On one glorious day each year, the world is our oyster here in the Lowcountry.
Oyster season opened this week for the pickers at the Bluffton Oyster Co.
It's the only commercial oyster-shucking operation left in South Carolina, and I live in fear that it's on borrowed time.
The oyster is just a lowly bivalve, silently stuck in the pluff mud. As B'rer Rabbit would say, the oyster, he lay low. But if our waterways get polluted by runoff from all the new streets and homes rushing to the coast, the oyster will be the first to tell us we messed up.
I know it doesn't seem like oyster season. It's hard to picture an oyster roast when it's still so hot in the Lowcountry that the oysters could steam themselves without even being shoveled onto a hot piece of tin hissing over wood coals.
So let's think of oysters on the halfshell, resting in a tray of crushed ice.
That's how they serve them in Boston, where my son lives.
We went to a restaurant called B&G Oysters Ltd., where the menu makes such a fuss over each individual oyster I was worried my appetizer was going to come with adoption papers instead of napkins. We carefully selected our oysters from a dozen choices, like the Island Creek oyster from Duxbury, Mass., or the Wianno oyster from Barnstable, Mass.
All this information came with a burden of responsibility. Now that we were more than passing acquaintances with our crustaceans, I felt I must savor each oyster, breathe deeply over its perfect little shell, or perhaps even swish it around in my mouth.
Back home, we tend to gulp our oysters. We slice and crack into the razor-sharp shells, then wolf them down, not bothering to find out if it was topped with Tabasco sauce or a drop of blood from a skinned knuckle.
We stand at long tables in dim lighting and slurp oysters like we were in a hot dog-eating contest. We toss shells, some of them still loaded with precious cargo, down holes in the table as if we're trying to build a shell ring for antiquity in a matter of hours.
But once a year it hits us.
On opening day, we realize that our oysters are not a given.
There's no guarantee that when autumn rolls around, the Lowcountry oyster will be wild, plentiful and safe to eat.
The Bluffton Rotary Club or the Historic Beaufort Foundation are not bound by law to hold annual oyster roasts. There's no guarantee the shucking house will survive another year. And the Lowcountry ladies hammering salty delicacies from mounds of stubborn shells are not getting any younger.
Yes, the world is our oyster. But it comes with responsibilities.