Places are often defined and recognized by their native cuisine. Sure, there are other dimensions, but the music, the arts and the foods give a region its flavor. Go to New Orleans, its crawfish and beignets. Go to New England, its lobsters and chowders. Go to Santa Fe, New Mexico the city has its own damn southwestern flavor named after it. San Francisco equals sourdough. The Carolinas are famous for pulled pork. The list goes on and on.
As Grand Stranders, we live on a strip of land thats surrounded by water, by inlets and marshes. In being inhabitants of a salt water community, we should begin to embrace the food that surrounds us shellfish blue crabs, mussels, clams and the mother of all shellfish, the oyster. Hell, its such a matriarch to other mollusks that oyster shells are lined with mother of pearl.
Some may claim oysters to be a gross nonfood. Some may compare them to globs of spit. Others may dive a bit deeper and compare them to chunky semen. But those comparisons are limp insults, ridiculous dispersions cast upon an iconic, diverse food that can be steamed, roasted, grilled or fried. And these little delicious boogers are good for you being low in fat and calories, high in protein and zinc, a good source of vitamins and supposedly a mythical aphrodisiac.
With the country screaming, go local! you dont get more local than marshes in our own backyards. Slurping oysters is the true test of a local, a Grand Strand tradition, and this grand tradition is being celebrated at not one but two festivals this weekend: GS Scenes Sixth Annual Shuckin on the Strand Oyster Roast returns to the Hot Fish Club on Saturday; Then, on Sunday, from noon to 6 p.m., our local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation hosts an Oyster Roast and Bloody Mary Contest at K-Raes Waterway Bar & Grille in Murrells Inlet.
But you dont have to wait for a once-a-year occasion to gorge on natures gift to Grand Stranders, when you can do it yourself. Shucks, its not that hard to harvest your own. As part of our commitment to livin la vida local, we hit the marsh of Murrells Inlet with local sushi chef Keith Carter and Myrtle Beach rock act The Izms front man/beef jerky-maker Jaesen Moore two seasoned pickers to investigate the process of personal oyster harvesting, from pluff mud to your gut.
Keep It Legal
To start your own harvester adventure, youll need your pluff mud passport a South Carolina Saltwater Fishing License. You can get one pretty much anywhere sporting goods are sold. Walmart and Kmart have them. Or you can buy one online at www.dnr.sc.gov.
The cost for the year is $10 for S.C. residents and $35 for non-residents. If you dont have the proper paperwork, you could get busted by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and face fines.
But there are a few more things to consider in your prep stages. Youll need to know where to go. Most harvesting grounds are marked with signs, but to get exact specifics, hit the DNR Web site and check out the maps. The most popular spot is in Murrells Inlet at the Oyster Shell Recycling drop-off, between Huntington Beach State Park and the Marsh Walk.
A few things you should know:
You have a two-bushel limit per person/per day. It works out to be four five-gallon buckets each week, says Carter.
Its illegal to harvest a half-hour before sunrise or a half-hour after sunset. There are also regulations against certain types of tools and exact sizes on the shellfish you can harvest, just remember not to take any too small. But again, check the DNR site for specifics.
And last but not least, harvest season is between Oct. 1 and May 15. Sometimes these dates change, shorten or extend depending on weather or environmental conditions, but its usually around those dates. Its all about the water temperature, Carter says. Warmer waters allow certain shellfish to grow certain bacteria.
Suit Up, Spot Up and Pick Away
When we first arrive at the marsh, Carter is waiting for us with his wife, Tiffany Duval, and their nine-month-old daughter, Sloane. He has his hatchet, his bucket, swimmer shoes and a pair of sturdy gardening gloves. Moore has hit a snag but would be meeting us soon. The tide was already moving away from us.
