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The World

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Author Ruth Tobias


Shell Game

JAMIE WESTENDORF, FOR 35 years the owner of Charleston Outdoor Catering, does barbecues and luaus, but he’s best known for his traditional oyster roasts. When he gets the fire going, locals stick around for hours, just feasting on oysters. “As fast as you’re shucking them, they’re eating them,” he says.

Westendorf hopes to hand his business down to his children and grandchildren, but the future of the wild oyster is far from assured. Between the demise in the 1980s of the local canning industry, which was once responsible for maintaining state-owned shellfish grounds, and a rising demand for decorative shells used in landscaping and construction, oyster beds in the Charleston area have been decimated (as elsewhere: see above).

Enter the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. It works with the food industry and citizen volunteers to return thousands of tons of discarded shells to the reefs in spawning season, when millions of tiny oyster larvae are seeking something hard and genetically familiar to a ach to. Since 2001, when the effort began, 37 acres of oyster beds have been rebuilt. Westendorf is one of the program’s most avid participants, providing so many bushels over the years he’s been given his own storage trailer.

Westendorf has been celebrated for his charity work in Charleston, but his oyster efforts may prove to be his most lasting contribution. After all, it’s a cause that hits close to home in more ways than one. His family has lived in the same house for eight generations, he says. “And we ain’t got the sucker paid off yet.”

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