As the weather chills, excitement builds. A favorite winter-season event approaches. The lowcountry Oyster Festival, believed to be the world’s largest oyster roast, marks its 29th year on Jan. 29, 2012. Boone Hall Plantation off Long Point Road hosts the event, but the Charleston Restaurant Association organizes the annual fest.
Flash back to January 1984. A News & Courier article promoted the inaugural event, held Jan. 14. Interestingly, the day proved to be quite similar to the present-day festival – with contests for oyster shucking, oyster eating and recipes. There was live music by the Charleston Bluegrass Society and oyster meals served up by local restaurateurs. Organizers expected 2,500 visitors.
Now, 28 years later, the festival draws an estimated 12,000 guests on the back lawn of Boone Hall Plantation, there to enjoy the tasty creatures of the sea.
Early on Jan. 29, well before the guests show up, the oysters will arrive. Two tractor trailers will pull onto the plantation, carrying about 65,000 pounds of oysters.
“They’re absolutely amazed by the amount of oysters,” explained Steve Kish, a partner at 82 Queen in Charleston and chairman of the board of the Charleston Restaurant Association.
Lowcountry waters simply can’t handle the demand. According to Kish, Apalachicola oysters must be imported from Florida to feed the crowd.Crews will immediately go to work steaming those tens of thousands of pounds of mollusks, a collaboration of restaurants and caterers from across the Lowcountry.
“There are probably at least 40 guys back there cooking oysters,” Kish said. “It’s a big undertaking, but they love it. They live for it. Just to watch the cooking that goes on is an amazing feat. It’s never done on that grand of a scale.”
When people arrive at the festival, they line up to purchase oysters by the bucket, as they will do continually throughout the day. Since the event always takes place between late January and early February, Mother Nature can play tricks.
“Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes it’s cold. People still come out,” said Kish. “They dress up with their boots and their heavy coats. They come out no matter what the weather is.”
Year after year, the big draws remain the oyster-shucking and oyster-eating contests. Thousands will poise themselves over the oysters, armed with shucking knives, and go to work prying open shell after shell and savoring the meaty morsel inside. Almost as important, about 10 restaurants serve up a variety of foods – seafood and beyond. There is also a beer garden, a wine vendor and entertainment.
The oyster recipe competition is held at Trident Technical College’s Culinary Institute Palmer campus in downtown Charleston. Kish actually won the first contest in 1984.
Besides paying for your food and drinks, there is an admission charge, which, at press time, organizers said would be between $12 and $15 for 2012. That money goes well beyond paying for the festival.
The Lowcountry Oyster Festival raises funds for local charities, including the Hollings Cancer Center, the local Ronald McDonald House, Hospitality Heroes and the Charleston County School District. More than $1 million has been donated through the years.
Charities that benefit from the festival commit people power to help out. Kish explained that it takes about 150 volunteers to pull off the event.
“Giving back to the community, giving to charity,” said Kish. “Everyone is supposed to give back, and we in the restaurant industry do our part.”
For more information, visit www.boonehallplantation.com or www.charlestonrestaurantassociation.com.