by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Jillian Clark
Ostreophiles might say our primordial beginnings explain the bond between man and mollusk. Somehow, we made it out of the mud. After more than 500 million years, they’re still in it, anchored one to the other, fed by Mother Ocean.
The oyster – Crassostrea virginica in our native waters – has delighted epicureans for centuries. Shakespeare wrote, “the world is my oyster.” I might put it slightly differently: When roasting them in my own backyard, the oyster is my world.
The Carolina oyster roast is a ritual that feeds my soul, stirring nostalgia of the season and prompting memories: my dad pairing a briny peck with cold Blue Ribbon; old stories of Uncle Jim’s house on the Pamlico; dozens broiled on the half shell at Christmas; late November parties in Chapel Hill after playing Duke, backyard fires cutting the chill, autumn leaves underfoot, the encroaching dusk a fragrant rapture of oyster char, woodsmoke, and bourbon.
Ten years ago, for my parents’ 50th anniversary, my wife Kristin and I threw an oyster roast. Then we threw a few more – some intimate and others a little more, well, festive. Like when Patrik and Krystie Nystedt, owners of Raleigh Brewing, introduced Hell Yes Ma’am to the ’hood, or when my next-door neighbor brought over some Chatham County ’shine. Ten hours into that one, I turned to the last guy standing by the fire and asked where he lived. “Over there,” he said, waving his hand. “Be careful walking home,” I told him, and called it a night.
It’s tradition for us now, leaning toward Thanksgiving morning or News Year’s, but any crisp fall or winter day will do. We don’t steam. We roast on a grate over an open hardwood fire. There’s a primitive aspect to it. There’s also the satisfaction of knowing there’s not an oyster on the planet that’s going to taste better. The succulent flavor of a tender, wood-fired oyster is sublime beyond words.
If you’ve never hosted an oyster roast, take this advice: Do it. Here in North Carolina we are blessed with native oysters that are considered by many to be the best in the world. It’s also a good excuse to stand around a fire, eat, drink, laugh, and look up through the trees with bone-deep gratitude. The process couldn’t be simpler, but does require attention and preparation.
For you salts who know these time-worn pleasures, there’s no need to read further unless you’re enjoying this as much as I am. For the uninitiated, I offer what follows not as a step-by-step guide, but as a hand-drawn map of the stars. Navigate at will.
This is an outdoor affair. Have good chairs for those who require them. You’ll need seasoned firewood at the ready – quite a bit of it depending on the size of your gathering – along with a large grate or grill screen and a way to stabilize it over the fire. Don’t forget shucking gloves and oyster knives.
An excellent outdoor bar is recommended. For rustic sophistication, an old wooden table in the yard or under a tree away from the house creates atmosphere. Keep it simple but well provisioned. Spicy Bloody Marys are nice for early arrivals. Good beer, bourbon, and dark rum serve well as the day settles in. Stock a variety of non-alcoholic drinks, including plenty of water. Depending on the number of guests you’re expecting, set up at least two bar stations. Load up on ice.
Order your oysters a week ahead of time – two weeks if you’re up against a holiday. Seafood houses like Saltwater Seafood or Earp’s in Raleigh will tell you what they have and what they recommend. Trust them. We’re talking North Carolina oysters. You may hear of varieties from Lockwood Folly, Masonboro, Bodie Island, or Stump Sound. The best I’ve had lately come from Engelhard in Hyde County on the inner coast of the Pamlico Sound, where it’s 20 miles across the sound.
A bushel, about $80, contains between 100-125 oysters, depending on the size. I look for singles, not clusters. I want them muddy in a burlap sack. Mud means fresh. I prefer a nice rounded shape that yields a medium-to-large oyster since they lose volume as they cook. If your guests are oyster fans, plan on one bushel for every 4-5 people. If your guests are mostly novices, or you are serving other dishes, you’ll be fine with one bushel for every 6-8 adult guests.
