Steaming oysters and savory barbecue, skeet shooting and bourbon tasting—learn how a local event pro fashioned a stepped-up Lowcountry oyster roast and get tips for hosting your own tradition-in-the-making affair
As owner of A Charleston Bride, local wedding design guru Melissa Barton Williams is known for fashioning opulent big days—polished-to-perfection soirées that often land in the pages of wedding magazines, as well as on blogs like Style Me Pretty and Snippet & Ink. Yet when she planned a celebration for her own nuptials to Kevin Williams, she steered away from posh finery and instead opted for a rustic, relaxed, and decidedly Charleston fête at her childhood home on Yonges Island. “It was exactly what I envisioned—laid-back but intentional,” says Melissa of the day, which featured an oyster roast, savory barbecue spread, help-yourself bar, skeet-shoot tournament, and bluegrass band.
And while properly entertaining—and filling the bellies of—70 family members and friends may have been a no-sweat task for this pro (“I have planned so many rehearsal dinners with this vibe that I knew what I wanted and it came together relatively easily,” she notes), for recreational entertainers, throwing a winter fête of this caliber can be daunting. Here, Melissa shares tips for upping the game on your own Lowcountry oyster roast, whether for a handful of friends or a crowd.
Sweet Spot: Melissa’s parents’ property—located near the town of Meggett—sits on Oyster Factory Creek, an offshoot of the Wadmalaw River. “I grew up in this house, and it was always the ‘go to’ gathering place when I was young because my parents were such great entertainers,” says Melissa.
Set the Stage
For outdoor parties, the goal is to let the Lowcountry landscape shine, says Melissa, who suggests you survey the land to find the most striking natural element and design from there. A pair of towering oaks is the visual focal point of her parents’ backyard, so the buffet table, bars, and oyster table were situated at their base. Bistro lights and lanterns provided an ambient glow over the lawn when the sun set (a 2 p.m. start time allowed for hours of natural light); hay bales offered right-at-home (not to mention cost-effective) additional seating; and rented wooden elements such as tables, chairs, barrels, and a beer trough fit with the natural aesthetic.
Down-Home Details: A “country cool” dress code ensured guests arrived ready to traipse about the rural venue. Hay bales picked up from a nearby supply store and barrels rented from Snyder Events added rustic charm aplenty.
PARTY NOTES FROM A PRO
■ Offer a dress code. The invitation noted “country cool” attire. “I just wanted guests to wear appropriate clothes and shoes—boots!—so they were comfortable shucking oysters and eating boiled peanuts. Stilettoes would not fare well out there,” laughs Melissa.
■ Go green. Florals may abound at the fêtes Melissa plans, but she stuck with greens for her own reception. “I think flowers, unless they were picked from that very yard, would have felt out of place,” she says, noting that non-floral touches—like metallic buckets and lanterns—helped add dimension to the design. “I’m not a huge fan of burlap, but that and some fun plaid are good options for outdoor events as well.”
■ Mind Mother Nature. Though they enjoyed clear skies and warm temps all day, Melissa reserved a tent in case the forecast predicted rain. For cold days, she suggests having blankets, hand warmers, a fire pit, and propane-fueled heaters on hand to keep guests comfortable. “And consider offering coffee or some other hot beverage like a bun warmer, which has apricot brandy, Southern Comfort whiskey, and apple cider,” she says.
■ Make it personal. As a nod to Kevin—a big bourbon fan—guests enjoyed a bourbon tasting station complete with oversized ice cubes (molds for which can be found at kitchen stores like The Coastal Cupboard). Partygoers kept their beers chilled using koozies collected from weddings planned by A Charleston Bride. For your own fête, Melissa suggests designing koozies as a favor. Studio R is her go-to local resource for customized versions; to DIY a design, try foryourparty.com.
On the Menu
You can’t throw a cold-season party in the Lowcountry without serving up piping hot oysters. But while shucking the bivalves may be the most entertaining aspect of the meal, it’s not the most satiating. “Oysters don’t fill you up for long, so offering other food is a good idea,” says Melissa. “Barbecue is a perfect pairing, along with all the yummy sides like macaroni and cheese, collards, and biscuits.” For their reception, Melissa enlisted the team at Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, who drove their mobile catering truck onto Yonges Island to man the roast, serve up the barbecue buffet, and tend to the self-serve beer and wine bar. “For more than 25 guests, I would always hire someone to manage the food and bar tables so they stay neat, clean, and well-stocked,” says Melissa. “Hosts should never have to leave a conversation with a guest to get more ice or take out the trash.”
