"Reclaiming Homemade in a Small Space"

Monday, November 28, 2011

My First Oyster Roast

I have always felt very fortunate that my mom, Vivian, grew up on the Eastern Shore Virginia.  Every summer we'd make the long trek from the suburbs of Dallas,Texas to teeny Nassawadox, VA (remember the speed limit back then was 55!) and spend a couple weeks enjoying the ocean, the waves, the sand, the barrier islands and the FOOD!  My grandfather was a waterman so he cultivated oysters and softshell crabs.  My great-aunt's neighbor would take us deep-sea fishing where we'd catch trout, flounder and the occasional nurse shark!  I remember bushels of blue crabs and clams sitting in the back yard waiting to be steamed.  I'd stand there with a stick and poke at the crabs, pulling them up as they grasped the end.  In addition to the fresh seafood, there were turnip greens, august pears and Grandma's fried potatoes.

It was a completely different world from what I grew up in. My Aunt Rhoda's house was a big old house with minimal modern comforts a few hundred yards away from the ocean.  There was no shower or tub, you bathed in your room with a basin and pitcher.  There was a giant wood burning cook stove in the kitchen in addition to the ancient gas stove.  She had a walk-in pantry with the "Frigidaire".  The bathroom was just a commode and sink.  Oh, and there was NO air conditioning, just a huge screened-in front porch.

Eventually, we stopped the annual visits.  Grandma passed away away in 1986, Grandaddy came to live with us in Arkansas in 1992 and passed in 2000.  The old house was sold.  I would occasionally get a chance to go back, but it would be only for a few hours...just passing through.  In 2009, my mom decided it was time to move back home to the Eastern Shore.  Now that Matt and I are in Pittsburgh, I get the chance to visit more often; instead of a two day trip, we can make it in 9 hours.

We spent Thanksgiving at the Shore with my mom this year. She bought Matt and I tickets to an oyster roast put on by the Cape Charles Historical Society. As a child, I had only been to the Shore in the summer.  Now that we were there in the late fall, oyster season was upon us!  Like the clam bake, crawfish boil or catfish fry....this was a community event.  One that you went to wielding a knife....don't worry, it was just an oyster knife.  There were bushels and bushels of oysters...most being roasted over an open fire.
Large, wet burlap sacks were placed over the oysters so that they steamed in their own juices.  Two big guys would pick up the handles on each end of the grates the oysters were roasted on and then dump them right on the table we were standing at.

Folks would either stand at the table with their oyster knives and dig right in, or they'd grab a plate or box and pile them high to sit down elsewhere.  Some people had gloves for their opposite hand so they didn't get cut while handling the hot oysters.  I had one but didn't use it....I only got one cut.  The oysters were open but you needed your knife to pry them open all the way and then scrape off the part still attached to the shell.  The roasted oysters were delicious...briny from the ocean, hot and slightly smoky from the fire.  The biggest ones were the best as they were still slightly jiggly and moist.  I ate them plain and dipped in melted butter or cocktail sauce. There was also a station with guys there shucking raw oysters....yes, I tried one with Franks Red Hot and loved it!
This oyster roast was so much fun.  I definitely want to go to another one. Matt and I were stuffed the the gills a little over an hour and left full and happy.  The oyster roast is as much Eastern Shore culture as anything.  There were locals there (one claimed he had dated my mother back in the day) and vacationers alike.  Every table was filled with people enjoying the bounty from the sea.  Though I'm technically a tourist...the Shore is in my blood and I feel like I have a little claim on the culture there.  Sharing in this experience was something I will always look back on with fond memories!

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