Last weekend was one of those times that reminds me why living in North Carolina is one of the smartest decisions I've ever made. Salt & Smoke is a community pig and oyster roast. I heard about it from the folks at Acme, who put on the event with Core Sound Seafood and Rock Quarry Farm, which hosted the afternoon's revelries. The rest of the details read like a who's who of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro local food scene.
After checking in I headed to the bar, which featured Steel String Brewery on tap and wine curated by De Maison Selections. I decided a spanish red was best for wandering and headed over to the oyster pit.
Tending the fire under a bed of roasting oysters
I didn't garner an appreciation for oysters until college, so when I get to eat them, I feel compelled to make up for lost time. Shooting Point Oyster Company hauled 3000 oysters from their farm on Virginia's remote eastern shore and were roasting the first batch when I arrived. A grill the size of a twin bed sat beside the barn, covered with a pile of steaming oysters underneath a burlap sack. Company men stoked the fire and shoveled cooked oysters into basins for waiting shuckers.
Checking the oysters (note shovel)
My oyster experience up to this point has been a fairly privileged one - I've never had to shuck them myself. In anticipation of an afternoon of shucking, I stopped by Kitchenworks and picked up a Carolina Oyster Knife. We've carried these knives for years and customers ask for them by name, but I've never had an opportunity to try them out until today.
After throwing back at least a dozen (pre-shucked) raw oysters, and switching to a Big Mon IPA, I sidled up to the shucking tables and dug in. My first impression was congratulatory: a number of other shuckers were clutching Carolina Oyster Knives, and there were more scattered across the table. I patted myself on the back for at least dressing the part. Now came the moment of truth - admitting to the woman next to me that I had no idea what I was doing.
She waved off my trepidation and handed me an oyster. "You gotta find one that's smiling," she said, "Or smirking!" added her friend. "Find a seam, slide the blade along until you get inside the shell and twist to open." Seemed easy enough.
I soon learned how much of this technique is dependent upon picking the right oyster. After a few minutes digging into tight-lipped shells and cursing myself for coming without a glove or washcloth (those things were hot and sharp!) I learned to spot the smilers and fell into a nice rhythm.
The first thing I noticed about the oysters was that the shells were fairly thin. They chipped easily and felt light in my hand. I thought this could just be what happened when you roast oysters, but upon investigation, learned that this is one of the things that makes Shooting Point oysters special - the farmers 'tumble' them regularly to cull for shape and quality, which makes them more delicate and, ultimately, tastier.
I went to this event by myself because I couldn't convince anyone that an afternoon slurping oysters was one well-spent. 'They taste like boogers' was a common response among those surveyed and, really, who could blame them. Most oysters, even after they've been cooked, retain a kind of gelatinous structure that is hardly appetizing. I've eaten oysters from all over the world and, barring some differences in size and taste (mostly variations in sweetness and freshness), the texture is generally consistent.
Shooting Point Oysters are a whole other bivalve. I scolded myself between mouthfuls for not knowing about these sooner! Instead of a Dali-esque puddle, the oyster meat sat plump and bright inside the shell - even the raw ones - as if it had been waiting these past two years for just this moment. The meat was tender and perfectly cooked - a texture at the elusive sweet spot between jello and rubber, much like an expertly poached egg, that evokes the satisfaction of scallops or young octopus. These oysters are meant to be chewed, not just swallowed, which gives you ample time to find the pure sweetness underneath an expertly balanced layer of, what else, salt and smoke.
I lost track of time: transfixed by the seductive smoke and the regular cadence of tossed oyster shells. When I finally came up for air, I had finished most of my Big Mon, and it was time to switch proteins.
During my initial survey of the grounds I snuck a pre-chopped chunk of pork from under the dedicated gaze of Wyatt Dickson, the master behind The Pig Whistle, a whole-hog pork BBQ outfit dedicated to everything local and delicious.
Wyatt pulling and talking pork with eager guests
I've eaten a lot of BBQ since I've moved here and, I must say, not all pork is created equal. There are only two local BBQ outfits I take yankees to when they visit (the barometer for my devotion) and, after Salt & Smoke, I am actively trying to determine how to gather enough people to justify bringing The Pig Whistle to my backyard.
Wyatt encourages folks to come up and check out the meat, nab choice cuts, and talk pork with him. I lingered long enough to dip in for a check morsel. The meat was juicy, tender, and flavorful in a way that melts into your tongue - evidence of Wyatt's expertise at picking local, pasture-raised hogs, and smoking them to perfection.
After rinsing the salt off my fingers, I ambled up to the barn for a plate of pork, collards, cornbread, sweet potatoes and beans. I knew Acme was in charge of the sides, but a pig picking generally means the pork is the star of the show, so I had low expectations. The pork was chopped and bathed in sauce, which added a nice tang to balance the fat in the pork, but wasn't too briney that it overpowered the smokiness. The cornbread was peppery and moist. The collards were (of course) salty and smokey, but fresh and not at all oily. The beans were cooked but not mushy, sweet but not syrupy. The sweet potatoes were not-so-subtly packed with aromatics - like a holiday ale - that had everyone swooning. Lesson learned: never underestimate Acme.
After a few more rounds of oysters and beer, I finished the night beside the bonfire, contentedly breathing in the lingering smoke and watching the younger guests make castanets out of empty shells. It took a good 24 hours for the smoke smell to dissipate from my fingers, and I my palm is still healing from a few errant knife pokes, but I'm keeping my Carolina Oyster Knife, and I'm ready for next year.
The bonfire action post-gorge