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The oysters set before you at an oyster roast will be either Selects (i.e., individual oysters) or Clusters (groups of 2-5 or more stuck together.) Despite how others may behave (i.e., like ravening beasts), it's considered proper to take a variety of sizes and refrain from giving into one's baser nature and just grabbing all of the largest ones. Or so we're told.
When it comes to clusters, it's important to eat what you take. Make sure you open all the shells in the bunch -- even the small ones. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, it shows proper respect for the animal, and second, the little shells often contain some of the meatiest oysters for their size.
To open them, hold the oyster with the 'cup' side of the shell in your palm and the flat side on top. If there's a gap between the shells, just slide your knife in and twist. If not, wiggle your knife tip into the 'hinge' end of the shell and twist. This may take some work, but you'll often be rewarded with a succulent oyster steamed in its own hot, briny juices (which is why you want to be holding the 'cup' shell right side up while opening -- unless you enjoy being scalded.)
Slide your knife under the oyster to loosen it. You now have some choice as to eating method. You can either:
- lift it out by firmly grabbing the end of the oyster between your thumb and the knife. You can then raise it directly to your mouth, or dip it in the cocktail sauce first. (Double dipping is, as always, a big fat faux pas.)
- raise the shell to your lips and let the oyster (and its salty nectar) slide into your mouth (a small amount of slurping is permissible here.)
Discard the shell by tossing it into the hole in the table. The containers underneath are for empty shells only (more on that later.) Bottles, cans, paper, etc, go into recycling bins or regular trash cans.
You will occasionally open an oyster to find a very, very tiny crab inside. If it's your first time, locals may tell you to eat the crab and the oyster together "for luck." It's good manners to just play along. It (the crab, that is) won't kill you and you'll make them (the locals) happy.
One more thing: If you find that the oysters on the table are cooked too much or too little for your taste, stop opening them. Step away from the table, go grab another beer, and wait for the next batch to arrive.
Q: I'm not an oyster fan. Is there anything else to eat at oyster roasts besides oysters?
A: Generally speaking, no. Some oyster roasts have hot dogs and/or hamburgers and/or chili and such --but don't count on it. Fortunately, it's not considered rude to inquire ahead of time. Otherwise, you may end up consuming nothing but large quantities of saltines dipped in cocktail sauce, and large quantities of beer to choke them down with. Which may or may not be your idea of a good time.
Q: What happens to the empty shells afterward?
A: This is the best part: The attendees (after changing into camouflage outfits) divide into two teams, gather buckets of oyster shells, and spend the late afternoon hours playing Oyster Tag, which is just like laser tag except you throw sharp, gnarly oyster shells at each other. Everyone has a grand time, sharing laughs and stories afterward on the way to the emergency room.
Okay, not really. The oyster shells are often brought to an official oyster shell recycling site (no kidding) and are picked up by the local Department of Natural Resources, which distributes them strategically in area waters. The shells are the perfect medium for young larval oysters (called 'spat') to attach themselves and grow fat and sassy -- until oyster roast season rolls around again.