Salty, slurpy, and quick to slide down your throat, the oyster is not only a favorite Lowcountry food, it is a social institution. Every January, thousands of enthusiastic shuckers converge upon Boone Hall, where two tractor trailers full of the shelled morsels tally up to the World’s Largest Oyster Roast. Sales of croaker sacks, cinderblocks and sheet metal, the staples of a backyard oyster roast, are a virtual Charlestonly cottage industry. Local restaurants serve every fashion—raw and pure, cooked and gussied up.
But where do our local oysters come from?
We venture a short drive north of Charleston to McClellanville, a tiny town dotted with white clapboard houses shaded by a lush canopy of oak trees, to find out. At the turn of the 20th century, McClellanville was home to three oyster canneries that employed several thousand people, but the population dwindled when the industrial scale production sputtered in the 1940s. Today, several hundred people call the charming hamlet home, including Carrie and Jeff Spahr, whom we meet on the porch of their tin-roof cottage.
With her creamy buttermilk skin and his tawny looks, they make a striking pair. Charleston natives and childhood sweethearts, the two have carved out a living that is part tradition, part innovation and entirely sustainable. One of the few professional commercial oysterman in McClellanville, Jeff is a bit of a lone ranger. He annually plants more than 1,500 bushels of oysters on parcels leased from the Department of Natural Resources. Most days are spent in an estuary engaged in the physically arduous task of harvesting his crop, which he sells exclusively to local restaurants like Amen Street, Fleet Landing and Pearlz. Extra bushels are sold to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. It is boat by morning, delivery truck come afternoon.
As Jeff deftly steers the skiff down Jeremy Creek in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean, we discover he speaks saltmarsh fluently. Two dolphins appear mere seconds after he beckons. Birds circle overhead, prematurely scanning our wake for bycatch. “Hold onto your hats,” he calls above the scream of the outboard motor. “There may be some swells in the sound today.”
After twenty minutes, a few refreshing salt spray showers, and a hard right, Jeff eases back on the throttle and the skiff stops in the elbow curve of an otherwise undistinguishable creek. His buddy Lee pulls alongside in the workboat, which wears the patina a thousand harvests.
We have arrived at Jeff’s leased land, where the live oysters he plants are propagating a sustainable oyster economy. His efforts to seed the area have successfully replenished the supply, and the natural oyster population now outpaces his transplants. Jeff also specializes in singles, the uniform “selects” or “cups” prized by restaurants. While clusters have to be manually broken apart, singles are ideal for popular oysters-on-the-half-shell dishes.
Typically, the bivalves are steamed to make it easier to pry open the thick, calcified shell with a blunt-tipped oyster knife. Today, we are using pluck and might to taste the briny mollusks mere moments after Jeff and Lee pull them off the bed. Fresh and buttery, each oyster explodes with the flavor of Bulls Bay, the pristine and picturesque Lowcountry watershed.
Author Jonathan Swift purportedly said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” We say, “He is a bold man who goes into nature, plucks a living oyster from the ocean floor and brings it to market for our culinary enjoyment.”
Also, filmmaker George Motz featured Jeff in his short film about collecting oysters called The Mud & the Blood: Oystering in the Lowcounty. See the a :49-second clip here: click.