Wilmington, NC September 16, 2013 – Tobacco Road – which weaves through the heart of Raleigh’s farmland – touts a rich heritage. It’s a legendary stretch of region, one dotted with curing barns and – of all-things – college hoops.
Just east of this North Carolina agricultural hub runs another historic stretch. Call it Shell Lane, Shuck Trail or any other Mollusk-themed byway. Regardless of its moniker, the shoreline spanning Kitty Hawk down through Wilmington serves as a fabled landmark in its own unique lore.
Here, cooler weather spawns a cash crop of another sort: oysters. While these savory treasures from the bays might not deliver the economic jolt they once routinely did, North Carolina oysters still help the state hold place on the culinary map.
Janine Powell, development manager for Airlie Gardens and coordinator of the annual Airlie Oyster Roast, said this Wilmington-based event draws travelers from around the country every October. The event marks the official start of the autumn seafood season. It lets guests eat lemon-spritzed, Tabasco-basted oysters to their hearts’ content – all against the backdrop of lush historic gardens. During the Roast, Airlie Gardens sets the scene with live beach music and more than 65 acres of historic pathways lined with unique foliage only sustainable in the Deep South.
“This is a big deal to a lot of people from outside of our area… it becomes their kickoff to the year’s end, their late-fall holiday,” Powell said. “It’s not unusual for us to see travelers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. There’s something special about enjoying good food and music beneath 100-plus year-old oaks.”
Slated this year for October 18, the Airlie Oyster Roast is a blend of two long-standing – but oft overlooked – North Carolina traditions.
“Back in the early 1900s, garden parties were a popular form of Southern entertaining – particularly in the chillier months. At the same time, our state was in its prime with oyster production,” Powell said. “We’re really trying to create a recipe with both ingredients and capture yesteryear with these events.”
According to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the late 1880s saw North Carolina oysters being harvested at amazing rates. In fact, at the pinnacle of this rush in 1902, the state harvested 800,000 bushels of oysters. This accounted for 5.6 million pounds of oyster meat.
While oyster production has declined due to over harvesting, habitat loss, pollution and other factors, many fishing industry experts believe North Carolina could once again become an oyster powerhouse with proper planning. Efforts to reclaim this title in the future currently include the buildup of reefs, sanctuaries and long-term strategies such as the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Oyster Fishery Management Plan.
For now, Powell said coastal events like the Airlie Oyster Roast represent a small step toward revitalizing interest in this one-time boon to the state’s economy. At a national level, she said, as word-of-mouth spreads about the Airlie event and other coastal cuisine happenings, so will the state’s appeal. The end result: another beacon to draw travelers to the region during the offseason.
“From our roast through February, you’ll see boils, chowder competitions and fish fries popping up in small waterside communities through North Carolina,” she said. “That’s what makes this area so special this time of year. We like to think the Airlie Oyster Roast serves as the kickoff party to these wonderful staples of autumn in the Southeast.”