The lower the tide the better, if you come an hour or two before low tide and follow it out as it recedes, it gives you plenty of time to pick, Carter says and points out past the sandbars to where the marsh is dark with pluff mud (Thats the thick gooey mud that acts like quicksand when you step in it). Thats where were going, about 300 yards out, where the beds are thick. Thats where youll find the big fat selects, says Carter.
Carter tells us Moore will meet us out there, and we walk towards the targeted spot. Its easy-going at first. We hit a tidal pool and Duval says, Once your feet get wet, the mud isnt as cold.
No matter how busy I get, Ill make the time, Carter says as we make space between us and the shore. He looks over his shoulder at me, not slowing down and says, Besides all the good food you can get, its a good family activity.
The mud gets thicker and theres a sucking sound with every step. You have to get a feel for it, says Carter. After awhile, you learn when to move fast and where you can stop without sinking.
We stop to take a few pictures. Mud pulls us down. We take a few more steps and the sucking sound is long and continuous because were stuck and sinking. Carter is almost there. Duval trudges right behind him with Sloane on her shoulders. They dont stop. They cant stop without causing themselves difficulties. Walk as fast as you can and use your toes, Duval yells to us. Tiptoe and keep moving, or youll sink.
Its too late. Were sunk. When we were back on shore, Carter had said, The trick is to avoid the pluff mud and keep close to the sandbars. Theyre firm ground because the DNR packs those areas with oyster shells and sprays it with oyster larvae to create replenishment. We shook our head like we understood the nature of pluff mud.
But the mud isnt letting go and when we yank our foot clear of the muck, our shoe stays. We topple sideways, managing to catch ourselves before a big splash of marsh.
Another close-by harvester Steve Humphrey sees our peril and says, You should keep to the sandbars, walk the long way on the hard sand to get to your friends. He throws a burlap sack full of shellfish over his shoulder and walks back toward the shore.
We pull our shoes free, but every time we try to put them back on, our weight causes the shoes to sink again into the mud. So, we flap in socked feet through the sludge like a ridiculous duck holding our shoes.
When we were back on the shore, Carter said, Ive seen tourists out here walking around barefooted. One of them sliced their feet up pretty bad. These shells are no joke. Not to mention that there are places where you can quickly sink to your knees in mud.
With every step, all we think about is slicing our foot in half as we hobble to a sandbar and slide our muddy feet back into our muddy shoes. By the time we join Carter, Duval and Sloane, theyre a half-bucket into their harvest.
I have been picking oysters since I was a kid with my grandpa, but I only started doing harvesting as a weekly routine this season, says Carter. We like to drop a crab pot out one day, and then come back the next day to pull them up while we harvest oysters.
Duval holds Sloane, and they both lean over and dig out a whopper of a bivalve. Sometimes, you have to get ankle deep in mud to get the best ones, Carter says. But its worth it. The best flavored oysters are the ones that have never seen the sunlight.
Back on the shore, Moore comes into view and begins to jog across the muddy shallow water with a bucket in his hand. He skates over the pluff mud where we were stuck. As he gets closer, he yells, I learned this duck walk from the show Dirty Jobs when they were oyster harvesting down in Georgetown.
After Duval tells him about our bog down, Moore says, Its all about the high-top cleats. He holds up a mud caked shoe and says, Cleats are the way to go. You wont get your shoes sucked off or your feet cut up on sharp shells. And wear shorts, if its not too cold, so big wet pants dont weigh you down.
Moore goes to work right away, finding a cloister of oysters he says, Im trying to find a pair of gloves that I dont cut through, maybe some chainmail. He smacks at the cloister in his hand with a three-pronged trowel, knocking off the smaller ones, until he gets one large select. You have to groom them to get what you want, he says. He shucks the oyster in a flip of the trowel, and offers it to us. Raw and wiggling in the open shell, we pick it up and suck it down. Its salty and delicious.
Moore shucks one for himself, but as he works off the lid of the shell, the oyster falls to the mud. When he bends to pick it up, Duval says, Youre going to eat it arent you?
Moore slings it into his mouth and says, Oh yeah, all the grit is just calcium.
