For many local seafood aficionados, there's no substitute for a freshly steamed, personally cracked, piping hot oyster in a beautiful Lowcountry setting on a cool winter's day.
There's a ceremonial aspect to digging into a bucket of bivalves at a festive oyster roast. And once one digs in, they develop a natural rhythm to eating one after another.
Hosting oyster roasts is a long-running tradition in the Charleston area, and one of the most popular oyster roasts in the Lowcountry draws thousands of people to one of the most pastoral settings east of the Cooper.
Already in its 31st year, the annual, all-day Lowcountry Oyster Festival will return to Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant on Sunday. Organizers expect close to 10,000 attendees, vendors and volunteers to be on hand and they'll have 80,000 pounds of fresh oysters piled up, ready to roast.
"We've grown, and we've tried to grow with the festival," says Kathy Britzius, executive director of the Charleston Restaurant Association (GCRA), a nonpartisan, not-for-profit trade organization serving the Lowcountry's restaurant industry. "Each year, we try to improve the experience for everyone."
The GCRA represents its members on governmental and public relations issues, provides beneficial programs and hosts annual fundraising events for the community. The organization oversees the annual Taste of Charleston and Charleston Restaurant Week events, as well.
This year's oyster festival is the 27th event Britzius has organized with the GCRA.
"For some people who've worked in the restaurants of Charleston and then moved on, Lowcountry Oyster Festival is like their own homecoming party," says Britzius, who likes eating oysters prepared in any fashion, but particularly enjoys a good oyster stew. "They get to come home and enjoy it. We seem to have a great following from Asheville, Charlotte, Atlanta and other nearby cities."
Oysters will obviously be the main course at the event, but an impressive variety of local cuisine and treats will also be available from eight participating restaurants, four food trucks and various beverage vendors.
"There are plenty other foods for you there," Britzius says. "The food selection has changed over the years. Food trucks have joined the participating restaurants, so there's a great cross-section of barbecue, seafood and special appetizers. It's not just oysters.
"Charleston itself has just grown so much in the culinary scene," she adds. "We've tried to perfect things along the way and bring it up to speed, and it's going great. We have wonderful charities and wonderful volunteers who help us."
As local foodies have noticed, there are dozens of varieties of oysters available almost year-round in the local marketplace.
Some local restaurants seasonally feature locally harvested clusters, but many offer a variety of single select oysters from the Gulf shores, the Pacific coast, the northeast Atlantic region and Canada.
The Lowcountry Oyster Festival orders their single select oysters from farms in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico.
"There are simply not enough local oysters available for a festival this size, so we get single selects from Texas," Britzius says. "And those oysters are beautiful. They taste so wonderful."
With a handful of $2 food tickets (available at the food ticket tents on the grounds), attendees can purchase buckets of singles at market price. Crackers, cocktail sauce, hot sauce and horseradish will be included with the buckets while supplies last. Oyster fans are encouraged to bring their own oyster knives and gloves, but supplies can be bought on site.
Britzius says they've increased their order for oysters this year, but there's always a chance that late-comers might miss out.
"We've run out of oysters before, so we're always trying to take extra steps to make sure that everybody there can enjoy a bucket," she says. "We'll have extra trucks coming in with extra oysters that we'll hold 'til later in the day. We don't want anyone running about around 2 p.m. or anything."
It's an annual tradition for the GCRA to donate portions of the proceeds of the festival to the Charleston County Schools Science Materials Resource Center, Medical University of South Carolina's Hollings Cancer Center, the Ronald McDonald House, Hospitality Heroes and the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
The organization recently added local culinary schools to the list of beneficiaries, too, including the Culinary Institute of Charleston, the Art Institute and the College of Charleston's culinary programs.
In the last 30 years, the organization has raised more than $1 million in charitable contributions from ticket sales and food sales.
This year, advance tickets to the festival are available for $20, they're $25 at the gate. Attendees can purchase $2 food tickets once they're on the grounds.
