By William Thrift
Photography by John Wrightenberry
Before the twentieth century, pearls were very rare. Skin divers, with their bodies greased against the frigid depths, used rocks to help them descend sometimes 100 feet to collect as many oysters as they could carry back to the surface. A ton of oysters may have yielded 3 or 4 quality pearls. It is no wonder that these gems of the sea found their way into the jewelry of sultans and kings. Things are different today, of course, with the advent of cultured pearls. So one may say that the “rare pearl” of old is now a metaphor for something else prized and rare that people get from oysters.
For the past 75 years, the purveyors and patrons of the Sunnyside Oyster Bar in Williamston, North Carolina have known the secret of today’s “rare pearl.” They would also tell you that there’s really no secret at all. Just happy customers gathered around a bar with “shuckers” behind it shucking oysters and slinging cold drinks – fun for everyone involved.
John Sparrow grew up in Williamston. After graduating from USC and a stint selling educational texts and publications, he began to yearn for the good times and fellowship that he recalled back at Sunnyside. At a Thanksgiving gathering in his hometown about twelve years ago, John announced his dream to open a version of their beloved oyster bar in his new home of Columbia. From the beginning, his concept was to have a conventional bar and tables up front, and a large oyster bar in the back where people could lean or sit while their oyster orders were shucked for them. Encouraged that there was nothing like it on the map, John selected a refurbished building on Park Street in the Vista to begin his dream.
With the concept and space selected, the next thing necessary (other than patrons) was a way to cook the oysters. While there are almost as many varieties of oyster cookers on the market as there are ways to prepare oysters, there was no commercially available steamer that would steam many small batches efficiently. Sunnyside steamed oysters in large batches on large steamers, but John wanted to prepare individual orders and that would require some innovation. Luckily, John’s father-in-law, Bobby Sexton, was a farmer and a welder. John worked with him on a steamer design that they dubbed a “Steam Stove” which could steam many individual buckets of oysters as needed instead of steaming large quantities at a time.
With the boiler pumping, the pipes all heated up, and steam hissing into the buckets on the now-patented “Steam Stove,” the Oyster Bar’s kitchen resembles something from a 19th century steamship rather than what you may find in most restaurant kitchens. It’s different out in the main dining area too. Behind a large, horseshoe-shaped wooden bar (while the shuckers shuck and serve other steamed fare), little kettles gently steam with another Oyster Bar secret: Mother Shucker’s Original Cocktail Sauce.
Mother Shucker is John’s mother, Mary Sparrow. Like any mother, she had been on board with the Oyster Bar from the conception of her son’s idea. As a testament to her involvement with the restaurant, one clever shucker once inquired, “Where’s the Mother Shucker?” (referring to Mary), and the moniker stuck. With John busy perfecting the steamer and other aspects of the business, Mary went to work crafting her concoction – not only a perfect accompaniment to steamed oysters, but a uniquely new condiment in it’s own right. After hearing first-hand how much diners loved the stuff, Mary began selling it privately in Mason jars. The ball, as they say, was rolling. The next step was to have it certified as a South Carolina product by the Department of Agriculture. She then obtained a nutritional breakdown from N.C. State, enabling her to produce a proper label (with label art by daughter Mary Sparrow Smith). By becoming a member of the South Carolina Specialty Foods Association, Mary found ECI – a non-profit group that helps small and medium companies to find new markets for their products and services. ECI helped her find a bottler, labeler, and co-packer for her sauce.
Mostly through word-of-mouth, Mary began selling cases of her cocktail sauce (in addition to using it in the restaurant). The Piggly Wiggly grocery chain in the Carolinas picked it up as their only specialty product. But Mary knew there was more to be done. She took her sauce to the Americas Mart in Atlanta where it won the “Best Condiment” award in 2010. Mary now ships cases of her sauce to specialty shops on the East Coast and elsewhere in the U.S.
She’s also attending more conferences, and is one of only eight representatives from South Carolina at this summer’s Fancy Food Show in Washington D.C., where she has meetings with buyers from Australia, Canada, and Japan.
On any given day, you may find Columbia’s one-and-only Mother Shucker working the hostess stand at the rarest of the Vista’s pearls: The Oyster Bar. Meanwhile, son John is doing what he does best – making a place for people to gather and laugh and enjoy oysters in the profoundly simple way that southerners have been doing it for centuries.
For the home chef, John passes down some of the simply prepared fare featured at the Oyster Bar, enjoyed, of course, with a complement of Mother Shucker’s.