Moore has been coming down to this marsh to pull meals from the mud for the last 10 years. Hes brought his kids here since they were in strollers. Hes converted boogie boards to tow his buckets out in case he gets stuck in a fast-moving high tide. Hes also the guy who got Carter back into harvesting. Ive watched all the old-schoolers down here, how they do things, Moore says. Then, I adapted my own methods.
Life doesnt come in a box
Duval and Sloane pull out a few more selects and drop them into a full bucket. Moore heads for a sandbar to get mussels, and turns to us and says, Just walk like the birds do, and points at the finches as they scoot across the mud. He disappears into the marsh grass of a sandbar.
Mussels feed off the roots of the marsh grass, says Carter. You have to dig down and pry them loose.
Moore comes back with a handful of nice-sized mussels. Funny thing is I dont see many locals out here, he says. I do see Northerners whove migrated down here. Ive seen some first-timers out here, but usually there are just a few people around. The same people I see every week. But theres enough for everyone who wants to do the work.
On the way back to the shore, about two hours after we started, our feet are more steady on the journey back in. We take small steps on our toes. We can focus on Moores stories about his past adventures in the marsh helping a man get his canoe unstuck from the mud, thinking he had nabbed a huge clam but pulling up a horseshoe crab instead. He points to a large group of trees, Thats Drunken Jacks Island, I learned about that on one of the kayak tours out here, he says. Its crazy. Where we are standing right now will be chest-deep water in six hours.
There are a few pickers out roaming the marsh. Everyone talks to one another. They tell each other where the clams are good and plenty. Joey Mosakowski, a student from Conway, holds out a Venus clam he just found, along with a large cooler full of other clams and mussels and oysters. I come out here every week, he says. My girlfriend just moved in with me and I told her she should get used to eating seafood.
After Mosakowski tells us he found the bulk of his clams where the remainder of the water sat in tidal pools, Moore starts digging. If you find one or two right away, youve probably found a honey hole, he says. If you dont pull up one or two, move on to the next spot. Its work, but the result is delicious and you sleep good.
After Moore digs a half-dozen clams out of the mudflat, he lifts his head and says, Its a church out here. You can come out here and clear your head. And while youre here, you can pick from Gods garden oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, blue crabs, fish Its all out here waiting for you.
When we get to the shore, Duval and Sloane feed us sea pickles and show us how to suckle the flavor of the marsh grass. The general rule is if its spring, eat the flower. If its summer, eat the stalk. If its winter, eat the root, says Duval.
The grass tastes like a salty cucumber, and sea pickle tastes like a salty pickle. Duval says, Out here, life doesnt come in a box.
We took a survivalist class out here not long ago, says Carter. We learned all kinds of techniques about surviving off the land and sustainability. All this cool stuff grows in the estuary. You can forage sea pickles and wild purslane and the stalks of marsh grass. The marsh grass tastes like salty cucumbers.
Its all about educating yourself on the different plants and the lookalikes that can be poisonous, says Duval. But if the plants are safe and wild, theyre more nutritious because they build up nutrients by fighting for survival.
Sloane is bundled up in her mothers arms. The baby eats a sea pickle, smiles as the sun starts to set and the wind cuts a little sharper. We talk, look out at the marsh covering every trace of us with water. Moore says, There are hundreds of years of footsteps out there.
Cleanem, Cookem, Shuckem and Slurpem
Out of the mud and on the road, we drive to the Inlet Car Wash where there is a tumbler for washing the mud off of the shellfish. Its important to clean shellfish well but not too well. If you dont have access to an oyster tumbler, run cold water over the oysters in your sink and use a scrub brush to scrub the shells. The rule is if the oysters are open before you cook them, throw them out. And if the oysters dont open after you cook them, throw them out.
Once you clean the mud off, the clock is ticking, says Carter. You can put them on ice or theyll keep for a couple of days if its cold and you leave them outside. But I usually eat them on the same day or the next day.
