You have to be careful of oyster shoals when you navigate a salt marsh at mid-tide. At low tide, the oyster beds are exposed above water, so there’s not much worry of running your hull over them and scratching it all to pieces. At high tide, the water is deep enough over where you’d be taking a boat that you’ll be clear. It’s those tides in between where you have to be careful. Don’t hug the edge of the creek bed, especially on inside turns where sediment piles up.
And if you’re planning to get out of the boat and swim with bare feet in water shallow enough to touch bottom, tread carefully. You’re fine if you feel firm sand underfoot, but as soon as you feel slick mud squishing between your toes, you’re in oyster territory, and the risk of slicing your foot on a sharp shell is high.
We never harvested oysters, though we had them growing right there on the pilings of our dock and in the mud next to it. I don’t know what makes an oyster good for harvest except they’re in season during months with “r” in them. But even without harvesting our own, we ate plenty.
The neighborhood gathering of my childhood alternated between the low country boil and the oyster roast. I remember the times when we hosted. Dad fashioned a thick sheet of metal, maybe 4′ x 4′, on short legs to stand over an open fire in our yard. Neighbors brought folding tables, and we’d put them on the back deck and cover them in newspaper. Everyone brought shucking knives, like stumpy letter openers, and we’d put the knives, tabasco, lemon wedges, and sleeves of saltine crackers all along the paper-covered tables.
When the fire was hot enough, Dad and the other neighborhood men would dump a pile of oysters on the scorching metal sheet, and the squeezed-shut bivalves would hiss and steam til they eased open just enough to wedge a knife into. Then the men would shovel the hot oysters into metal washtubs, carry the tubs to the tables, and heave the oysters onto the newspaper like swooshing water from a bucket to swab the deck of a ship.
We’d all stand at the tables, slipping shucking knives into tiny slits, prying open shells to eat the fresh oysters inside. Some ate them on crackers, some with tabasco or lemon. Some just popped the shells open, tore off the empty half and tossed it into a pile with a thunk, and used the side of the knife blade to scrape the tiny muscle off its shell. They’d then put the lip of the shell to their mouth, like a cup, tilt their head back, and slide the succulent salty-sweetness over their tongue.
For those who are hungry for the salty waters that cover the earth, who want to be a part of the vastness of the sea, who want more than to look and swim and sail, who want to take the brine inside of us, to consume and digest and make it a part of us, oysters are the way to put the ocean in your mouth and eat it.