grill and can easily feed a small crowd that way.
Spread a generous layer of hardwood charcoal in the bottom of a large fire pit and/or grill. Light the coals and let them burn down until they’re glowing red. The grill rack should rest five or six inches above the coals.
Spread as many oysters as you can in a single layer on baking sheets. (A pizza pan is best for a kettle-style Weber grill.) Cover with wet burlap or canvas tarp and cook until the shells are very hot and begin to pop open.
Serve at once with sauces and saltines.
Makes 1 cup
Coarsely grind 3 tablespoons of black peppercorns. In a glass or stainless steel bowl, combine the pepper with 3 tablespoons minced shallots and 2/3 cup white wine vinegar or a mix of white wine and sherry vinegars. Let stand about 20 minutes before serving. Mignonette can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.
Hold the oyster in a gloved hand with the cupped shell half on the bottom and the tapered hinged end facing you. Ease the tip of an oyster knife into the hinge and apply a little leverage to coax it open. Keeping the oyster level, so the liquor stays in the bottom half, lift off the top shell. Slide the knife under the oyster meat to sever the muscle that connects it to the shell, and eat immediately. If the oyster is a big ’un, don’t be afraid to chew to extract every bit of flavor.
Jane Lear was the senior articles editor at Gourmet and features director at Martha Stewart Living. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Garden Design, The Magazine Antiques, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, and the forthcoming Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original (to be published next month by UNC Press).