OYSTER ROAST 101
Melissa’s tips for being a perfect roast host
■ Obtain your table(s). You can rent shucking tables from groups like Snyder Events, use your own (Melissa borrowed her parents’—“doesn’t every true Southerner own one?” she laughs), or DIY a rudimentary version using two sawhorses topped with a piece of plywood.
■ Now stock that table properly. This pro’s must-have accoutrements for an oyster roast? Lemon wedges, Saltines, hot sauce, oyster knives, clean rags, and finger bowls with water for hand rinsing.
■ Time it right. “If the weather is cool, oysters will be fine outside for a while; if not, they should be delivered just before they go on,” says Melissa. From there, roast them in small batches so guests can get ’em while they’re hot.
■ Wash those oysters. Before cooking, hose off the bivalves with cold water. “Nothing’s worse than trying to eat an oyster with muddy fingers!” says Melissa.
■ Plan ahead for shell removal. “Empty shells are heavy and when a trash bin is full of them, it’s almost impossible to move,” Melissa notes. Help preserve local oyster beds by recycling shells from your event via the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), which has drop-off sites throughout the Lowcountry and offers pickup for large loads. (Shells need to be dried for at least six months before they’re returned to local waters, notes the SCDNR, so resist pitching them back in yourself.) For more information, call (843) 953-9397.
■ For larger parties, enlist a pro. A catering team can tackle the logistics
mentioned above, plus help ensure that food safety standards are met.
■ Keep a first-aid kit handy. No matter how experienced the shucker, accidents happen, notes Melissa.
■ Use those leftovers! “If you have leftover oysters, go ahead and cook and shuck them and use them for casseroles and rice purloo,” she suggests.
■ BEVERAGES: Sweet tea, beer, red and white wines, and bourbon
■ APPS: Pork hot links and pimento cheese on Saltines, topped with serrano peppers; deviled eggs; and boiled peanuts
■ ROASTED OYSTERS: Served with lemon wedges, Saltines, and hot sauce
■ BARBECUE BUFFET: Pulled pork, sliced beef brisket, mac-n-cheese, baked beans, collard greens, coleslaw, sweet potato casserole, cheese biscuits, and banana pudding
Good Shot: Roughly 25 guests took part in a skeet shoot tournament early in the day. Participants shot three rounds of clays; the top two then faced off in a final round. “It was so much fun!” says Melissa (above, left), who’s been shooting since she was a teenager; Game On (right): Partygoers played corn hole on the couple’s personal (and school-spirited) boards.
Up The Fun Factor
Skeet shooting is commonplace at Melissa’s parents’ property, so a tournament was easy to pull together. Her brother, brother-in-law, and father ran the thrower while the groom himself managed the guns. The shooting tournament took place early in the afternoon—before many drinks were imbibed—and only people who had experience took part. For larger parties or less savvy groups, Melissa recommends either enlisting a skilled shooter to help man the station or foregoing the activity. Corn hole boards, footballs, and a live bluegrass band kept non-shooters plenty engaged. “We also had a kickball game going on in the front yard for the kids and they had a blast,” says Melissa.
Make Merry (top): Bluegrass band Common Ground played throughout the afternoon. “The band was a splurge, for sure, but I felt it made all the difference!” says Melissa. When hosting a more low-key event, simply pipe in country or bluegrass tunes from a docking station.
“We got an additional liability insurance policy for the day since we did not hire a professional bartending service and opted for a self-serve bar,” says Melissa. “For private homes, I would never hold a party for more than 20 guests without one. They’re inexpensive and worth the peace of mind.” Also, if you’re partying on a more remote property, keep transport in mind. Unless you’re in ride-sharing range, provide transportation for your guests, she suggests.
Design: A Charleston Bride
Images: Tim Willoughby, Timwill Photography
Location: Family home (Yonges Island)
Rentals: Snyder Events (dining tables, chairs, linens, barrels, beer trough, and stage)
Catering: Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q
Bluegrass Band: Common Ground
Lighting, after-party music: Technical Event Company
Tips, Tricks, & More: To learn more about Charleston’s favorite bivalve and get additional roasting and shucking tips, check out our award-winning, comprehensive oyster guide at charlestonmag.com/LowcountryOysters.