Episode Guide: Oysters in South Carolina Img

Oysters were enjoyed by the first Americans, and in this episode, we’re exploring oyster culture in South Carolina’s low country, as part of one of the most unique cultures of the area: the Gullah Geechee. We explore the storied history of the oyster in modern-day South Carolina. The first Americans enjoyed it and it remains a critical ingredient in local foodways. Capri harvests oysters with members of the Gullah community, enjoys a traditional Gullah oyster dish and shucks oysters alongside women who have been perfecting the art of hand shucking for generations.

History of Oysters at a Traditional Oyster Roast

We visit a traditional oyster roast where oysters are cooked on a large metal top — in their own natural “seasoning” — with a wood fire underneath. As we gather around a large table built for this occasion and feast, oyster historian and author Robert Moss tells us about the storied history of oysters in this region pre-America to present day.

Historians have found ancient shell rings (around 4,000 years ago!) of discarded oyster shells. The rings are believed to have been used for celebratory or ceremonial purposes, and prove that this bivalve has been an essential food in this region for millennia.

Read more about the history of this lowcountry harvest in South Carolina. 

Harvesting Oysters with Bluffton Oyster Co.

Founded in 1899, the Bluffton Oyster Co. is the last remaining hand-shucking oyster house in South Carolina. A family-run operation since 1899, the operation actually sits on reclaimed land, built up by more than a hundred years of discarded shells from shucking operations. We go out onto the May River to harvest oysters and hear about a family practice that spans three generations with Larry Toomer and his team members of the Bluffton Oyster Company, who harvest and shuck all oysters by hand. We also learn about why the May River is a special habitat for oysters and how long they’ve been growing here.

Learn more about hand-harvesting oysters here. 

Hand-Shucking & Cooking Oysters with Bluffton Oyster Co.

The 80-year old oyster shucking ladies of Bluffton Oyster Co show us their impressive technique with knife and hammer that has become muscle memory after decades of practice. Then we’ll head into the Toomers’ family-run restaurant with Larry Toomer’s wife Tina to sample the shucked oysters in multiple preparations: Oysters Rockefeller (bacon, parmesan cheese, and spinach) with cheese grits, and Fried Oysters with Collard Greens and Hushpuppies — which are a must to serve with seafood, according to Tina! It’s South Carolina on a plate, all served with tartar sauce. 

The Gullah Geechee are an ethnic group of Central and West African origins, living in the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. 

Here’s a recipe for collard greens, inspired by the Toomers’ family restaurant dish. 

Gullah Collard Greens

  • 1 ham hock*
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 6 quarts chicken broth
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 pounds collard greens, leaves removed from stalks and trimmed
  1. Place one ham hock and one sliced onion in a stockpot with six quarts of chicken broth. Bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 2.5 hours or longer, until the ham hock is tender.
  3. Rinse and trim two pounds of collard greens, removing the leaves from the stalks. Soak the leaves in cold water with a pinch of salt.
  4. Rinse the leaves three times, then chop into thirds.
  5. Remove the ham hock, add the collard greens to the broth, and continue to simmer.
  6. Return the ham hock to the pot and simmer covered for an additional hour or longer, or until the greens are as tender as desired. Adjust seasoning with salt as needed.

Gullah Geechee Oyster Traditions

Chef BJ Dennis has made it his mission to keep the Gullah Geechee foodways alive, using oysters harvested by Jamie Drayton, who calls Edisto Island home. Jamie was a longtime friend of Emily Megget, The Matriarch of Edisto Island, who was a respected elder in the Gullah community of South Carolina before she passed in 2023, and published “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island.” 

BJ makes an Oyster Perloo, a rice dish or pilaf with a vegetable or meat in it. It’s full of local, fresh ingredients, consistent with Gullah traditions. Here’s the recipe: 

Oyster Perloo 


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 sausage links, cooked and sliced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 pound oysters, shucked with their liquor
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Oven Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C).
  2. Sauté Vegetables: In a Dutch oven, heat vegetable oil over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. Cook until onions are translucent and lightly browned.
  3. Combine Ingredients: Season with salt and pepper. Stir in uncooked rice until well-coated with oil and slightly toasted. Add sliced sausage.
  4. Add Liquids and Bake: Pour in water and add the oysters with their liquor. Stir gently to combine. Cover and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed.

Sauce Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup sweet onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 cup bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • Pinch of salt
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste

Sauce Preparation

  1. Cook Sauce: In a saucepan, heat sesame oil over medium heat. Add sweet onions, celery, bell pepper, and sauté until vegetables are softened. Stir in tomato paste and thyme, cooking for another minute.
  2. Add Tomatoes: Add cherry tomatoes and cook until they start to break down and release their juices, forming a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve with Seasonal Vegetables: Prepare a side of roasted seasonal vegetables such as snow peas, carrots, and broccoli.

Combine and Serve: Serve the baked oyster perloo topped with the freshly made sauce and accompanied by the vegetables.

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