I swear he was pulling this Yankee’s leg when he said these gnarly oysters are his favorite.
Wwhen you’re born and raised in Pittsburgh you don’t grow up eating oysters. Our first-generation Polish family’s idea of seafood was Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder or Mrs’s Pauls fish sticks. But oysters were a food I set out to acquire a taste and for which I quickly became a fan. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed these salt-water, bivalve mollusks on both coasts, throughout the Gulf, and in storied eateries like Lexington Market in Baltimore, Grand Central Oyster Bar under Penn Station, NYC, and at Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago (not to be a name dropper!) So when the clerk behind the counter at Crosby’s Fish and Shrimp pointed to a mass of misshapen shells and claimed these are what he likes best, I was a bit skeptical and curious.
Chances are that unless you’ve visited one of the low-country towns of South Carolina, towns with evocative names like Dewees Island, Murrells Inlet, and Folly Beach, you’ve never heard of cluster oysters. Until now the oysters I had eaten were served neat and clean in the shell. One shell…one oyster. Cluster oysters, however, are a horse of a different color.
Many of those oysters you enjoy at oyster bars are bred and cultivated to deliver the perfect size, shipping quality, flavor, and of course, appearance that today’s restaurants and consumers demand. (Want to learn more about oyster farming, here’s a fun read.) On the other hand, cluster oysters are the complete opposite.
Cluster oysters are formed from multiple oyster seeds coming together and attaching themselves to one shell. Generation after generation of oysters unite to form a multi-layered mass with oysters of different maturity and size entwined in the cluster. South Carolina oysters are intertidal and exposed during periods of low tide when the waters recede. They grow along the banks in nutrient rich muck called pluff mud. In a process called culling in place, oystermen will pry-off the largest individual oysters and return the rest to the sea to continue to grow. Even after culling, many mixed sized oysters can be found intertwined in one cluster, which for me makes them even more fun to enjoy.
Watch this PBS Food video about a South Carolina oyster roast
You’ll have to look hard on the web to find a recipe for cluster oysters, as a search of the Food Network website returned “0” hits. We prepared them this way: After carefully rinsing off the black mud, we layered the cluster whole on the grill over medium heat to steam in their own juices. I like to think of eating cluster oysters as a three-course meal with tiny, cherry-sized nibbles on the outside, followed by a layer of quarter-sized morsels, capped off with plump, dollar-sized mouthfuls as we get into the center. The small oysters on the outer edges of the cluster were ready to eat in under 10 minutes while the larger oysters near the center took longer. The result is a leisurely meal with plenty of downtime between courses to enjoy several North Carolina-brewed New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPAs.
If you are travelling along the North or South Carolina coast and see cluster oysters for sale, give them a try. They’re fun to eat, easy to prepare, and delicious. In addition, because it takes less effort to harvest cluster oysters, they can often be had at bargain prices.
What I like best about traveling in my small RV is the opportunity to get off the beaten path and discover the diverse foods and cooking styles that make this country so unique. I have no doubt I will find another foodie surprise down the road. Cheers!
We camped at Holland State Park, about a 15 minute drive west of downtown Holland on Ottawa Beach Road. The Park actually has two campgrounds, one within the wooded area of the park, separated main park and a second campground It’s an unusual campground in that there is a traditional campground withiWekiva Island and the Without a Paddle Cafe are located about two miles down river from Wekiwa Springs State Park. The Island offers a number of activities including canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental. A fun trip is to paddle up river from the Ie.
Where we stayed
James Island County Park is a not-so-hidden treasure for the RV traveler. The Park offers 124 full hookup sites, wide pads and patios, hiking and bicycle trails, and easy access to Folly Beach and downtown Charleston. If you travel with your furry friends, the huge dog park with access to a beach is in a class by itself.