They’re as Southern as sweet tea and buttermilk biscuits and once the temperatures begin to dip, they’re near and dear to everyone’s heart. Oyster roasts are a tradition in the South. Sweatshirts and boots, a bonfire, a bushel or two of oysters, a cooler full of beer and plenty of Texas Pete and you have the makings of a great fall evening. Whether you’re on the beach or in the woods, oyster roasts are a great way to enjoy the cool weather with friends.
Oysters have earned something of a bad rap through the years, however, they’re a great source of protein and are full of minerals while being low in calories and those unwanted carbs. Any danger associated with oysters applies to eating them raw, so as long as your oyster steamer has a good handle on cooking the salty treats, they’re perfectly safe to enjoy.
According to the NC Division of Marine Fisheries, it’s important to purchase your shellfish from a reputable dealer or retailer. It is illegal for shellfish harvesters to sell directly to the public unless they are also certified shellfish dealers. These licensed dealers are inspected regularly and required to keep shellfish under refrigeration and keep sanitation records.
Oysters, like other bi-valves, must be sold live by law. Consumers will find that they should feel heavy and wet and be tightly clamped shut. Shoppers can ask to see the shellfish tag before making a purchase if they have any concerns. By law, the shellfish tag must be removed at the last point of sale and kept on file for tracking purposes, but consumers can always ask to see the tag to verify when the shellfish were harvested and what area they are from. For the best quality, shellfish should be consumed within seven days of harvest.
Keep oysters and clams refrigerated until you are ready to cook and eat them. Shellfish need to be kept at or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent bacterial growth.
Shellfish are living animals when you purchase them, so they can become contaminated by placing them on wet floors, splashing them with dirty water or dripping raw fish and other foods into their bag. Oysters in the shell should never be frozen. They’ll do fine in the refrigerator for up to two days, but they should be used as soon after purchase as possible.
Thoroughly wash shellfish prior to cooking. Remove all mud and dirt from the outside of the shellfish, using water and a stiff brush. When purchasing oysters from a fish market, odds are this dirty work has been taken care of for you.
Prior to cooking or raw consumption, discard any dead shellfish. Dead shellfish will have slightly gaping shells that will not close when tapped.
Enjoying oysters raw has long been a luxury, but it’s important to note that people with particular health concerns are more susceptible the bacteria oysters can contain. The most common bacteria is vibrio vulnificus, which can occur naturally in warm water similar to those found along the Crystal Coast. Since oysters feed through a filtration system, they easily absorb the variety of bacteria found within their environment.
According to a release from the US Food & Drug Administration people having a reaction to raw oysters will generally have symptoms within 24-48 hours of ingestion. These can include chills, fever, nausea, diarrhea, shock and skin lesions. In healthy people, the release notes that reactions are generally less severe. In individuals with certain health conditions, however, a vibrio infection can be quite dangerous. Those conditions include liver disease, iron overload, diabetes, cancer, stomach disorders or any illness that weakens the immune system.
Cooking does eliminate the concern of foodborne illnesses. If cooking at home, oysters should be added to water that is already steaming for about 5-10 minutes. When they are ready, the majority of the shells will have begun to open slightly. Be sure not to cook too many oysters in the same pot to ensure that the steam is well distributed among them.
But most importantly, enjoy. Take an old table outside – a piece of plywood on a couple of barrels works just fine, too. Dump your bounty out for all to grab, don a glove and get to shucking. There’s no better way to enjoy the autumn than a true Eastern North Carolina tradition.