It has been anything but smooth sailing for the Louisiana oyster industry recently. But this month, in defiance of difficulties, a group of oystermen, restaurateurs and hospitality industry leaders will throw a public party celebrating their product and its local heritage.
The first-ever New Orleans Oyster Festival will be held all day June 5 and 6 in the French Quarter, along the Mississippi River and just upstream from Jax Brewery. The two-day event includes oyster eating and oyster shucking contests, more conventional eating opportunities from seafood vendors, live music and cultural exhibits.
Underlying it all, however, is a message about what the oyster industry means to south Louisiana.
“I hope this festival shines more light on what we have here,” says Sal Sunseri, festival organizer and co-owner of P&J Oyster House, a distributorship his family has run in the French Quarter since 1876.
“We’re the oyster capital, right here in New Orleans. Louisiana produces the most oysters (of American states) and the highest consumption happens in a few blocks of the French Quarter where we have so many oyster bars all together.”
Damage to oyster crops from the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was only the most recent in a string of hits to the industry. Hurricanes in 2005 and ’08 wreaked havoc on oyster beds and destroyed boats and dockside infrastructure. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule halting the sale of raw Gulf oysters harvested during warm months unless they’re treated to eliminate the threat of the bacteria vibrio vulnificus. After protest from the public and political leaders, the FDA delayed this rule and commissioned studies of alternative methods to reduce bacteria-born illness and the rule’s economic impact on the industry.
The festival is coming along in June for several strategic reasons, one of which involved spelling.
“We want to dispel the myth, worldwide, about ‘R months,’” Sunseri says, referring to the anecdotal advice that oysters should be avoided in months whose names are spelled without the letter “R.”
That axiom took root in the days before modern refrigeration, when oysters were more likely to spoil during the hot journey from boat to bar. Louisiana oysters aren’t at their fullest in the summer time, but they’re available year-round. In fact, Sunseri says June can be the pinnacle of the oyster season before it falls off in the summer again. The festival date was also selected as a boost to downtown business during the summertime, when convention bookings typically decline. For information, see www.neworleansoysterfestival.org.