As a kid I didn’t think too much of the oyster. Far too often, my parents' love for the bivalves got between me and The Baron and The Beef, Lenoir County’s best dining experience. The name says it all: imagine a steak and baked potato shrine with an “excellent” salad bar (including the most tender meatballs in grape jelly sauce you ever tasted), and complete the experience with a low ceiling and no windows. Beyond the perfect meal, Friday night at Baron and the Beef meant free Shirley Temples and an onslaught of smiles from the world’s best waitress, Francis. She wore a flower in her hair and worked awfully hard for that dollar my father reluctantly left on the table after dinner. 

If it were up to me, we would have dined with Francis every Friday night, but every once in a while, when there was a nip in the air and my dad “knocked off” early, we loaded up for the 2 hour round trip to the T&W Oyster Bar in Swansboro. I didn’t mind the food at T&W. Indeed, I greatly appreciated the basket of hot hushpuppies and packs of margarine that slid my way as soon as we sat down. But T&W meant no Francis, water instead of Shirley Temples, and my parents' embarrassing behavior.

To eat oysters, you had to sit at the oyster bar, and for us, Friday night meant waiting a long time for three of the only twenty or so stools to open up. John Howard hated waiting and had eaten at least 10 packs of saltines before we sat, so without even looking at a menu, he immediately ordered a peck of oysters, a fried seafood platter for me, 3 waters and two salads. From then on, T&W was in a frenzy to get the three water drinkers out of there. Hardly a moment later the staff flung our food in our direction: water, hushpuppies, my fried shrimp and deviled crab, the salads, and everything John and Scarlett needed to make their oyster magic: cocktail sauce, saltines, loveless slaw and melted margarine. We had just started shoveling it in when a burly man with a large rubber glove, a blunt knife, and a steaming bucket approached. He began prying open the hot shells with the casual ease of someone who’s been shucking a long, long time; like rapid fire the shriveled oysters shot onto my parent’s melamine plates. One for my mom, one for my dad, one for my mom, one for my dad, my parents slurping them up as quickly as they landed. It was a dizzying, exhausting affair for a kid; I longed for Francis and my baked potato.  

Before I could finish my last french fry, my parents wiped their mouths, polished off their slaw, and breathed deep after their workout. Only twenty minutes had passed since we sat down. Cradling a toothpick between his lips, my dad directed us out the door, back in the car, and home to Deep Run. Years later, I love oysters raw, roasted, fried, baked and stewed. But when the weather starts to turn cool and Halloween approaches, I hanker to belly up to an Eastern North Carolina-style oyster bar. Hold the polite, non-intrusive service—tonight I’ll take the burly man with the steaming bucket and the blunt knife.  

Oysters Friends  
citrus and its zest, cream, butter, bread crumbs, anise, tarragon or fennel flavors, shallots, thyme, bacon, spinach or greens of any kind, creamy dressings like ranch (with fried oysters especially), garlic, tomato, leeks, horseradish, ginger, soy, smoke, red wine, white wine, beer, vodka, slaw, apple, curry