Art of the oyster roast


Nothing says fall in the Lowcountry like a wood fire and a table full of freshly steamed oysters.

Guests take advantage of our brief cold weather to enjoy shucking local clusters with good conversations and maybe a little bit of football. This year is different than any other, but an oyster roast might be the best way to dine outdoors with a few select people, taking measures to protect guests from infection.

Since he was 8 years old, Larry Toomer can remember heading out in the boat to harvest oysters.

“I probably went out with adults before, but I started going out by myself and just had to stay in sight of the dock,” he said.

His family has been involved in the oyster industry in Hilton Head since his grandfather came to the island in 1913 and established the Hilton Head Packing Company. Toomer and his wife Tina run the Bluffton Oyster Company, the last hand-shucking oyster house in South Carolina, according to its website.

Fall Oyster Roast4

To Toomer, the art of an oyster roast comes easily. He suggests you plan for about five people per bushel of oysters, depending on how much they love to shuck and eat.

Oyster-roast veterans can be counted as low as three or four people per bushel and for those coming to their first oyster roast, make the count more toward eight per bushel.

A good rule of thumb is to count about five, allowing guests to get their fill of the briny bivalves.

In the past, oysters were put on a metal sheet over an open fire. A piece of burlap or the bag that the oysters came in would be soaked and placed over the top of the layer of oysters, causing steam that popped the shells open.

When the oysters were done, they were shoveled off the hot steel to the table and eaten warm with crackers, sauces and maybe a little butter or horseradish. When guests made their way through the batch, the entire process was repeated.

Today’s oyster roasting can be the same or can take advantage of a grill or a steamer.

Toomer cooks his oysters in a steam pot: “I have the oysters in wire baskets, and you can just lift them out and pour them on the table.”

Oysters on the grill steam with own juices, giving very close to the same result.

This year, with coronavirus pandemic concerns, the safest bet could be just having a few people to enjoy some conversation and food.

Carlye Gilbert, an infection prevention specialist at Coastal Carolina Hospital, says to take in consideration your community COVID-19 numbers before planning any get-togethers.

“See how the trends in your community are going. If they are trending downward that’s a signal that the activity could be a little bit safer,” she said.

She also cautions that guests from other places can bring infection with them.

“It’s important to keep the number of attendees down to the bare minimum,” Gilbert said. “And if you’re keeping the people on the invitation list down to the local area, they aren’t coming from an area with higher COVID levels.”

Supplies for an oyster roast are minimal, but to keep it coronavirus safe, a few more might be required. Basics include oyster knives for prying and cloths to help grip shells. Condiments separated into individual containers, crackers in their own sleeve and personal stations may help reduce exposure.

The very nature of an oyster roast is better than dining together indoors, following the CDC information that outside dining is a safer option. Of course, guests should be provided plenty of hand sanitizer and encouraged to wear masks if they aren’t eating.

Gilbert suggests taking “maskies,” the masked version of a selfie — and getting a mask made just for the occasion.

Toomer thinks an oyster roast can provide safe, but needed social interaction.

“The fun part is that you may be standing next to someone you don’t know eating oysters and the conversation starts,” he said. “You could end up being friends.”