Charleston is a town steeped in history. The first shots of the Civil War were fired here. In fact, you can still find live cannon balls from the war in the oyster flats! But in the modern era, Charleston has become a tourist town where you can find some of the best seafood in the country.
I was in town to discover three of the tastiest commodities it has to offer: oysters, blue crabs and sheepshead fish.
I have harvested oysters before, but working with Hal Wertan and his son, Christopher, was as close to wild oysters as I have come. Most of the oysters we are familiar with up north are essentially the same variety as down south. We exported so many oysters from the northern territories over to Europe way back in the day that we devastated our own supply. So we had to borrow a few from the South in order to introduce oysters back into Northern waters. Now the oyster we call so many different names is all the same oyster, separated by the taste of the water and environment it grows up in.
Hal’s kind of farming (if you can call it that) really allows the oyster to grow as it would in the wild. The beds are muddy and walking just a few feet seems almost impossible. The clusters you pull up are beautiful, but trying to distinguish fresh oysters from old oysters takes a lifetime of practice. I smashed a lot of very good oysters while trying to separate the cluster. It wasn’t a problem for filming because I got to eat the ones I broke, but if this had been a job interview, there is no way I would have been hired. Christopher and Hal picked about 10 sacks’ worth to my one. I was more winded oystering then I have ever been fighting a big fish!
My lessons in ecology are real and personal. I had many fall seasons when I was much younger of catching limitless heaps of flounder. But when I returned to my fishing spot one year, they were almost gone. I, as well as every other fisherman on the bay, had contributed to the over-fishing. As a result, I became more conscious of the costs of my actions. A few years later, while hunting for blue crabs with a friend, I convinced him to always throw back the females so there would be crabs the next year.
Pete Kornack runs his own little restaurant and does most of the fishing himself, including trapping the blue crabs that go into his famous stuffed pepper dish. Trapping crabs is very different from running them down and netting them. On the one hand, it’s easier: The traps are heavy and don’t generally come off the bottom of the water. But waiting, as they say, is the hardest part, especially in high wind with white caps. And if you are both the fisherman and the chef, it’s up to you to make sure the crabs make it to the kitchen on time.
Sheepshead have to be some of the strangest looking fish on earth. The fish are striped, but the odd part of the sheepshead is its set of teeth. The teeth are almost human-like, though a bit worse for the wear on most. The teeth help the fish scrape and bite through barnacles, and also to steal your bait. It takes about 10 fiddler crabs (our bait) for every sheepshead hooked. After I finally managed to hook one, I headed to Husk, one of Charleston’s finest restaurants, to meet James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock.
Sean believes the best food on earth is found in the South. One taste of his cooking and you might agree. He turned the fish into a simple dish using chow-chow and cornbread to dress up the plate. If you are ever in Charleston and don’t feel like catching your own dinner, check out Husk.
More From Hook, Line & Dinner:
- Photos: On the Road With Ben
- Behind the Scenes of Hook, Line & Dinner
- The Best Lobster in Maine
- Get to Know Ben Sargent
Where do you think the best seafood can be found?