It was incredibly hard for me to decide what county, what recipe, what food group I was going to choose to launch Tasting North Carolina. I grew up in Durham County, have spent countless summers and made incredible memories (including my wedding) in Carteret County, and now find myself living in New Hanover County. But the task of picking a food that defined Durham was more than I could tackle at the beginning of the project, so I decided to focus on something coastal. I figured that if I put my ear to the ground, it would come to me. Thankfully, this weekend, it did.
One of my favorite family traditions is eating grilled oysters over the holidays. Best practices has, in the past, said that the best time to eat oysters was any month ending in “-er” so as soon as November rolled around we’d load up and fill ourselves. We always stopped on the way home from the Ballenger family Christmas party in Richmond to get a bushel of oysters and then devoured them straight from the grill. It is heaven and easily my favorite way to spend the afternoon with my father, brothers, uncles, and cousins.
Our family home in Morehead, the Swamp House, has massive oyster beds behind it in the low saltwater marsh, like much of the creeks and sounds of North Carolina. I’ve spent countless days in pockmarked rain boots mucking through the oysters and swimming in Calico Creek but it never once occurred to me that we could eat those oysters. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever had a Crystal Coast oyster. Recently, however, my dad and I had a conversation about how he’d discovered two things. 1) That he prefers oysters that come from the colder season months when the water is much colder and their taste gets salty and 2) that he’s discovered he’s not only a fan of Crystal Coast oysters but that he prefers them to oysters from other areas. I took this as a sign that I should find myself some local oysters.
This past weekend our two dear friends Brit and Aaron visited us in Wilmington. We love being with them because above all else we have so much in common. We share a passion for food and drink, Dan and Aaron obsess over the same music, and being with them is easy and comfortable. We made our goal for their visit to show them the very best that Wilmington (as far as we’ve discovered) has to offer. On Sunday morning we headed down to Kure Beach to hunt for fossils with our friend Dave, a PhD candidate in Marine Biology. On the way back to the car I asked him if he knew where we could get some fresh local oysters. His response? That his favorite place to buy invertebrate was Seaview Crab Shack. Spoken like a true marine biologist.
On the way home from Kure we stopped into Seaview and sure enough there were big, beautiful, local oysters. We picked up a 1/2 bushel of oysters from Topsail Island, along with firewood and two oyster shuckers, and headed on our way. Topsail Island is located in two counties- Onslow in the north and Pender in the south. These oysters came from Stump Sound in the northern part of the island. Onslow County is situated between Jones County to the north, Pender and Duplin to the south, and Carteret to the east. The seat of Onslow county is Jacksonville, and much of the county sits on water- either the Atlantic or one of the number of bays. Jacksonville is the home of Camp Lejune, a large U.S. Marine base. It is also a good portion of the drive from Morehead City to Wilmington, a drive we’ve done frequently in recent months and a drive that I genuinely enjoy because of the scenery.
Oysters are an important part of any marine ecosystem as they filter the water and their shells help define marsh areas and prevent erosion. North Carolina has worked hard to encourage a depleting oyster population through initatives such as the NC Oyster Shell Recycling program (something I’ll be doing with our shells once we’re done eating them!). It’s no surprise that, like all the seafood you can find here in North Carolina, the oysters are delicious.
The oysters we picked up were fat, juicy, and salty. When I first started eating oysters the texture weirded me out so I’d cover them in horesradish and tobasco, plop them on a saltine, and swallow the the thing as fast as I could. These days I’ve grown to appreciate foods of different textures, and yesterday when I popped a raw oyster, undressed, in my mouth I was in heaven. Sure there’s a visual barrier but the flavor is so worth it. Sometimes you just need a little mental disconnect. We ate a dozen or so oysters raw and the started to roast them over hot coals. Dressed with tobasco, horseradish, and a sauce Aaron made (white wine, white wine vinegar, minced shallots, and cracked black pepper) they were smokey and delicious. Some came off the fire hot and cooked through, others came off perfectly warmed. It was an awesome afternoon with friends and I’m so glad that we could enjoy this meal together. Thanks Onslow County!
Oysters are a mussel so strong and so well designed that no human can open a live oyster with their bare hands. This is why the shucking knife is genius. Simply insert a shucking knife (or a screwdriver, we’ve learned) into a crack or opening or into the lip, and pry open. If the shell opens easily (when raw) the oyster is dead and should not be consumed. After roasting (which essentially steams them in their juices and saltwater) for a few minutes the shells will open as the mussel dies, and then they can be eaten.
This post is part of the ongoing series, Tasting North Carolina. See more about the project here.