It’s peak oyster roast season. The nights are cold (less sweating while standing around the roasting pit). It’s an R-month (more on that quasi-controversy later). Cold-water oysters taste the best (don’t even try to say otherwise). And if you need more concrete proof that the demand for bivalves is high, check in with local oyster suppliers Gusto Seafood, Key West Connection or Blockhouse Restaurant and Oyster Bar — it’s nonstop.
Blockhouse owner Charlie McMullen says the 40-pound, 100-count boxes of raw Chesapeake oysters he sells to consumers are flying out the door on a daily basis, with several pickups every day from November through the holidays.
“I can go through 100 boxes in one week from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” McMullen says.
The Augusta Road restaurant owner knows his customers well and says most everyone buying those boxes, which range from $67–$100, are hosting outdoor oyster roasts for friends and family.
What’s the big deal?
If you’re not an oyster fan — or don’t yet know if you are — you may wonder what all the fuss is about oyster roasts. Hint: It’s not just about the seafood.
Longtime Blockhouse customer William Jackson hosted Instel Power Products’ holiday party last week in his backyard in Chanticleer.
“We’ve done the Greenville Country Club and the Commerce Club, but I thought an oyster roast would be a lot more fun and more interactive,” Jackson says. “I wanted everyone to be able to come casually, in jeans.”
Jackson hired McMullen and his staff to handle the actual oyster roasting, or steaming, the more typical cooking method. He says the atmosphere outdoors, this time with live music, strings of white lights and drinks flowing, is what makes for a great party.
For Jackson, the holiday oyster roast isn’t just a one-time thing. He enjoys throwing them a few times a year for friends and family. Although many of his guests might not partake in the steamed half-shells, everyone still has a good time.
He also says there’s a major benefit to hiring McMullen to steam the oysters. “I tell him to bring as many as he feels like is enough,” Jackson says.
Setting aside the party hype, oysters can actually be intimidating for some newbies; there are a lot of oyster-specific terms thrown around by connoisseurs.
For instance, that R-month controversy referenced above. It’s a controversy now only because it used to be the hard and fast rule: You did not dare eat raw wild-caught oyster during months lacking an “R”— May through August — because those are the months oysters spawn and when the water is warmest, allowing for much more bacteria to grow in the little guys. Contracting a foodborne illness is never fun, especially at a party and especially from seafood.
Today, oyster-growing practices are such that the risk has been minimized. Cooking them eliminates most of the worry; however, brand-new oysters won’t taste as meaty as they will after a few months of growth. The experts agree it’s still best to wait, though not necessary.
Which brings us back to cold-water oysters. Again, they simply taste better. There’s no argument. And since that’s the whole point of eating them, why bother with anything else?
The cold-water seasons vary according to climate, but as a general rule, by December, even Southern-harvested oysters are cold-water.
Oysters come from 30 regions of the world, and each has specific shell features and distinct flavor. Local suppliers Gusto, Key West and Blockhouse can order oysters from any of those regions with enough notice.
McMullen says he is normally stocking Chesapeake Bay singles and occasionally Bluepoint or Canadian oysters if a customer orders them specifically, while Key West brings in Gulf single selects along with North Carolina oysters. Gusto, who supplies mostly restaurants, has also been discovered by a few local residents. They all sell the 40-pound boxes at similar price points.
Not your typical cookout
Throwing an oyster roast without an experienced caterer is a bit more involved than the typical cookout, but it’s still worth it.
McMullen says he often hears from small groups of people who want do an outdoor roast, and with a small amount of research, they realize it’s a more complicated process than originally expected.
“It requires so much time and effort, but it costs a lot to move from the restaurant to their house,” he says, explaining the sticker shock many experience when they price out having Blockhouse do a roast on-site.
McMullen says it’s ultimately better if people wanting to throw an oyster roast for a small group learn how to do it themselves. And he’s game to give as much advice as they need about the proper cooking apparatus (a gas burner or fire pit), pot size or type (at least 30-quart with a removable steam basket) and how many oysters per person to plan for.
“I always say 12 per person,” McMullen says. “Some don’t eat any, and some eat a bunch.”
What you need:
Steamer pot: A stainless steel pot — try the Bayou Classic line — with a perforated insert ideal for boiling, steaming or frying. The bigger, the better. Around $100.
Gloves: A pair of stainless steel, chainmail, injury-proof gloves can run you $40–$100. Cut-resistant woven work gloves run less than $15.
Knife: A decent shucking knife doesn’t have to break the bank. $6–20.
Shucking surface: A table or a sheet of wood with a hole cut in the center propped on a pair of sawhorses. Place a trashcan below for discarded shells.