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‘Sunny Side’ of oysters revealed in frigid eastern North Carolina

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Tranter's Creek frigid paddle: Paul Lockhart helps navigate through the uncharacteristically icy waters of Tranter’s Creek near Washington, N.C., on Dec. 30.

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Mark Rutledge

Saturday, January 6, 2018

During the final five of 15 years living in eastern North Carolina, we owned a tandem kayak that was hardly used in the best of weather conditions—and we never once consumed oysters. Back for a visit during one of the coldest weekends of the year, I managed to do both.

In coastal North Carolina, kayaking is nearly as popular as eating seafood.

We missed out on a lot of that activity, too — mainly because my wife, Sharon, is a fabulous cook who does not care much for fish. I like most varieties of seafood but have shared my wife’s aversion to the slimy producers of poop and pearls.

True oyster lovers actually try to invite a healthy number of abstainers to their roastings. It’s part of an all-the-more-for-us strategy that discourages timid and wasteful taste testing.

I have experienced this behavior at oyster roasts put on by eastern North Carolina friends. While confirming our plans to attend one such gathering at the home of John and Suzanne Morrow, John asked the question necessary for establishing the amount of mollusks to have on hand.

I said we traditionally were not eaters of oysters, and John said, “That’s great! We’ll have plenty of barbecue for you.”

When I held out the possibility of sampling an oyster or two, John, who serves as director of the Pitt County Public Health Department, said he could not be responsible for my safety. He clearly was not referring to the inherent bacterial dangers associated with oyster consumption.

John is among the bluegrass picking buddies I visited during the last weekend of 2017. He was instrumental also in finally leading me to an oyster bar, along with my Tennessee friend Paul Lockhart.

A New Orleans native and avid boater, Paul will eagerly consume almost anything that dwells underwater, including oysters. He agreed to go with me to Greenville under two conditions: We had to bring the kayak, and we had to find great local seafood.

Paul was impressed during our paddle on Tranter's Creek, a sportsman’s paradise (uncharacteristically icy this trip) that winds toward the Pamlico Sound through cypress knees standing below a canopy of ancient trees draped with Spanish moss. I had to find local seafood that could match such awesome scenery.

Playing music in the Morrows’ living room, John recommended legendary Sunny Side Oyster Bar, located across the Martin County line in the town of Williamston.

In business since 1935, Sunny Side has two white-beadboard rooms where patrons can enjoy games, adult beverages and fellowship while waiting their turn at the oyster bar. The menu lists just five items: oysters, shrimp, scallops, crab legs, and broccoli with cheese.

Paul was in seafood heaven. And to my great surprise, I began to see the oyster light as well.

We were joined by my musical friend Rose McMahon and her husband, Jim. A native of Williamston, Jim provided a fascinating oral history on Sunny Side while we established some silent oral history of our own with the shrimp, scallops and oysters.

Paul and I each ordered an off-menu specialty called a “Red Rooster.” It’s an oyster on a saltine cracker topped with hot peppers, hot sauce and horseradish.

My eyes (and sinuses) are officially opened. Put me down for oysters at the next roast.

Sharon will have the barbecue. She still has not experienced the Sunny Side of oysters.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com, or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.