Charleston, S.C. — ''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.
The oysters arrived in plastic bags - one bushel to the bag, 269 bushels in all. They were dumped three bushels at a time into the roaster, covered with a burlap sack, and in four or five minutes - voila! Or in this case, yaaaaahoooo! They were then carried by two men, sedan-chair fashion, and dumped in the middle of the empty tables - to the hoots and whistles of the hungry.
From there it's a blur of arms, shells and flashing steel.Empty shells went into baskets and were dumped under one of the oak trees. By midafternoon the pile was approaching Matterhorn proportions.
Meanwhile, behind the tent next to the roasting machine, the oyster recipe competition was under way.
Chefs from Charleston's finest restaurants were putting the finishing touches on their favorite oyster dishes - a dollop of Mornay sauce here, a dash of paprika there - before sliding them into the ovens.
As one of the four judges, I must say the recipes were splendid. First place, by unanimous decision, went to the 82 Queens Street Restaurant for its Oysters Elizabeth, a recipe made especially for the contest.
Finally, at sundown, folks started moving out. The rain snuffed out the four campfires, the tent came down, and Jamie and the boys hoisted the oyster roasters back onto the truck. Only the gray mountain of empty oyster shells remained. But they don't go to waste.
''Got enough shells there to fill every pothole from here to Memphis,'' someone remarked. Oysters Elizabeth 1 cup cooked spinach, chopped 1/2 cup crab meat, drained 1/4 cup onions, sauteed 3 teaspoons mayonnaise 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 1 teaspoon lemon juice Salt and pepper to taste Tabasco 6 slices fried bacon, optional 1 dozen raw oysters on the half shell Lemon wedges
Add all ingredients except oysters, lemon wedges, and bacon - to spinach. Toss gently.
Place mixed ingredients on oyster shells and place oyster on top. Dot with small pieces of butter or crumbled bacon. Cook in preheated 350-degree F. oven 5 to 7 minutes.
Serve with lemon wedges. Mills House Barbados Salad 2 dozen oysters, shucked 1 cup fresh grapefruit juice 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice 2 firm, fresh tomatoes, diced 1/4 cup jalapeno peppers and juice 1 medium cucumber, diced 1 medium green pepper, diced 1 bunch scallions, diced 1 red onion, diced 1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon white pepper Crackers
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for 24 hours. Serve on crackers.