Among the reasons I love Fall, the number one is oysters. Cooler weather means oyster season. The oyster is the ugly, stinking of mud bivalve. I love them. They are by far my favorite thing to eat and have been since I was 6-years old. The only thing that comes even close is my grandmother’s collard greens. But that’s another culinary story.
Coastal North Carolina is fortunate to have what are called barrier islands. They protect the main coastline and provide inlets, waterways and protected waters from the harsh wave action of the ocean. Along these waterways, in the muddy shallows, my favorite delectable bivalves reside in the luxury of mud and seawater, living and multiplying as the tide dictates.
My earliest recollection of eating oysters was at our house at Lake Waccamaw circa 1975. We ate them inside the house! Something we never did again once we moved from the lake to where my parents live now. I still love their taste, but I first fell in love with how hard I had to work to get the tasty little morsels out of their shells. Mainly, because I was good at it.
I see people shuck oysters with gloves and rags, but from the beginning I held them in my bare hand and, at first, had only a butter knife to use to open them. My stepdad encouraged me as often as possible to slow down, eat a hushpuppy, take a break, but I loved just shucking and chucking.
News of possibly having a couple of bushels while we’re in NC for the holidays has me reminiscing about cold evenings standing around a table in my great grandmother’s smokehouse, now a garden shed, and shucking with aunts and uncles. Even before that, we ate them in a more modern shed my stepdad had elevated on railroad ties to protect from the tidal Thally’s Branch, the creek that runs behind their house.
Our family eats oysters on a wet roast, meaning they are steamed over a pot of water over an outside fire until their shells pop open just a bit. Well, most of them do any way until they start getting cold again and close up. My favorites ones are 4″ long and juicy. No sauce, lemon or fancy fixings are needed. I love them warm enough for their salt juice to sweeten with the meat. Their color ranges from beige when swollen from their hot juices to mud gray well, because there’s still mud inside the shell. Somehow the grit never bothers me.
Holding an oyster to shuck it isn’t for anyone not wanting to get their fingers dirty or cut. When they close up, a simple twist of a good oyster knife or even a sturdy butter knife opens up the most stubborn oyster like turning a key. The edges of the shell are sharp as cut glass at times.
Waiting between pots once you’ve eat the previous pot is the time to socialize, pass the hushpuppies and empty the full buckets of empty oyster shells. If it is cold, it’s a good time to warm up wet, cut hands by the fire but also down a good bit of Southern sweet tea to cut the salt puckering the soft tissue of your mouth. The last pot is always something to savor and it is customary to slow down to let the cook catch up on a few.
No, there’s nothing quite like shucking wet, muddy, sharp oysters in 35-40 degrees standing at a table covered in newspaper and saltwater. Many Fall and Winter weekends of my youth have left me with what feels like a thousand papercuts on my hands and a belly full of muddy, salty, slimy, chewy scrumptious oysters.
I can’t wait!!