From time to time, all of us are faced with social situations and traditions with which we are unfamiliar. Many of these situations have a set of unwritten rules that seem almost obvious -- once you are made privy to them. Until then, though, one can feel quite out of step.
Below, our resident seafood sage, Dear Crabby, answers some frequently asked questions regarding the rather peculiar etiquette rules that govern those seasonal bacchanals known as Oyster Roasts.
Q: Where do oyster roasts take place? What should I wear?
A: Oyster roasts are nearly always held outdoors, simply because they can be pretty darn messy affairs, with oyster juice, mud, and shell bits flying around.
Hence, if you show up wearing anything "nice" like, say, white slacks, a blue blazer, and a yachting cap (yes, I've seen this with my own eyes), you're probably going to wind up looking like you've been shipwrecked by the time you're done.
(And for the record, unless you're a Greek shipping tycoon or Thurston Howell III, you probably shouldn't be wearing a yachting cap anyway)
Q: Is an oyster roast like a weenie roast or a marshmallow roast? Will I need a sharpened stick?
A: No, not at all, and definitely not. Unlike those other events, you won't be doing any of the roasting yourself (plus, you'd need a very sharp stick indeed to pierce an oyster.)
Here's what you will need:
- a heavy duty glove (preferably one with some heat resistance like a leather work glove) You only need to wear one, on your non-dominant hand (the one holding the oysters.) You could wear two, but it's considered (for no explicable reason) to be a little odd;
- a dull, stout, short-bladed, non-pointy knife -- preferably with some sort of guard to prevent your wet hand from slipping forward and scraping painfully against an unforgiving oyster shell;
- something to wipe your hands on (an old dishtowel, clean rag, or wads of paper towel.) Oysters shells can be muddy.
Your host will probably have a limited supply of the above items available for use, but it's good form to bring your own. (Plus, you'll avoid the awkwardness of trying to use the last available glove, which is always the opposite of the one you need.)
Q: What beverages are proper at an oyster roast?
A: Any beverage you like, as long as you like beer. Okay, you do see the occasional white wine or (shudder) soda pop, but really, the only other acceptable beverage is bottled water. The cheap kind.
Q: Are there any condiments or side dishes to go with the oysters?
A: You can pretty much rely on finding communal bowls of cocktail sauce, bottles of hot pepper sauce, and sleeves of saltines. That's about it. (Lemon wedges are rare. Plan on bringing your own if you must.)
Q: How does this whole oyster roast thing work? Are the oysters buried in the sand over hot coals like a clam bake? Will we be sitting around a bonfire, strumming guitars and singing folk songs?
A: Er, no. Oyster roasts are almost always standup affairs; there's no bonfire and definitely no singing. In fact, when the oysters are ready there isn't even any talking. Folks are just too busy stuffing their faces.
As for the process, there are variations but here are some of the standard elements and techniques:
You will likely see long tables (or sheets of plywood) with 1-3 large, evenly spaced holes along the length, under which you will find strategically placed trash cans or plastic barrels. Find a spot at one of these tables. It's okay to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers -- oyster roasts are social events, after all.
Where you choose to plant your flag (i.e., your beer bottle) should be determined by your personal attributes: long-armed people should take one of the end spots; short-armed folks can stand at the middle of the table, but they must be agile enough to dart out of the way when the oysters arrive.
Hot oysters are brought to the table and unceremoniously dumped in large piles in the areas between the holes (You weren't expecting individual plates and cutlery, were you?)
This is when you find out what kind of crowd you're up against.
Often, your companions will be polite, only taking a few at a time and even helping those at distant corners of the table to get a share. But don't be surprised if the kindly grandma you were pleasantly conversing with a moment before turns into a ravenous, greedy, and semi-feral primitive when those first oysters hit the deck...
Check out: Oyster Roast FAQ and Etiquette Guide, Part 2