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What is an Oyster Roast? The Tradition of Oyster Roasts in The Lowcountry

You don’t need to have much experience with the Lowcountry to know that our Sea Islands are famous for incredible seafood. Beaufort County alone boasts several award-winning seafood festivals: most notably the Beaufort Shrimp Festival and, more recently, the Beaufort Oyster Festival, which coincides with South Carolina’s statewide Tides to Tables restaurant week

The Oyster Festival takes place each January, which is peak season for locally-sourced, delicious oysters. And while oysters can be prepared any number of delightful ways, the communal oyster roast connects with deep-rooted South Carolina tradition. Read on to learn everything we know about the Lowcountry Oyster Roast.

Woman Shucking Oysters Hine, L. W., photographer. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Woman Shucking Oysters Hine, L. W., photographer. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

What is an Oyster Roast?

Our northern transplants and visitors will be familiar with the “clambakes” popular in many Northeastern states. While little record of formal outdoor oyster roasts exists before the mid to late 1800’s, evidence of oyster consumption dates back to the native residents of the Sea Islands. Open air cookout-style meal preparation and gatherings have also long been embedded in the culture of the Lowcountry.

What began in oyster houses, or oyster bars, moved outside in 1898, when the Charleston City Railway hosted an oyster event for 25 cents at Chicora Park in Charleston. Oysters were placed in a roasting kettle, covered with a burlap sack, then placed over hot coals until fully cooked. The event was open to the public and the festive, outdoor roasts quickly became a Lowcountry tradition.  Today, oyster roasts are large, joyful gatherings with music, cold beverages, and, of course, perfectly steamed oyster clusters. 

The Set Up

An oyster roast will ideally take place right next to the marsh, so oysters can be pulled fresh from the water and immediately transferred to the hot grill or pot. After the oysters are added, they are covered with wet burlap. If you take a look around, you will see large wooden tables lined with newspapers and topped with shucking knives, gloves, and condiments. A bucket for empty shells to be collected and recycled is placed at every table. Nearby, there is likely a cooler full of ice cold beer.

Murrey, T. J. (1888) Oysters and Fish. New York, F.A. Stokes & Brother. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Murrey, T. J. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

How to Eat an Oyster

At a traditional oyster roast, a bucket of hot, steamed oysters will be dumped onto the newspaper-lined table among your condiments and tools. Throughout the Lowcountry, it is popular to choose clusters of small oysters, as they tend to be easier to open than larger, single oysters. 

After donning gloves, guests will pry open their treasures using an oyster knife, discarding the empty shells in the bucket. Next, they slide the knife under the oyster meat to release it. 

According to Master Class authors,  “Good oysters will look opaque and never smell or taste “fishy.” Bad oysters will look withered and dry inside the shell and likely smell “off.” If there is no seawater inside the shell, the oyster is likely dead.”

How to eat an oyster

Murrey, T. J. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Top It Off:

At most oyster roasts, the tables are topped with bowls of saltine crackers, lemon wedges, bottles of horseradish, cocktail sauce, and hot sauce. Oyster eaters all come with their own preference of unique condiment combinations. Some may like to swallow the oyster whole, but the majority prefer to chew them to get the full flavor experience.

Once the oysters are all empty and the cooler has run out of beer, the shells still have an important job to do. Oyster roasts will have special bins for the discarded shells to be “recycled”, but not at a typical center. South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, or SCDNR, provides drop-off points for your empty oyster shells to rejoin the local aquatic ecosystem. Oyster shells are critical to the rehabilitation and refurbishment of our reefs. Not only do they provide an area for oysters to latch on to, but they also balance water pH, reduce red tides, and offer shelter to blue crabs, striped bass, and red drum. 

Attend an Oyster Festival

This year, make a resolution to taste the finer things in life and head to Beaufort for the annual South Carolina Restaurant Week and Tides to Table Oyster Festival. Please join us for the 3rd Annual Beaufort Oyster Festival – Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands Heritage Event for Greater Beaufort. The full event is scheduled January 12th – 22nd, 2023. The Festival Weekend will be January 21-22, 2022. Make sure to book your stay with The Cuthbert House Inn during this unique Lowcountry tradition! Whether you stay for the full event or just the Festival Weekend, we would love to be your hosts. 

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