If you travel to South Carolina, you’re going to encounter oysters. They are essential to the culture there and are pervasive in so many different ways. Luckily, I love oysters, so I was more than happy to explore all the ways in which they’re used in the Carolina lowcountry.
The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky
Before traveling to the Carolinas, I read Mark Kulansky’s The Big Oyster.
Kulansky is a fantastic non-fiction writer and usually writes about a “thing.” Some of his other books focus on the topics of salt, cod, paper, milk, and even one on endangered bugs. But I was interested in oysters and learned so much about the role they’ve played in society.
The Big Oyster is based on the oyster industry in New York, not South Carolina, but I think you could draw many of the same conclusions about its impact in either society. Apparently, New York was once synonymous with oysters — a connection I never would have made.
Kurlansky even talks about Pearl Street – the hub of commerce in early 20th century New York City. Massive oyster beds could be found in the New York Harbor. Harvesters produced jewelry from the oyster shells and the meat of these mollusks provided sustenance to the area. Unfortunately, industrial growth cause the waters to become polluted and the oyster beds dried out. It’s rumored that Pearl Street is paved with crushed oyster shell. I believe it. Oyster shells in South Carolina were used for construction as well.
During our Gullah Heritage Tour, our guide Irvin pointed out a house built from crushed oyster shells. Tabby is a concrete made from crushed oyster shells, lime, sand, and water. Throughout South Carolina you’ll find ruins of colonial fortifications, plantation dwellings, and commercial buildings made of tabby.
At Honey Horn Plantation, there is a recycling drop off for oyster shells. I’m not sure how long it took to amass the piles we saw there, but they’re using these oyster shells in a much different way. It’s part of a community- based oyster shell recycling and estuary bed restoration project on Hilton Head Island.
Oyster beds act as natural breakwaters that protect the coasts from erosion. In addition, creating reef with these oyster shells helps the oyster population thrive, and that, in turn, creates a healthier ecosystem in the water. Oysters are powerful filter feeders who are able to quickly clean up contaminants and provide a more conducive habitat for hundreds of species.
Of course, in order to get oyster shells, one must first eat the oysters. I was only too happy to help and certainly ate my share while I was in South Carolina!
You will have NO problem finding fresh fried oysters in the lowcountry. I just can’t get them like this in the Midwest. You can taste the ocean they were pulled from; a little salty, a little briny. Succulent. And seasoned by people who know how to do it and do it right.
Of course, the more popular version, especially along the coast, are raw oysters on the half shell. Not the way I prefer my oysters, but I like those, too. I like the artistry in presenting them and the flavors that a chef or region usually adds. Eating in oyster has been compared to tasting wines — the salinity and complexity of the oyster makes each dish distinct.
In some of the restaurants around the area, you’ll find them featured. Raw oyster bars, oyster stews, and oyster roasts are big doings in the area – especially in months that include an “R” in their name. Those are the months when oysters are harvested fresh. It’s a booming business in South Carolina. The world is their oyster!
Maybe that’s what Mark Kurlansky was describing in 19th century New York? I don’t think oysters are synonymous with New York anymore, but oysters are definitely still a staple of any reputable coastal town in South Carolina lowcountry.
Oyster Shell Art
Bluffton, South Carolina is just across the bridge connecting Hilton Head Island to the mainland. They embrace oysters as an art in their town. Here again, many restaurants have oysters on their menu, and it’s the place where the Bluffton Oyster Company still shucks oysters by hand. Guests can watch them shuck fresh oysters if they come early in the morning. I know I’d want to stick around for lunch.
A walk around Bluffton showcased oyster shells in another art form: as a street art much like the bulls decorating the corners of streets Custer, South Dakota, or the flying pigs that landed along the streets of Cincinnati. In Bluffton, oyster shells! Take a look at a few we spotted:
You’ll find oysters in one form or another throughout the sea islands and coast of South Carolina. You can’t miss them. And I wouldn’t want to!
Are you a fan of oysters?