[dropcap]A[/dropcap] visit to South Carolina's Lowcountry isn't complete without taking part in a full-fledged oyster roast. Hosted during oyster season, most oyster roasts are large affairs where oysters are steamed to perfection while live music serenades guests as they sit under the palmetto palms. Recently I was given the chance to attend the Pig Pickin' + Oyster Roast as part of the Hilton Head Seafood Festival and it was the main highlight of my trip.
After a long and traffic-filled drive, we arrived at the Waddell Mariculture Center with hungry tummies. A cold beer in hand, we were immediately handed a bucket of steaming oysters along with an oyster knife and a glove. Picnic tables were lined across the grass, each packed with hungry South Carolinians shucking roasted oysters, sipping beer, and chatting with one another as their hands popped open shells like they were tiny little wrapped presents.
We found a wooden table topped with bowls of saltine crackers, lemon wedges, and bottles of horseradish, cocktail sauce, and hot sauce, and dropped our bucket in the middle of the table. On Hilton Head, and throughout the Lowcountry, it is popular to serve clusters of small oysters instead of individual oysters one might find when ordering on the half-shell. Not only were these easier to open, but they also added a fun just-picked-these-from-the-sea element. Plump and rich, the oysters had a slight taste of the sea that paired effortlessly with lemon and hot sauce.
I can't tell you how many oysters I ate that night, but I can tell you our group went through four buckets happily. Once finished, we placed our oyster shells in special bins to be recycled into new oyster reefs.
How to Host Your Own Oyster Roast
At the Waddell Mariculture Center, all of the oysters were cooked in an industrial-size steamer, however, it's easy to roast your own oysters at home with a grill, some sheet metal, a burlap sack, and a bushel of fresh oysters.
To start, source your oysters. Plan on about a dozen oysters per person. A bushel of oysters will usually serve 8-10 people, so make sure you have enough oysters for everyone. A large order like this is better sourced from a seafood supplier or seafood marker rather than your local grocery store. I personally source my oysters from a small seafood market that specializes in North Carolina and Virginia oysters for around $70 for 100 oysters.
On the Grill
Once you have your oysters, preheat your grill on high and top with a baking sheet or a piece of sheet metal. When you add a drop of water to the metal it should immediately sizzle.
Add your oysters and cover with a damp piece of burlap. If the wet burlap starts to dry, add ice to the top of the fabric to add more moisture. After 8-10 minutes the oyster shells should have opened slightly, meaning you are ready to dig in!
Building a Roast Pit
You'll only need a few items from your local hardware store to host your own oyster roast including a large piece of sheet metal (one that's around 3 ½ feet square and ¼ inch thick is preferred), 4 standard bricks, and a burlap sack. Aside from items for the roast pit, you'll want to line your tables with newspaper and provide oyster knives, some heavy gloves, and a trash can.
Build the fire about the size of your sheet metal and elevate the metal with the bricks just as the flames begin to settle down. If the water sizzles when sprinkled on, the metal is hot enough for the oysters to be added in a single layer. Cover the oysters with a wet sack or towel and steam for 8-10 minutes or until the shells slightly open. Dump onto the newspaper-lined tables and repeat the process until you've run out of oysters.
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