In coastal towns from Maryland to Georgia, cold weather means it's time for an oyster roast.
This tradition is not so ingrained in the North. Instead, Northerners make oyster stuffings, stews or old-school side dishes such as Oysters Florentine. Most often, oysters are stars of the raw bar.
A friend from Alabama looks upon my Northern people with mock disdain. "Y'all don't know how to live," he said.
Until I attended an oyster roast I would have doubted him. But he's right. After attending my first a number of years ago, I became an oyster-roast evangelist.
My parents also have adopted the tradition. My proselytizing may have helped, but a move from New Jersey to South Carolina is the more likely catalyst.
Though an oyster roast can be staged anytime during the fall and winter months, for my family one has become a Thanksgiving tradition. The timing carries the benefit of a ready audience of guests as well as permission to eat and drink with abandon.
Cold weather inspired a craving, so I decided to host my own oyster roast in Pittsburgh. With a bushel of oysters, some condiments, a borrowed gas grill and steam pot, I held a Thursday happy-hour oyster roast two weeks ago for a handful of guinea pigs. Of the 20 or so attendees, one person had been to an oyster roast before -- during a visit to Charleston, S.C., as it turned out.
What resulted was a festive affair under a tent adorned by strings of lights. Guests drank beer around newspaper-covered tables on a chilly clear night. Passers-by saw friends and joined in.
At the grill, I added oysters to the steam basket set within a pot of boiling water. Less than five minutes on the fire and oysters were ready. I pulled the pot to dump them on a papered table, where guests pried open warm shells with oyster knives and ran blades along muscle to dislodge meat.
Then there was anticipation of how to dress an oyster. Once it's transferred to a saltine, the variations are infinite. Purists opted for a squeeze from a lemon wedge. Hotheads doused a cracker with hot sauce, Tabasco or a slice of pickled pepper. Nostalgists dolloped a spoonful of horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. And if there's crumbled bacon? Everyone loves bacon, especially as an oyster condiment.
Thanks to farming and increasing demand, oysters are staging a comeback on both coasts.
"There are hundreds of companies farming oysters in the Chesapeake," said Travis Croxton, co-founder of Rappahannock River Oysters, a shellfish-farming operation he started with his cousin Ryan in 2002. The grandchildren of oystermen, the cousins have grown their operation to encompass four farms that each yield a couple million oysters a year.
Early starters in the region, the Croxtons are an example of small farmers who are righting damage caused by pollution and overharvesting of oysters.
With an agenda that includes weekly oyster roasts between Topping, Va., and Washington, D.C,. Mr. Croxton recommends bigger, meaty oysters for the occasion.
"You want oysters from less salty waters that are less delicate than the ones you might eat raw so they hold up better," he said.
Compared to $35 a bushel in the South Carolina Low Country, oysters in Pittsburgh aren't cheap. To mail-order a hundred Rappahannocks costs $100, not including shipping. Another option, ILoveBlueSea.com, charges $85 for 50 Virginia oysters.
Avoid shipping costs by buying in the Strip District. Wholey's sells less fancy oysters from James Island for 98 cents a piece or 100 for $50. Penn. Avenue Fish Co. sells Wellfleets for $24 a dozen and Blue Points for $17.99 a dozen, though the shop will cut a break for a customer who buys a 100-count box.
Unofficial ambassadors of the Charleston oyster roast, authors of "The Lee Brothers Cookbook" and "Simple Fresh Southern," Matt and Ted Lee have educated readers on the process.
"Build a roaring fire on level ground, and set a trestle made of four cinder blocks and a sturdy sheet of scrap metal over it to serve as an extra large griddle," they wrote in "A Lowcountry Oyster Roast, Way Up North," for The New York Times in 2005.
"When the metal is searing hot, you literally shove on a layer of oysters and blanket them with water-soaked burlap bags or old towels."
Fortunately, it can be less complicated than this. Who has spare scrap metal and burlap?
A standard grill and a shallow pan filled with a half-inch of water will do the trick. A pot of boiling water with a steamer on a grill also works.
Mr. Croxton recommends something even easier.
"Turn the grill to high heat," he said. "Cover the surface of your grill with [oysters]. When a few pop, take them all off and shuck them. They're really just warm, but they won't be overcooked or shriveled." He said the whole process takes two to three minutes, tops.
Ask a Southerner about condiments and you'd get some strong opinions. One that's a must is Tabasco or hot sauce. Another is my father's go-to -- homemade cocktail sauce with horseradish.
"My favorite is garlic butter sauce," said Mr. Croxton. The Lee Brothers go with something more acidic -- a mignonette.
For the one I hosted here, pickled banana pepper slices and bacon disappeared quickly.
Don't forget to stock plenty of saltines, a replacement for a fork or spoon.
As terrific as oysters are for shellfish fans, this need not be a seafood-only affair. The Lee Brothers serve chili dogs and a squash casserole for the seafood-wary.
At Bowen's Island Restaurant in Folly Beach, S.C., guests are treated to Frogmore stew, fried shrimp, and hush puppies as accompaniments.
Here in Pittsburgh, I went for sweet sausages from Parma and rolls from Mancini's, both in the Strip. A generous guest made a terrific brisket-and-white-bean stew.
In the meantime, once all the oysters had been eaten, a couple of attendees coveted them enough to scavenge for muscles left on shells.
I should have ordered another bushel.
At least there was plenty of beer.
This recipe is nice for this time of year as heirloom oranges become available in area grocery stores.
- 3/4 cups orange juice (about 8 oranges)
- 1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
- 2 large shallots, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
Whisk ingredients together in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for half an hour.
-- Adapted from Matt and Ted Lee from The New York Times
Homemade cocktail sauce
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1 tablespoon red wine or other vinegar
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, or to taste
Combine ketchup, vinegar and butter in a small saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts. At this point, you can keep the sauce warm for over an hour -- but keep the heat as low as possible.
Add horseradish to taste.
-- Adapted from Epicurious.com
Melissa McCart is the Post-Gazette's dining critic: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @melissamccart.