Oysters, all you can eat! They come from Bowens Island oyster beds all gnarled and splotched with pluff, which is the oysterman’s term for the fine silt that is stuck on them when they are harvested and clings to them when they are roasted so that merely touching a cooked cluster will smudge your fingers. 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. They are roasted under burlap on a big smoky pit, then brought to the table by the shovel full. It is the customer’s job to shuck them (easy, once cooked) with the knife provided.
To dress the cooked oysters, Bowen’s Island offers one option: a paper cup full of thin red cocktail sauce hot with horseradish and Texas Pete. Some regulars bring along sticks of their own butter, which the restaurant is happy to melt for them. The cocktail sauce recipe comes from 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 never has wavered: eating areas are famous for generations’ worth of graffiti that cover all wall space.
If there happens to be an oyster frowner in your party, no problem. Bowen’s Island’s menu also includes fried shrimp and really good hushpuppies, as well as crab cakes and even Frogmore stew, the Carolina coast specialty that combines shrimp, sausage, and corn.
To say amenities at Bowen’s Island are minimal is an understated joke. Tables sometimes have covering in the form of newspapers; the ones dedicated to oyster eating have holes in the center where you conveniently can throw shells after you have extricated the meat from the heaps of inner tidal bivalves. The heavy kerplunk of emptied shells getting tossed into the garbage cans beneath the tables’ holes is the backbeat of dining at Bowen’s Island; the melody is the slurp of sucking slippery nuggets of marine meat straight off the oyster knife, then drinking down warm, salty liquor from the shell.