Chefs, oyster lovers gather on the river

SHELLFISH MOTIVES

The month of June might not end in the letter “r,” but that’s never kept New Orleanians from enjoying one of their most beloved, supported and defended foods: the humble, simple, beautiful oyster.

Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have long been famous for their bivalves, since the waters of the Gulf and surrounding environs agree so well with oyster cultivation.

The low salinity levels result in fewer of the diseases found in the oysters of the East and West coasts, and the water never cools down enough for the oysters to go fully dormant, resulting in a bountiful crop of plump oysters that we can — and always have — enjoyed year-round.

Not that oyster farming in these parts is easy. Far from it; since the twin disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Horizon oil disaster rocked the local oyster farming community twice in the span of five years, cultivation has become trickier than ever, placing some local producers in difficult times.

Fortunately, New Orleans has their backs. Since 2010, the New Orleans Oyster Festival has been celebrating one of our favorite local delicacies, and in the process helping out the hardworking farmers and shuckers who provide us with all those beautiful bivalves.

Founded by representatives of the Louisiana oyster industry — including stalwarts such as P&J Oyster Co., which has been continuously supplying hungry Louisianians with oysters since 1876 — the two-day festival fills the French Quarter’s Woldenberg Park with music, contests, and, of course, a bounty of oyster dishes served up by local restaurants.

For chef Brian Landry of the seafood restaurant Borgne, local oysters are a point of both personal and professional pride, so he knows the difficulties facing local producers all too well.

“Oysters have been hit pretty hard in the last couple of years, between the hurricanes and the oil spills, fresh-water diversion, and so on,” he said. “Overall, though, the industry is strong. We still have great product available in our restaurant all the time. But there’s definitely a constant balancing act between mother nature, coastal erosion, and oyster farms, and it’s something that’s always a work in progress.”

The chef also noted that he’s looking forward to the festival just as much as anyone else.

“Anytime we get a chance to go cook in the sunlight is a great opportunity to get rid of our vampire kitchen tan,” said Landry. “And the fact that we get to listen to some awesome local music as we’re cooking, it’s just a great atmosphere. New Orleans seems to have a different festival every weekend in the spring, and I think this is turning out to be a great addition to that festival circuit.”

This year’s Oyster Fest Saturday and Sunday promises a musical lineup featuring acts ranging from The Stooges to Shamar Allen and the Underdawgs, the Zion Harmonizers, the Brass-A-Holics and even ’90s pop favorites the Gin Blossoms.

Food, naturally, will also be in abundance. No fewer than 24 restaurants are taking part in this year’s fest, offering up a dizzying variety of oyster dishes and other treats, ranging from the requisite fried oyster po-boys to Borgne’s oyster amandine salad, BBQ oysters from Katie’s and Red Fish Grill, Drago’s famous charbroiled oysters, Oceana’s oyster Rockefeller po-boy, Cafe Reconcile’s bacon and tasso-crusted oysters, even an “oyster foie gras” from Elizabeth’s, and plenty more. Freshly shucked raw oysters will be on hand in abundance.

If you need a brief diversion from the food and music, the festival also hosts a trio of contests.

A “largest oyster” competition, sponsored by the New Orleans Fish House, engages local oyster farmers in a battle to bring the biggest bivalve, while the P&J Oyster Co. will be heading up a battle to find out who can shuck and clean the most oysters in only two minutes.

And for the main event, Acme Oyster House will once again sponsor its world championship oyster eating competition — sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating — a blitzkrieg of oyster slurping in which Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas has consecutively reigned supreme, with a current record of 47 dozen oysters in only eight minutes.

When asked how he’d fare when placed against Thomas in an oyster eating duel, Chef Brian Landry doubted his prospects. “I’m not a speed oyster eater,” he said. “I don’t think I’d get very far. I’m more likely to crack open a cold Abita beer and really sit down and leisurely enjoy my oysters.”

The New Orleans Oyster Festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., in the French Quarter’s Woldenberg Park. More information available at neworleansoysterfestival.com