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Where there's water, there's seafood — and plenty of folks eager to eat it. From landlocked states in the Midwest where lake and river fish reign supreme, to the coasts offering fresh-caught ocean delicacies, each region in the U.S. has its own way of celebrating the catch. Whether your meal is boiled, fried, roasted, or raw, napkins are essential — as well as family and friends. Here are five traditional seafood feasts to whet your appetite.
Oyster Roast, South Carolina
Although seafood feasts seem to call for warm summer days, they do things differently at a Charleston oyster roast, an event that’s traditionally held outdoors from September through April. Why? Cooler water equals tastier oysters, so months containing the letter “r” are preferred. Winters are relatively mild in Charleston, so weather isn’t a serious obstacle to eating al fresco — and a sip of bourbon warms things up nicely.
At a traditional oyster roast, a piece of sheet metal is suspended by cinder blocks over a wood fire. Fresh sea oysters are hosed off and shoveled into a single layer covered with a wet burlap sack, which steam the bivalves while infusing the flavor with trapped smoke. (Today, some opt for the convenience of an electric steamer.)
An oyster roast is a straightforward affair, and sides are simple if they’re present at all. Bring your own oyster knife and come prepared to shuck your own. A glove comes in handy for holding the hot shell. Free the tasty meat, dip it in melted butter or cocktail or hot sauce, and plop it on a plain, saltine cracker. Swallow, savor, shuck, repeat.
Clambakes are synonymous with New England summers, where family and friends flock to the beaches in order to brave the chilly Atlantic and warm up with freshly caught goodies. A true clambake is an involved operation that takes a village — or at least a shovel and a few friends — to help dig and gather rocks and driftwood. After the pit is dug out of the sand, it’s lined with the rocks and filled with driftwood. When the fire has burned down to embers, it’s covered with a thick layer of seaweed.
Then comes the food. There are scrubbed clams, of course, but the sea’s the limit — you can add some mussels in there or even lobster in addition to foil-wrapped potatoes, onions, and fat ears of unhusked corn. Sausages or even hot dogs are a frequent addition. The feast is covered with another layer of seaweed, sealed with a wet tarp, and left to steam deliciously for a few hours before being devoured by a grateful crew.
Fish Fry, Arkansas
If you fry it, they will come. Arteries aside, most folks in the Delta love deep-fried food and a fish fry is a wonderful excuse to indulge. No ocean? No problem! The Mississippi River — along with farm ponds — provide the mid-South with an abundance of catfish. A large (usually propane-fired) fryer is filled with oil, while cornbread-dipped fillets are brought to a golden-brown crisp.
Go oil or go home; the crunch has only just begun. Onion-flecked cornbread balls, also known as hush puppies, are also fried along with French fries and sometimes okra. Dill pickles are a possibility. The richness of the fried items is complemented with macaroni and cheese, dessert, and coleslaw featuring mayonnaise and a nice bite of vinegar. Is this low-fat? Definitely not. Is it incredibly delicious? Yes indeed.
Crawfish Boil, Louisiana
L’aissez les bon temps boil-ay! The good times always roll at a Cajun crawfish boil. Affectionately known as “mud bugs,” crawfish are freshwater crustaceans that look like miniature lobsters. Their small size means there’s a lot of work involved to extract a small amount of flesh. Most boils plan for four or more pounds of crawfish per person to account for the low yield. True aficionados raise the dismembered bug to their lips and drink the juices, while die-hards will even suck the head, tiny brain, and all.
We’ll stick to the sweet and tender tail and claw meat, which is redolent with the fiery spices that have been added to the boil water. Along with the bugs, a traditional boil pot will include corn, red potatoes, fat heads of garlic, and succulent links of andouille sausage. Pro-tip: boils are finger food and you will have some very messy — and aromatic — fingers at the end. Scrub your nails into a wedge of fresh lemon and do not rub your eyes. If crawfish aren’t your jam, substitute shrimp and throw a few cans of beer into your boil water. Voila, a traditional Gulf Coast shrimp boil!
Crab Feed, California
Dungeness crab season arrives in late fall on the West Coast, and we’re not crabby about it. Sweet and succulent, Dungeness can be boiled, steamed, or baked and requires only simple preparation to let its pure flavor shine through. A traditional northern California feed will feature Dungeness boiled with some of the region’s other bounty, like artichokes and garlic along with the near-ubiquitous corn and potatoes.
It’s mostly all about the pot, but spaghetti with marinara and meatballs might make an appearance on the table. There will definitely be some crusty garlic bread and since it’s California, a delicious and healthy salad will be bursting with greens and enlivened with luscious slices of avocado and some of the state’s stellar citrus fruits. A refreshing white wine (local, of course) is the perfect beverage to accompany. Cheers!