When I was teaching on Daufuskie Island in 1969, I would begin to pass the black oystermen who worked the mud flats as I left the inland waterway for the boat ramp in Bluffton. On three different occasions, they would flag me down as I passed them and I would tow their bateaux into the Bluffton oyster factory. They were weathered, hardworking men, and they would often press on me a couple buckets of freshly picked oysters for my services. If there is anything better than a raw oyster in the known world, it has to be hidden in the egg sac of a beluga sturgeon.
One of the grand distinctions of life in the Lowcountry of South Carolina is that the oystermen and crabbers and shrimpers are still plying the waters in search of their catch. All are endangered species now, both the men who hunt them and the animals they seek. But I can look out my window onto Battery Creek and know that there are still productive and yielding oyster banks a mile from my home. --Pat Conroy
3/4 cup butter, divided*
A good-sized onion (South Carolina-sized, not Texas-sized), chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 3/4 pounds of wild mushrooms, sliced (such as tree oyster, hedgehog, chanterelle, shiitake)
4 tablespoons of chopped chives
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups heavy cream (lose weight after Christmas)
32 fresh Beaufort County oysters
Reserved oyster liquor to make a full cup of liquid
1/2 cup of grated Parmigiano (from a real wheel of cheese from Parma)
1/3 cup of Sauvignon Blanc
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 1/2 cups fine, dry breadcrumbs made from day-old good French or Italian loaf
How to Make It
Preheat broiler to 500° F. In a big skillet, melt four tablespoons of the butter. Add onion and bell pepper, and cook until they get that soft, giving-up look, about 5 to 6 minutes on medium-high. Add mushrooms and chives, season with salt and pepper, and cook approximately 9 minutes until golden brown and most of liquid has cooked out.
In a Dutch oven, melt remaining ½ cup butter. On low heat, whisk in flour, and cook for a minute. Pretend you were born in Louisiana when you do this. Then slowly, as in "Whoa, hoss", whisk in the cream and oyster liquor. Simmer, stirring often. Don't text. Don't e-mail. Keep stirring for 5 minutes until this stuff is smooth and thick. Take a deep breath. Notice what you're up to. You're going to like yourself a lot. Add two tablespoons of the cheese. Dump in all the wine, and season again with salt and pepper. Cook two minutes more, whisking constantly. Fold in oysters, and cook 3 more minutes. Fold in mushroom mixture.
Pour into deep lightly buttered pan or a medium-size casserole dish (13-inch x 9-inch). Combine remaining cheese and melted butter with enough breadcrumbs to cover, and sprinkle over the casserole. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned.
Live easy and die hard.
* When perusing my shoddy notes for The Great Santini Oyster Casserole, I included the first version that I made with butter, fabulous butter. Then I remembered I substituted four or five slabs of bacon, which I crumbled into the beautiful pond of ingredients and made a jazzed-up gravy that my father loved. I think bacon could make even toe cheese good, but that's just me.