Folly Beach, South Carolina—Standing by a fire pit where oysters on a grate steam under burlap, we watch a car with Midwest license plates cautiously creep into the shell-strewn parking lot of Bowens Island restaurant. Although Charleston is only twenty minutes north, this place feels remote, located at the end of a rutted dirt road in the marshland of Folly Beach, beyond a sign that welcomes motorists to the "Edge of America." Bowens Island scarcely looks like a place to eat. It could be the site of last summer's yard sale or maybe a spit of land where various seafaring folk abandon gear that is no longer useful. Impolitely put, it's a dump.
The vehicle stops, the motor cuts out, and after several beats, a vacationing family of four steps out, crunching oyster shells beneath their sandals. They warily approach an entrance where a scrap-metal robot man wears a hand-scrawled sign that advises, "Oyster Cook Works for Tips Only."
About ninety minutes later, the visiting quartet skip back to their vehicle, having learned the unique ways of a Lowcountry oyster roast, stopping to photograph each other near the fire alongside Henry Gillard, the oyster cook. As they pass, we inhale the briny cloud of ocean perfume that clings to their clothes and hair and skin in the aftermath of dispatching a bushel with sloppy abandon.
To say amenities at Bowens Island are minimal is an understated joke. Valet parking? Not a chance. Maitre d' or host? Not here. Air conditioning in the summer or central heat in winter? Nope. Printed menu, wine list, tablecloths, napkins, comfortable seats? No, none of that. Tables sometimes are covered in newspapers; the ones dedicated to oyster eating, which is the primary reason to come here, have holes in the center where visitors conveniently can throw shells after extricating the meat from the heaps of inner tidal bivalves that are shoveled onto the table hot from the roaster. (The verb shovel is not a figure of speech; a garden shovel actually is used to serve the oysters.)
The shells are quite hideous to see, all gnarled and splotched with pluff, which is the oysterman's term for the fine silt that sticks on them when they are harvested and clings to them when they are roasted. Merely touching a cooked cluster will smudge your fingers. Experienced customers bring their own oyster eating gloves. Unprepared amateurs are given a clean-looking washcloth along with a dull knife for prying the shells open (an easy task on roasted oysters) and cutting the meat loose. Whatever the method, eating pluff is an inevitable part of the meal, and while it has what proprietor Robert Barber calls "a unique stinky smell," it is a good stink, an ocean aroma that adds mineral salubrity to the oyster flavor. On the door of the hut where guests place their orders, a bumper sticker reads, "Pluff Mud: The Goo That Holds the Earth Together."
Barber explains, "Most people who aren't from around here think of oysters as cold on the half shell, all wet and slimy. They've never had them steamed, hot and juicy." The cooking process, which takes only a few moments, infuses the meat of the oyster with its own juices, concentrating the flavor; and while it takes nothing away from the sensual mouth feel of a raw one, the lick of fire adds balmy bliss. Unlike sparkling specimens presented in a pretty pattern on crushed ice, these uglies come in clumps of three or six or more grown together in a single pluff-caked mass, some facets yielding warm, salty mouthfuls the size of quail eggs, others as tiny as black-eyed peas.
The restaurant harvests its oysters from nearby marshland beds seeded with crushed shells to help the young ones get a footing. "The oyster starts its life as a squiggly, squirmy character," Barber explains with the fondness an uncle might show for a favorite niece. "It takes eighteen months to two years until it gets decent-sized." He says that although his oysters are the same species that grow in the Gulf and elsewhere along the East Coast, exactly where they grow and the constitution of their beds determines their stuck-together form and creates the gentle marine flavor that makes eating countless numbers seem the only right way.
To dress the cooked oysters, Bowens Island offers one option: a paper cup full of thin, red cocktail sauce hot with horseradish and Texas Pete. "If you have good seafood, you don't need thick sauce," Barber declares. Some customers bring along sticks of their own butter, which the restaurant is happy to melt for them, yielding a luxury dip. The cocktail sauce recipe comes from Barber's grandmother, May Bowen, who, with her husband, Jimmy, started the restaurant at their fish camp in 1946. It was an outdoor picnic then, with pecks and bushels dispatched at sawhorse tables. The informality has never wavered.
Oysters are the reason to come to Bowens Island, but they are not the whole story. For those averse to mollusks, Mrs. Bowen and her grandson have put other dishes on the menu which, although second fiddle, are anything but second rate. You can eat hearty Frogmore stew (a Lowcountry slumgullion of sausage, shrimp, corn, and potatoes); and the hush puppies served alongside expertly fried shrimp and fish are among the best anywhere, their dark red, spherical surface hard and crunchy, their insides creamy rich. "You've got to cure the batter, you must take your time," Barber tells us. "Else it blows up and sucks in too much oil." This, he learned by watching May Bowen; however, to his chagrin, he never did get his grandmother's deviled crab recipe. "She made those every Sunday morning, and every Sunday morning I was at church with my mother," he laments. "So I never saw how she did it. That is one tradition we cannot uphold. I believe ours have more crab in them, but I still liked hers better."
Bowens Island: 1870 Bowens Island Rd., Folly Island, SC. 843-795-2757.