As a newcomer I had little idea of what to expect at the 27th Annual Oyster Roast which was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Swansboro and took place on March 17, 2007. The only warning I had gotten from colleagues where I work was that there would be a crowd.
I was beginning to think of the Oyster Roast as some sort of initiation that new members of the community have to go through blind folded. Hearing that it was also called the Swansboro Cotillion only added to the confusion. The last time I checked a cotillion was "A ball at which young ladies are presented to society." What in the world could that have to do with Steamed Oysters?
I decided to show up at 5:15 PM which is a time that I thought was pretty early for dinner. Somehow I was not surprised to find a long line of happy people snaking its way through the parking lot of the Civic Center.
It was a little chilly in line, and some of the ladies were working hard to keep the line in the warmth of the sun, but it soon began moving swiftly. As I already had a ticket, I got my green wrist ban and immediately saw this room filled with strange tables with people already crowed around them and occasionally cheering.
As a newcomer I had a lot of freedom to move around the tables. The first thing I figured out was that in order to participate in the fun you needed a tool and something to protect your hands. Fortunately there was a contingency plan for this situation. Two gentlemen from Sneads Ferry were selling Oyster Knives and towels that conveniently took a five dollar bill.
After getting my equipment, I started searching for a spot to stand at a table. I quickly figured out that there were no spots. It seemed the first wave of Oyster eaters were still hungry and guarding their prime spots. I did discover that the cheering alternated between excitement at actually getting Oysters or trying to convince the runner that you were more deserving than the next table.
Finding the steamer tables full required only a slight change in tactics. I decided to take advantage of the Fried Flounder, Barbecue, Slaw, and Chowder buffet line. I got a plate which was filled rather quickly. In fact there was no room for a Hot Dog or Chowder. After finding some iced tea, I took a seat at one of the many long tables in the hall.
The Flounder very lightly breaded and fried perfectly. I thought to myself that I needed to check out these expert Flounder Fryers before I left. The barbecue was also good but not quite as good as the fresh out of the smoker barbecue I had found at the Emerald Isle Saint Patrick's Day Festival.
Still the plate food at the Oyster Roast was only delicious appetizer. The real treasure of the day was waiting for me back in the Oyster Hall.
On the way back I decided to take a look at the behind the scenes operation. I ran into the head of our company, who had so kindly provided me with a ticket for my first Oyster Roast. I got to meet his son, who was one of the Oyster Runners. As I surveyed the scene outside the building, I was awestruck by the size of the operation.
First there were the cement mixer-like machines which washed the Oysters before their trip to the rows of steamers, then the Steamed Oysters went to buckets for delivery to the tables. At the tables the Oysters once stripped of their treasure were pushed down a chute in the middle of the table which landed them in a trash can which came back to be emptied into a front end loader which placed the empty shells in a dump truck for a trip back to the water.
After figuring out the Oyster Roast operation I watched almost mesmerized as the well practiced Fish Fryers took fresh flounder, rolled it in batter, and quickly turned it into a delicious fried treat. I struck up a conversation with the Hush Puppy Man who seemed to be dropping them in the oil to a tune playing in his head. He confirmed that having rhythm was important to a good hush puppy. After snapping some more pictures of the operation, I decided it was time to enter the fray and not give up until I found a spot at a table.
It took only a short time to find a spot as some of the early eaters were reaching their limits. I found a spot by someone native to Swansboro who had driven 120 miles from Lumberton to be a guide for his daughter and son-in-law's first Oyster Roast. It turned out to be a fortuitous spot since I was able to also learn at the side of a master Oyster Shucker. When I got to the table the team was just finishing up a batch. We only had to endure a few steaming buckets bypassing us before we got a huge dose of hot Oysters. I was told to start work on the hinge if possible. With minimal effort I pried out several of the treasures.
Most people were dipping them in butter or sauces that they had concocted. However, I thought the perfectly salty oysters were great straight from the shell without any additional flavoring. I even ate from a neighboring shucker was found a particularly huge one that was more than he wanted to tackle.
I have never had oysters this plump and juicy. I took advantage of one piece of sage advice from the Oyster Master next to me. When I got to point of thinking I could eat just one more, I stopped before I ate the one more. It was very good advice. With a belly full of oysters not to mention my appetizer plate, I could only manage to listen to the music from afar since there was a sunset about to happen on the White Oak, and it was calling me. I never did get a beer. I guess that will have to wait.
I know one thing I will be back next year, and I will have a team of Oyster Eaters with me, ready to capture our own table. I am already looking forward to it. If you would like a full tour of the event check out the website of pictures I put up.