They are the treasure chests of the edible undersea world, delicacies that must be unlocked before they can be enjoyed. Even to experienced seafood connoisseurs, oysters can prove a stubborn quarry, requiring patience and perseverance to pry the two halves of the shell apart. For novices, they can feel as impenetrable as a bank safe.
Both types will converge on Boone Hall Plantation on January 27 for the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, put on by the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association. The largest oyster festival in the world will feature 70,000 pounds of the ocean’s tastiest bivalve, the vast majority of them steamed to perfection, purchased by the bucket and then strewn about long tables to be shucked and enjoyed.
Roughly half of the visitors to the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, now in its 36th season, will be from outside of Charleston. Many others will attend for the first time. For veterans and newcomers alike, here are five tips to help you enjoy the pearl of the seafood universe among the oaks, beer, and music of Boone Hall.
1. Bring a Knife and a Glove
Like anything worth having, oysters require a little work. The basic tools of the trade are a glove and an oyster knife—the former needed to hold the oyster securely, while the latter is used to pry it open and reveal its briny goodness within. We’re not talking about a butter or kitchen knife, but one specially designed to shuck oysters, usually featuring a wide handle and a stout blade with a point at the end. If you don’t have a glove, a kitchen towel will do.
Every year, there are visitors to the festival who expected that the oysters would be shucked for them and arrive without the necessary equipment. No worries: knives and gloves will be available for purchase at the festival, and there will be volunteers on hand to help.
2. Know How to Shuck
Don’t spend a lot of time prying around the edge of the oyster—look immediately for the hinge where there’s typically a spot you can wedge the knife's tip in place and wiggle. Experts suggest putting the oyster on a table pinned down by your hand to prevent slippage and help the knife get more leverage.
Steamed oysters tend to open a bit while cooking, making the process of shucking them somewhat easier. Twist the knife to pry the two halves open, snip the muscle connecting them, and enjoy. Just be careful not to stab yourself in the hand! If you are really good at it, maybe sign up for the festival’s oyster eating contest, which begins at noon.
3. Save Those Shells
Besides being good for you—they’re heart-healthy, contain tons of zinc, and help
boost energy—oysters are also good for the environment because they clean the water they’re farmed in. Even oysters that have been eaten play a part in the cycle; at the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, over 200 volunteers from the Coastal Conservation Association of Charleston and the Department of Natural Resources will pick up the oyster shells and put them back into the water, where they’ll help new oyster beds form.
4. Know there’s More Than Steamed
Ok, so maybe steamed oysters aren’t your thing. No worries—at the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, there will be plenty of other varieties available. Try them deep-fried, or as a shooter in a shot glass with alcohol and cocktail sauce, or peruse many of the other food items available from vendors. Or, go back to the basics and try oysters raw — just make sure you’re proficient with that knife first.
5. You’re Helping Your Community
You’re not just enjoying good food—you’re also helping to build a stronger community.
The Lowcountry Oyster Festival will take place Sunday, Jan. 27, from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant. The event is rain or shine, so watch the weather and plan accordingly. General admission is $17.50 in advance or $25 at the gate, with kids 10 and under free. There is no charge for general parking. No pets or coolers are allowed. For more information, visit the festival’s website.