Keeping up with King Street
By Susan Lucas
It’s oyster season.
Here in the Lowcountry, on any given day — if the wind is right — we can smell the ocean. If we’re oyster fans, we can taste it. September is typically thought of as the beginning of the “r” months and the oyster harvesting season, but, in Charleston, January and February is the time when scores of fundraiser oyster roasts occur. The world’s largest, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation, is held at the end of January, inspiring all those that follow. More so than any other time of year, this is oyster season.
I sat down with Eric Slaughter, Oyster Specialist at the O Bar on State Street and Oyster House on Market, to discuss my favorite bivalves, their relationship to Charleston and the best way to order and consume them. Eric, whose only job is finding the best oysters, maintaining the freshest variety and perfectly shucking to order, is an oyster visionary.
Seriously vested in the oyster business, Eric doesn’t cut corners. “The bar has been set low in Charleston partly because restaurants were trying to save money and partly because suppliers’ reps were pushing inferior oysters too young to have much flavor.” He explained that even local oysters, fresh and within our reach, need to age before their flavors develop. For the most part, the best tasting oysters are 1-4 years old. “Six months, frequently the age of $1 all-you-can-eat oysters and the house oyster at less particular eateries, is not old enough,” said Slaughter.
At O Bar, the “house” oyster is at least one year old. It’s a Watch House Point from Chesapeake Bay. Eric tells us that it’s traditionally the hardest oyster to shuck, but worth the effort for his followers. O Bar is so proud of their Watch House Points that they offer a nightly special, one dozen shucked on ice with a chilled bottle of Veuve Clicquot, all for $90.
Keeping up with trends and harvesting techniques is important when you’re an oyster visionary. Knowing the product allows Eric to select the best “selects” for consumption by oyster aficionados. Whether by fashion, breeding season or supply-and-demand, oyster varieties come and go with a peak season and age all their own. Traditional names like Sewansecott and Blue Point can be misleading. What’s important to know is that the locals constantly grow; we can grow a better oyster faster than the Northeast. But the cold waters and ice sheets up north force long hibernation and that’s excellent for plumpness and harvesting those four year olds.
Rather than learning the latest about Caper Blades from McClellanville, Eagle Points from Bulls Bay or Beausoliels from New Brunswick, visit the visionary. I get the feeling just about anybody could sit and chat over a dozen with Eric. In addition to his wealth of knowledge, he has the best oysters — sometimes not even on the menu.
What to drink with oysters? We wacky Americans pioneered spirits with oysters, hence the oyster shooter, oyster martini, oysters and absinthe, etc. Vince Lendacki, bartender at Amen Street, another favorite spot for premium oysters, has a clever way to enjoy shooters. Every Friday he pairs an embellished raw oyster with a liquor chosen to complement the flavor of oyster and embellishments. The oyster is served in its shell atop the shot glass and these are sold until the bottle is empty. It’s a decomposed shooter. Who wouldn’t want to try one of those?
Here’s the shopping plug. Oyster knives are a great gift for any oyster lover. Chris Williams’s handmade oyster knives may be found at our local Charleston Angler stores including the one at City Market. Quintin Middleton makes oyster knives to order; he’s the favorite of many Charleston celebrity chefs. Williams Sonoma on King Street has several versions. You can spend from $15 to several hundred. Guard those at the next oyster roast — they are as loseable as ballpoint pens. When it is a bivalve you seek, why not be chic? Ahem.
Smell, sip, slurp, savor oyster season.
Susan Lucas is a writer, photographer and managing partner of King Street Marketing Group, a project that supports businesses on the Charleston Peninsula.