Schedule pick-up of your oysters no more than a day ahead, or even the morning of the roast if you can. Take a large cooler or plastic container with a secure closure to transport your cargo, and have the market shovel as much ice on top of the oysters as possible. As long as they are on ice and covered, they’ll stay fresh.
On the morning of your oyster roast, get the fire going at least an hour before guests arrive. I like to have more firewood than I’ll need in case things go longer than planned, and they often do. A quarter to a third of a cord of seasoned hardwood will get the job done. If you’re hosting 100 people, get a half cord. Once your fire is cranking, keep adding enough wood to get a good spread of coals to build on. While you manage the fire, it’s time to wash oysters.
I love the smell of oyster mud. When you first get into your raw, un-rinsed bushel around 11 a.m., take it in. Somewhere in the brackish shallows of our estuarial waters – a system comprised of seven sounds and their river sources, second in square miles only to the Chesapeake Bay – a Carolina waterman, maybe a female waterman, waded into the cold for you. Maybe somewhere in Oyster Creek, near Engelhard.
I use a metal grate to hose off the muddy oysters with high-pressure spray. It’s hard to get them totally clean. Just get the mud off. I spray down about a half bushel at a time – roughly 50 oysters – and leave the rest in the sack on ice, well covered.
There’s nothing like seeing the coloring of a fresh oyster, sprayed clean, alight in the chill of day for the first time. Grey and ivory, pewter and sea green. Beautiful.
Have a large bucket with bottom ice to put your clean oysters in and cover them. If the sun’s out, keep them in the shade and always covered until it’s time to make magic on the fire.
For the oyster table, keep it basic. In truth, any table will do. It’s up to you to set a mood with your furnishings while making sure form follows function. If it’s a smaller gathering, you may opt for a simple farm table that can take the wear. With a larger group, you may prefer to create an oyster bar set-up from a standard 8-foot-by-4-foot board. I made a simple table measuring seven feet long and 40 inches wide, standing 40 inches tall. A quick internet search will give you a number of different ideas.
Make sure there’s cocktail sauce. I doctor mine up with extra horseradish. Set out lemon wedges, Worcestershire, and Tabasco. Saltine crackers – only Saltine crackers – and a roll of paper towels. Gloves and oyster knives. A receptacle for easy disposal of shells and recycling.
It’s almost time. Freshen up. Put on some good music. If you’re having other food offerings, and you should, get everything picture-ready. Maybe you have some chicken wings in the oven for the kids and your guests who, for reasons known only to them and their maker, are not oyster people.
Before guests begin arriving, I like to take a moment for myself. Before I put an oyster on my magnificent roasting fire, I pull one bare-handed from the bucket, pop it open with a knife, and eat it cold and raw. A little taste of the Pamlico.
You’ll know how many oysters to put on the fire by the number of guests on hand. Put a dozen on, maybe two dozen if needed. Your fire will get hotter as the day goes on and coals intensify, so move the oysters around every minute or so. Keep them out of direct flame so they don’t char too quickly – it should only take 3-5 minutes for them to bubble open. Once they’ve popped open for a couple minutes, shuck one and look for a tender firmness that makes them easy to remove with your oyster knife. Welcome any hearty souls to take up gloves and knives and go to town. With the first round roasted to perfection inside their shells, gather them either by hand or in a tin pail and deliver to the oyster table. The second dozen or two should already be on the fire. Have a cold beer. Repeat.
Folks have different preferences for how they enjoy roasted oysters, whether lightly steamed and juicy or fully cooked, firm and smoked. Some will camp out at the table and others won’t leave the fire grate for hours. There are also those who pitch in and help manage the flow of oysters from ice to fire to table, and pick up on the rhythm of watching, tending, and tasting – coaching the first-timers, sharing in their delight, and celebrating their conversion. A tasty little pea crab, live inside his host, may meet an honorable fate. Glasses are raised, a torch is passed, and a North Carolina tradition lives on.