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Shuck and Jam
Founder Woody Ruiz talks about the inaugural Freret Oyster Jam happening Jan. 19.
Before he became a fixture at art markets and festivals slinging his signature fish tacos, Woody Ruiz was shucking his way through the New Orleans food scene: first, at the Uptown sports bar Cooter Brown’s, then for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and eventually as a roving shucker, doing private gigs at parties. Ruiz now runs the ubiquitous Woody’s Fish Tacos stand, but he’s getting back into the oyster game with the inaugural Freret Oyster Jam on Jan. 19, a celebration of bivalves during their seasonal peak. The event, held at the Freret Street Publiq House and its adjacent lot (4528 Freret St.), will include a raw oyster bar, guest chefs creating oyster-centric dishes, TVs set up outside to show the NFC championship should the Saints advance, and music by Raw Oyster Cult, New Orleans Suspects and the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra. Ruiz talks about his brainchild event – which he doesn’t want to call a festival.
How did you get involved in the Freret Street community? Freret Fest was the first event I ever did. After, they invited me to do Freret Market on a regular basis. I’ve been participating for about four years now. It’s one of those neighborhood festivals that help me grow my business and help me get my exposure. Greg [Ensslen] and Michelle [Ingrams] have been instrumental in the resurgence in Freret.
Tell me about the music. The music is significant in that … the Radiators are doing their reunion show Friday and Saturday, and we picked Sunday to have the event. It’s featuring all the bands the Radiators have turned into since disbanding. It’s an oyster event, so Raw Oyster Cult has to play. It features Dave Malone plus two others members of the Radiators [Camile Baudoin and Frank Bua]. We’re also bringing in the New Orleans Suspects, another offshoot Radiators band [featuring Reggie Scanlan].
There’s already an oyster festival. Why did you decide to start this? The main reason is that as a food vendor by trade, January’s a very slow month because it’s cold outside. I got to thinking, “what’s good to go outside in the cold and eat?” And oysters was the thought. The oyster festival we have in June is at a time of the year you really don’t want to be eating oysters. Those of us who like oysters associate it with the cooler weather. … Also, I wanted to create something in the Freret Street corridor, an area that’s seeing a lot of growth. This really fits with what’s happening there.
I was adamant about not calling it a festival. It’s a one-day event, and who knows what it can turn into. The word “festival” is so overdone. In a month with nothing really going on in New Orleans, people are always looking for something to do. What’s going to get people out of the house? There’s a big gap between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras this year. I think based on this fact, we have a lot going for it.
There’s a lot of room for expansion. If it works out, we can create it as a community event. You look at what’s happening with the Po-Boy Festival, Freret Street Festival … There needs to be some sort of oyster event in the winter when they’re at their peak.
For more information about the Freret Oyster Jam, visit FreretOysterJam.com.