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Oyster roasts: informal, friendly, filling, and fun

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''He was a bold man that first eat an oyster,'' wrote Jonathan Swift back in the 1700s. We'll never know who the man was, but one thing we do know: Eating oysters has caught on.

Last month some 1,100 South Carolinians invaded the spacious grounds of Boone Hall Plantation for the first Lowland Oyster Festival.

The day was appropriately if unseasonably oyster-like. Cold, wet, grey, raw.

Squire Willie McRae opened the gates to Boone Hall, a sprawling plantation of antebellum grace built back when cotton was king in South Carolina. Merle Haggard is king now.

Down the long drive the hungry came - between the double row of centuries-old oaks, past the old slave quarters, toward the brick plantation, and left into the parking lot.

They rolled up in old Buicks, beat-up Ford Fiesta station wagons, Winnebagos, and any number of other American-built cars with four-wheel drives. And while the boys of the Charleston Bluegrass Society Band struck up ''It Ain't Love, But It Ain't Bad,'' families piled out of their cars, hauling ice coolers the size of small buildings, with their favorite oyster knives tucked like mini-scimitars in their belts.

When it comes to eating oysters, South Carolinians don't fool around.

Oyster roasts here are what clambakes are to New England and barbecues are to Texas: informal and friendly. You get there early and hungry and go home late and full.

Nelson Baines, general manager of the Sheraton Charleston Hotel, came up with the idea for the festival. January, he thought, would make a perfect Oyster Month, sandwiched between ''Christmas in Charleston'' and the Wildlife Festival here in February.

Bobby Smith and Jamie Westendorff were there. They run the Charleston Oyster Machine Company. ''Oyster roasts our specialty - any size,'' reads their card.

Jamie, a plumber from 9 to 5, obviously enjoys this little bit of moonlighting. He and the crew got there early to set up 60 long wooden tables, each with its own bucket of cocktail sauce and a bottle of Tabasco. No sooner was one set up then some folks staked a claim around it - and held their ground as tenaciously as barnacles cling to a ship's hull.

Then Bobbie and Jamie unloaded their odd-looking oyster roasters and started firing them up.

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