A guide meant to intrigue both self-proclaimed oyster experts as well as novices who know next to nothing about the delicious bivalves.
4,000-Year-Old Lowcountry Favorite
If you’ve ever visited Hilton Head Island or surrounding Lowcountry towns, you know that the strong prevalence of oysters in the area’s history not only influences local menus, but quite literally are seen within the walls of historic buildings and on the grounds of ancient hunter-gatherer societies.
Oysters are found within shell-rings and mounds dotting the southeastern coastline, dating back to at least 4,000 years ago. The reason why Native Americans on the Sea Islands created shell-rings, such as the Sea Pines Shell Ring and Green’s Shell Ring, is still unknown; whereas shell mounds are assumed to be middens, or waste sites that include discarded shells and bones. Historians believe these societies not only harvested oysters for food, but used their shells for tools and trade items.
The trend of finding other uses for discarded oyster shells continued with early settlers, who received grants from England to harvest oysters along the territory’s coastline. Agricultural uses included grinding the shells to supplement chicken feed, as well as used as fertilizer, a technique George Washington was said to have used for his crops.
Oyster shells also proved helpful in construction. Tabby became a popular building material in the Lowcountry because of the abundance of oyster shells in the area. Burning the shells to make lime, they then added whole shells into the lime, sand, and water mixture to create what’s known as coastal concrete. Beaufort County has the most tabby ruins in the United States. What’s left of the Stoney Baynard plantation house located within the Sea Pines property is a great example of tabby ruins on Hilton Head Island.
Oysters were enjoyed by all classes and residents of the Lowcountry. The diet staple was recommended to be enjoyed at home—that is, of course, until refrigeration became widely used. Oyster roasts quickly became a Lowcountry tradition that still serve as significant social and fundraising events every season.
Commercialization of the oyster industry took off with shucking houses and canning. New technology and ice helped ramp up sales and gain more customers, allowing more and more people to enjoy the delicious local oysters.
The Old Oyster Factory, a restaurant with extraordinary views and delicious dishes, is located on what used to be an oyster cannery on Hilton Head Island. During your next trip to the island, do yourself a favor and stop by for lunch or dinner!
Crassostrea Virginica—the Eastern Oyster
There are five types of oysters that may be found in the United States, and out of those five, our local oyster is called Crassostrea Virginica, or the Eastern Oyster. As you might assume, each type of oyster differs depending on the environment they’re found in. As far as the oysters in Beaufort County go, their briny sweetness is considered some of the best you’ll ever taste!
Remember the “R” Rule
The local oyster season officially runs from September to April.
The official rule of eating oysters states that you should only indulge in oysters during a month which includes the letter “r”. During the summer months, the waters are warmer, becoming the perfect time for oysters to spawn. Restaurants that offer oysters year-round may source from farmers located in colder waters or have different cultivation methods that allow for safe consumption. However safe they may be to eat, spawning typically makes the oyster more watery and less flavorful than they’d be in season.
If you’re planning on hosting an oyster roast or serving them at an upcoming meal, the best time to buy them is either the day of or the day before. If you need to store them overnight, ensure that you keep them alive and in an open container with a wet towel over top. This will keep the oysters from drying out. Speaking of hydrated oysters, check for oyster liquor—the official name of the natural juice found inside.