I plan to throw the oysters in a pan, preheat the oven at 450 degrees, cover the bottom of the pan with a little beer, put some tin foil over it, and cook them until I smell the oysters, says Moore. Ill sauté the mussels in a coconut lemongrass Nigori Sake and eat them with some spicy mayo. And the clams, Ill sauté with white wine, lemon juices, butter and spices.
After awhile, youll start to collect your own oyster preparedness kit an oyster knife, a good pair of gardening gloves or a towel to grip the shells, clean towels for the mess, maybe add a box of saltine crackers for the carbs.
Soon after that, youll start alternating flavors a hot sauce of your preference, fresh lemon juice, melted garlic butter or butter and soy sauce. Maybe youll go for a little mixture of butter, shallots, fresh parsley, Romano or parmesan cheese, cayenne and paprika. Or maybe you want to go old school and get some horseradish and ketchup to mix up your own cocktail sauce.
But lets start from the start. To shuck an oyster, first make sure to wrap the oyster in a towel or use gloves. Get your oyster knife, hold the oyster firmly and slide the knife into the hinge or back of the oyster. Twist the oyster knife, like youre turning a key in the ignition of your car. Work the blade down the slit of the oyster, twisting the knife as you go. Pop the top part of the shell free. Scrape the oyster free from the bottom of the shell and slurp away. If an oyster doesnt give you any resistance while youre shucking get it the shuck out of here, because its bad.
Thats all you need to know if you want to eat them raw, but if you need more a solid consistence, here are some more cooking options.
If you plan to steam your harvested oysters cover the bottom of a pot with water, then add a half a beer or a glass of wine to the water. Throw the oysters in a colander or metal steamer tray and place it above the boiling water mixture in the pot. Bring to a boil and cover the pot with a lid. Steam them for around five minutes, give or take. Remember the less you steam, the more oyster brine or liquor or juice you get. Either way, after five minutes, all the oysters should be opened. Throw out those that havent.
To roast the oysters on the grill, set the grill for medium-high heat. Soak them for a few minutes under water, and then let them drain for a second. Place the oysters on the grill, flat side down. Shut the lid to the grill and cook for five or so minutes. When the shell pops open, theyre done. Any shell that doesnt pop open after 10 minutes throw out.
To fry your oysters, heat a deep fryer or oil in a deep pan to 375 degrees. Shuck the oysters. Combine flour, salt and black pepper. Beat a couple eggs in a separate bowl. Dredge the loose oysters through eggs and coat them thickly and evenly in the flour mix, but shake off excess. Drop the oysters in the fryer or pan carefully. Cook until theyre golden brown, about two minutes.
Or you can go for the traditional oyster roast. Its more elaborate and youll need plenty of oysters, but if you have the means, the experience is worth it. Heres what youll need a large piece of sheet metal or roofing tin, the makings for a fire, four cinder blocks, a wet burlap sack or beach towel.
And heres what you do: Build a fire the size of your sheet metal or tin. Let it burn down to a good smolder. Place the cinder blocks on the edges of the fire, positioned to make four corners, and place the metal or tin on top of the blocks. When the metal is hot, put your oysters on the metal in a single layer or by the cloister. Completely cover the oysters with the wet burlap sack or wet beach towel. Let them cook between 8 to 10 minutes or until the shell opens. Let the metal heat up again eat and repeat.
Hell, go really crazy get some sawhorses, plywood and a big trash can. Throw the plywood across the sawhorses for makeshift tables. Slurp down the oysters at the tables and throw the shells in the big trash can. Take the big trash can back to an oyster shell recycling center. Let the DNR throw the shells back out in the marsh with some oyster larvae, and let the wild harvest start again.
This is the mud life, says Moore. You can be broke and still eat like a king. All you need is tight shoes with thick bottoms, a saltwater fishing license, a bucket, a tool to get what you want and a little hard work.