In the vast food court, teams from A.W. Shucks, Gilligan's Seafood Restaurant, Hyman's Seafood Company, Jim 'N Nicks BBQ, Red's Ice House, The Windjammer and Wild Wing Cafe will offer dishes and samples for between two and four tickets.
The food trucks - Rollin' South, Dukes BBQ, BlackJack BBQ, and Hubee D's - will have their own specialties for sale.
Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe and the Wando High Culinary Arts will offer desserts and sweets, as well.
"We have fun putting this together every year," Britzius says. "It's a lot of work, but having great people work together on the festival and attend it. People are the secret ingredient. I love the food, but I really love the people involved.
"I'm very proud of our town and what it's done with food," she adds. "We've gotta keep trying hard. When people say you're number one, you have to try to more to meet their expectations."
While the GCRA organizes and presents the festivities, the historic Boone Hall Plantation hosts the event on its scenic grounds along the Wampancheone Creek.
"The Greater Charleston Restaurant Association has done a really good job of managing their special events and the growth of their events," says Rick Benthall, Boone Hall Plantation's veteran director of marketing.
Benthall attended his first oyster roast while in high school in Florence. These days, he prefers them steamed, right off the grill with cocktail sauce and a horseradish "kick."
He has been working for Boone Hall for seven years, and his first official Lowcounty Oyster Festival experience was in 2007.
"I couldn't believe how many people showed up for it," Benthall remembers. "I didn't realize we could fit so many people onto the plantation."
Managing the massive crowds, maximizing space for festival events and parking have proved to be challenging for Boone Hall and the GCRA in recent years, but they've fine-tuned things and dealt with the issues well.
"We feel like we're the perfect location for this event, but our infrastructure can only take so much," Benthall says. "As the event has grown, we've had to take certain actions in terms of managing that growth and keeping the beauty and infrastructure intact.
"We've noticed that crowds are coming earlier each year," he adds. "People come in from all over the world. We're always striving to find new ways to expedite the arrival process. There are only so many people who can fit on a two-lane road like Long Point Road, so there's naturally some backup due to the number of people. We want everyone to arrive safely and get through the gates as quickly as possible. I think some of the recent additions of new entry gates and a Park-n-Ride area have helped."
The two main Boone Hall entrances at Long Point Road and off of U.S. Highway 17 will feature Park-n-Ride shuttles to transport guests onto the grounds. This year marks the first time that extra off-site parking areas and shuttles will be available.
From 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., free shuttle rides will be offered from lots at three nearby Mount Pleasant locations: J.B. Edwards Elementary School, Laing Middle School and the East Cooper Regional Medical Center.
The GCRA and Boone Hall have put extra effort into making it safer and quicker to reach the festival grounds, and they've also added several exciting new features to the roster of festivities.
The usual oyster eating and oyster shucking contests will go on as always. Co-sponsor Budweiser will invite folks to check out a mobile "Build-a-Bar" trailer, equipped with big-screen TVs and fixed bar stools. Local groove-rock band the Dead 27s, featuring members of vocalist Elise Testone's ensemble, will perform several sets on the main music stage. A new VIP area will be set up, too.
"The new children's section is really cute this year," Britzius says of the expanded family-fun side of the fest, nicknamed "Puff-A-Palooza" in honor of the pluff mud where oysters are grown. "That part of the festival has really grown. They'll be showing a winter-themed film in a little theater, and we'll have clowns, people on stilts, doughnuts and hot chocolate. The children just love these types of things."
Benthall's glad the GCRA has paid extra attention to is the kids' area. "It's one thing for a family to take their kids to an event like this and hope there are a few jump castles, but the GCRA is offering all sorts of entertainment and events for kids that are tied into the theme of the festival.
"The whole idea is to make the festival experience an enjoyable experience," Benthall adds. "There's always something new at each event that reflects the history, culture, arts and cuisine of the Charleston area. The oysters, seafood, beer . it's truly an international event that Charleston hangs its hat on."