During the long summer months in the South, oyster lovers begin the countdown to months with the letter R and the start of oyster season. And when John LaRoche scans the faces of people gathered around an oyster table, he sees happiness.
A Lowcountry resident all his life, he’s been catering oyster parties since 1980. John, a Ravenel and South Carolina resident who lives in the same house he was raised in, got his start in the business with his friend and fellow game warden, Ben Moise. Ben and John worked together at South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources, now the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and Ben asked John to help him at an oyster roast in 1980.
“It went from there,” recalls John, “oyster roasts were always something people gravitated to, and I always enjoyed them so much. When I started working with Ben, I already enjoyed the parties so much, and added to that, I could make a little money. That sweetened the pot.”
Now he and Martha, his wife, run the business together. Martha’s goal is to make the best Lowcountry boil party-goers have ever tasted. “People say it’s the best they’ve had. Bar none,” says Martha. Martha’s chili is a Lowcountry favorite, too. She’s been making it for their events for 15 years — John and Ben previously provided chili but had to order it from someone else.
“Martha came to our rescue,” John remembers. “People call her and ask her to make the chili sometimes, and then they come pick it up from the house.” She makes it with ground round, tomatoes, three kinds of beans, Jim Beam sausage, onion, green pepper and celery.
The guests’ enjoyment of fellowship and food is indeed their goal. “People standing around an oyster table are happy. It makes me smile,” John says. “That’s what rings my bell.”
It’s a familiar joy for Billy Mote, too. Employed by Bonitz, a subcontractor in Columbia, Billy moonlights as a caterer along with his son Benjamin Mote and son-in-law Gene Bell. Having catered oyster roasts for about 20 years, he’s noticed that they have grown in popularity in the past several years, owing to the increasing accessibility of good oysters and a growing interest in the state’s culinary specialties.
“You can find oysters easier than you used to,” he says, adding that a lot of people wanted to eat them raw in the past, but he rarely serves them that way anymore. His specialty is a backyard party of 25-plus guests. His method? “Old-timey.” He throws a bushel of oysters out on rustic tables and serves his barbecue in a large wooden bowl. “I enjoy meeting people. It’s really more of a hobby than a job for me.”
Columbia residents Nancy and Ken Holt employ Billy for their annual New Year’s Eve party. They’ve hosted the gathering for six years; while the guest list has grown from about 25 people to closer to 75, a few things haven’t changed. They still put on a spectacular fireworks show, and they keep the party laid-back. Early on in hosting, they steamed oysters in a big pot of Ken’s; as the guest list grew, they decided to hire Billy to cater the event. They heard about him through a friend, and Billy and Ken hit it off right away. This allows Ken to visit with friends rather than spend the evening steaming oysters.
“When Billy came, he set up everything, and it was fantastic,” Nancy says. He brings oyster tables, knives for shucking the oysters, cocktail sauce and saltine crackers. “He doesn’t really do this for the money; he just enjoys doing it.”
With a spacious backyard in the Heathwood neighborhood to accommodate the large group, the Holts have also added live music to the equation. Their friend Kerk Spong and his three-piece band play bluegrass for guests who stay warm around the fireplace.
Ken says timing is important, too. “If you’re steaming the oysters yourself, I suggest cooking a half-bushel at a time,” Ken suggests. “With a bigger group and larger batches, you’ll need a second pair of hands to help you dump the oysters on to the table. They’re done when the foam from the juice they release gets to the top of the oysters.”
Ken, who grew up eating smoked oysters from a can and tasted his first fresh one when he moved to Charleston in his 20s, also makes a cocktail sauce that Nancy says is the best she’s ever had. Employing the “stir and taste” method, he combines ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, Worcestershire, coarse and fine pepper to taste, and lets the concoction sit for a day.
The party isn’t difficult to plan, according to Nancy. “It’s really informal, and everybody really enjoys it,” she says, adding that guests usually wear warm, casual clothes. “We hope to continue doing it because it’s a fun time. It’s a great way to get together and be outside with your friends.”
Nancy’s two-sage pieces of advice for would-be hosts: Buy oysters from a reputable seafood place and invest in some good knives.
“The biggest thing is having the right equipment,” Billy stresses, noting he’s fortunate to have accumulated his equipment over the many years that he’s been cooking.
Since 2004, Bobby Stepp, a partner at Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte, has hosted two oyster roasts every year, and he’s another advocate of a low-key gathering. “We set up a big metal table, steam up the oysters, have some cocktail sauce, and beer and wine,” he explains. “It’s more fun to do it when it’s cold out. It’s best in jeans and a sweatshirt.”
Oyster roasts tend to pick up for Billy in November, which he says is around the time the oyster beds open up. “Everyone seems to enjoy it more when there’s a chill in the air,” he says. “It’s the whole atmosphere.”
A special joy for Ken is the fireworks show he puts on during the party, primarily to entertain his friends’ children. “We tell people to bring their kids, and I shoot fireworks for about half an hour. It’s one last party once everybody’s had a chance to get over the Christmas holidays. It’s one last hoorah.”