When most people think of Charleston, S.C., they imagine the famed church steeples of the “Holy City,” the stately antebellum houses that line The Battery, and, when it comes to food, Lowcountry favorites like shrimp ’n’ grits or she-crab soup.
But as this small city’s rich dining scene grows each year, there is one important thing to know.
If you are an oyster lover (particularly with Wellfleet beds currently closed due to norovirus concerns), run, don’t walk, to Charleston.
While the waters of New England and the Pacific Northwest produce some of the most diverse and prodigious species of the bivalve, Charleston has its finger on the pulse when it comes to culinary imagination.
With saltwater river and creek banks winding in from the Atlantic, oysters here grow wild in large cluster beds. Says Rowan Jacobsen, oyster expert and author of the new book “The Essential Oyster,” “South Carolina is one of the few regions still blessed with healthy wild populations. Oysters aren’t a novelty there. They are baked into the culture.”
In fact, oysters are so much a part of the culture, the city is practically built on them. Present-day Charleston sits on a site called Oyster Point, and, according to local guide and historian Anne Middleton Heron, “tabby, a concrete mixture made by grinding oyster shells,” was the most common kind of mortar used to build some of the city’s oldest brick structures.
Southern architectural expert Jonathan Stalcup, based in Savannah, Ga., claims that “Spanish settlers started using it in the 1600s, perhaps even as early as the 1500s, and the English in the 1700s. It was practical material along the coastal region because of the abundance of oyster shells and lack of good clay for brick. There were middens [trash piles] of shells from thousands of years of natives eating oysters.”
They put those shells to good use until the mid-1800s, when the economy tanked and modern concrete became available, but the tradition of eating and enjoying oysters is alive and well today.
Charlestonians have always loved their seafood, and oysters especially. “They’re muddy and real salty,” says Ryan Tarrance. A cook and microgreen purveyor originally from Charleston, Tarrance describes growing up as a boy, hunting with his dad and carrying around an oyster knife. “I’d just bend over and eat ’em right out of the water.”
“New England oysters may be a little sweeter in midwinter, but Lowcountry oysters are going to be sweeter in the spring. Both are wicked salty,” says Jacobsen.
But don’t expect to eat Lowcountry oysters raw. Even in Charleston’s seafood-focused restaurants, most uncooked oysters actually come from New England. In the Lowcountry, it is steaming that’s big.
“Steaming is unique to the Southeast,” says Jacobsen. “It makes it more convenient to get to the oysters,” which tend to be small when growing in clusters. “When done over an open fire as part of a traditional Lowcountry oyster roast, where the smoke of the fire gets into the oysters, it can be quite delicious.”
Local seafood haunts such as Bowen’s Island Restaurant serve up huge clusters of steamed wild oysters on blue plastic trays. They dump them out of their sacks, hose them down, give them a quick steam, and send them up to customers to shuck at their tables (an all-you-can-eat option is available for the serious).
Same at one of Charleston’s largest food festivals, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival. In its 34th year, it takes place Jan. 29, 2017.
Last year, thousands of locals flocked to Boone Hall Plantation to get their shuck on. With oysters going for $12 a bucket, families set up shop and broke out their oyster knives, even brought their own hot sauce. EnReicka Thompson and her husband have been coming to the fest for 10 years.
“There’s nothing like it, when it’s cold and rainy, and your nose is freezing, and the oysters come out steaming on the table. . . . We love it,” Thompson says. Then she offers up a large empty shell to use as a dipping vessel, and her bottle of Texas Pete hot sauce.
That spirit of generosity is embedded in everything here. The hospitality in the city’s restaurants, shops, and hotels is as sweet, warm, and effortless as the Charleston drawl.
Casual mainstays like Pearlz Oyster Bar and fine-dining establishments such as McCrady’s and Peninsula Grill offer knowledgeable, accessible service. More often than not, you’ll find oysters in some way offered up on the menu: raw, steamed, fried, roasted, incorporated into soup, served as shooters with sake and hot sauce.
While Jacobsen states that “almost all oysters are best between Thanksgiving and New Year’s,” seafood lovers can travel down South any time to visit restaurants like James Beard award-winning chef Mike Lata’s The Ordinary or 167 Raw, an offshoot of Nantucket’s fish shop, for some of the city’s freshest, most imaginative seafood. Oyster banh mi sliders? Could be a new Lowcountry tradition.