Highlights from the 2014 New Orleans Oyster Festival
The 5th annual New Orleans Oyster Festival was a kaleidoscope of fun.
Locals and visitors alike descended upon Woldenberg Park for the two-day celebration of everyone’s favorite bivalve. There was great live music, thrilling oyster shucking and eating competitions, and many, many tasty oyster creations.
Oyster Tasting Smorgasbord
I've never seen anything quite like this before. I thought I had died and gone to oyster heaven! The festival showcased two dozen restaurant booths, each offering at least one signature oyster dish of their very own. Nearly every notable oyster bar in New Orleans was present and that offered the crowdpleasers: raw oysters, fried oysters and Po-Boys (Red Fish Grill's BBQ Oyster Po-Boy featured above). But there were creations that I've never encountered before, such as Oyster BLTs, Pepper Jelly Oysters, and Oyster Boudins.
Charbroiled oysters are just as popular as raw oysters on the half shell in this town. Maybe even more so. Drago's, the home of the original charbroiled oyster, was grilling up a storm in the middle of the festival grounds. The aroma of smoky butter garlic alone was just absolutely mouthwatering! Drago's charbroiled oysters have become so popular that they've come out with their very own "at home" kit and video instructional guide, which has been great news for my friend Allie.
Another highlight at the New Orleans Oyster Festival was Grand Isle's Smoked Fried Oysters with Garlic Aioli sauce. These plump, savory oyster bites were fantastic with a little fresh tomato and aioli. If I had two free hands, I would've also wrapped one of the oysters in the lettuce leaf for a "wrap" effect, which looked divine. Out of all of the exhibitors, I think Grand Isle did the best job of helping oyster fans "feast with their eyes" first. The pops of green, yellow and red did wonders to dress up an otherwise plain fried oyster.
Thirdly, The Famous Gumbo Pot and The Original Oyster Factory paired up to present an array of three hearty options: Seafood Gumbo w/ Fried Oysters (left), Jambalaya (middle), and Pepper Jelly Oysters (right). We went for the seafood gumbo "with just a little rice." Gumbo is a dish that originated in southern Louisiana during the 18th century, representing a melting pot of flavors and culinary influences. The one we tried here had a peppery kick and offered an interesting textural play between the crispy fried oysters and the stew itself.
P&J Oyster Shucking Contest
Here's where things got exciting and downright dangerous. Five professional shuckers from around town competed in this year's P&J Oyster Shucking Contest—hosted by P & J Oyster Company—for the title of Best Shucker. Speed shucking is a highly contested activity around the world, and it is undeniably important here in New Orleans. When you work in one of the most iconic oyster capitals in the world, being able to tout top shucking creds is highly coveted.
Speed isn't everything though. Similar to what I learned at the Galway World Shucking Championships, presentation and cleanliness matters. After the first round, Sal Suneri of P&J Shellfish went around to check everyone's oysters. If the oyster didn't fall off the shell when lifted, they were discounted from the final score. Although surprisingly, getting blood (no, that ain't cocktail sauce) on the oysters doesn't immediately disqualify you... Jacob Hulse, the dude standing closest to the camera, gashed his hand open on the second one and kept going until he ultimately placed third. That's hardcore.
Meanwhile, Sal finished counting.
There was a tie for first between Jason Hulse and Gus Marshall, winner of last year's shucking contest.
The crowds began to cheer for a shuck off.
And a shuck off they received.
Jason Hulse from Peche Seafood Grill won out as the champion of the P&J Shucking Contest. His brother, Jacob Hulse, joined in the celebration. Both of them are left handed shuckers... in fact, I later learned that all three shuckers at Peche are left-handed. Quite the coincidence!
ACME Oyster House's Oyster Eating Contest
The next day, the ACME Oyster House Oyster Eating Contest tested the audacity and appetites of amateur and professional eaters alike. Despite seeing globs of blood at the shuck off, this contest was actually much harder to stomach.
Last year's eating champion, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas made her homecoming on stage with a sweet smile. But don't let that fool you. She's one of the country's most formidable competitive eaters and holds record in over 25 competitive eating contests. After slurping down 40 dozen (!!!) oysters during this year's oyster eating competition, Sonya once again wins the ACME Oyster Eating Competition title, $500, and a snazzy oyster championship belt.
New Orleans Fish House Largest Oyster Contest
There are big oysters, and then there are mega oysters. These days, it's rare to see such monoliths elsewhere, but in Louisiana, oyster farmers take care to nurture these gigantic creatures into prized contestants for the New Orleans Fish House Largest Oyster Contest. Thanks to the warmer waters and constant flow from the Mississippi River, Gulf oysters grow fast and they grow big. Coupled with solid oyster bed management, it is likely that these wonderful giants will continue to make guest appearances at the New Orleans Oyster Festival for years to come. Has anyone attempted to eat one of these suckers by the way?? (I'm not volunteering, if that's what you're thinking).
Oyster Crafts and Cookware
In addition to the food vendors, music makers, and educational crowd, the festival featured an eclectic line of local artisans and their oyster wares. My friends from Loftin Oysters were there to display and sell their oyster stoneware. A couple months ago, I gave the Loftin Oysters a spin at home and it was quite nice to see my feedback being incorporated in their latest rounds of production!
Oyster Recycling Program
Perhaps the most exciting, yet unassuming announcement of the festival was made by Hilary Collis, Restoration Program Director of the Oyster Shell Recycling Program. This new oyster shell recycling program will collect used shells from participating restaurants in New Orleans including Acme Oyster House and Drago's Seafood Restaurant, and clean/treat them to be ready to use in coastal restoration efforts. The reclaimed oyster shells will help restore oyster reefs and shoreline habitat across Louisiana. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana is set to launch this community-based restoration program in just a matter of weeks. In fact, I large plastic bins specifically designated for oyster shell collection being used around the festival.
Tips for Attending the New Orleans Oyster Festival
If you love oysters, then the New Orleans Oyster Festival is for you. I really had a great time at the event and got to experience oysters in ways that I have never imagined before. Go with fellow oyster-loving friends or even your family (the festival is pretty child-friendly, although I would discourage strollers).
Wear boots or covered shoes... if it rains, you'll be thankful that you did
Bring cash... each food vendor charges for their own; fortunately there are also ATMs on site
Study the options ahead of time... there are so many (and portions are big) that you might fill up before you hit your favorites
Share the samples... split the cost and stretch your stomach space by splitting portions with a friend
Have a compact rain jacket handy... umbrellas are too clumsy when eating
Try the Abita Strawberry Harvest beer with your oysters... my new obsession
Make your way to the front of the main stage... they giveaway t-shirts and koozies
Talk to strangers... everyone is friendly and from all over, so its easy to make new friends
I know this probably all sounds like a lot, but when it comes to experiencing oysters in New Orleans, there's still a TON more to write about. Stay tuned for another post on my comprehensive New Orleans Oyster Tour!