Oyster Festival Gets Cracking

New Orleans, La. –

It's been anything but smooth sailing for the Louisiana oyster industry recently. Destructive hurricanes in 2005 and 2008 wrecked boats and docks and buried oyster beds under storm-driven mud. The federal government has threatened to limit seasonal sales of its fresh product through pending regulation. And now, of course, a wave of oil unleashed by BP's engineering disaster in the Gulf has brought new peril for the oyster harvest and those who earn their living by it.

But this weekend, in defiance of difficulties, a group of oystermen, restaurateurs and hospitality industry leaders will throw a public party celebrating the Louisiana oyster and its local heritage. This first-ever New Orleans Oyster Festival will be held all day on Saturday, June 5, and Sunday, June 6, in the French Quarter, along the Mississippi River and just upstream from the Jax Brewery. The event includes oyster shucking contests, oyster eating contests and plenty of, more conventional, opportunities to enjoy oysters. Local bands will perform and visitors can tour cultural exhibits. Underlying it all, however, is a message about what the oyster industry means to south Louisiana.

Organizing the festival is Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster House, a commercial supplier his family has run in the French Quarter since 1876. His company delivers sacks of fresh local oysters to the city's most famous oyster bars and seafood restaurants, and he and his brother Al have long been strong voices for the industry. This new festival, he says, was conceived to shine more light on the bounty of the Louisiana oyster harvest and to cement New Orleans' reputation as the oyster capital based both on the tremendous oyster production from nearby waters and the volumes of oysters that locals and visitors dispatch here.

Louisiana alone produces more than one-third of the nation's total oyster supply, an annual harvest of some 250 million pounds of the product as measured in their shells. No other single area produces more in the world, and that's a credit to the remarkable estuary environment of south Louisiana where salty and fresh waters mix and oysters thrive.

The festival has been in the works for months, long before the BP oil disaster menaced that same bountiful but delicate environment. The status of Louisiana fishing zones changes day to day in response to oil's movements now, but Sunseri says no matter what happens the festival will be well-stocked with oysters he's secured from a variety of growing areas. So among the many restaurant vendors working this weekend's festival, you'll find oysters bobbing in gumbos, baked into casseroles and stuffings, raw on the half shell and fried for a variety of po-boy renditions. Galatoire's is even making its famous, bacon-wrapped oysters en brochette into a po-boy just for the event. A percentage of festival proceeds will benefit Save Our Coast, a local environmental group advocating for a restored Louisiana coastline.

A well-known axiom holds that oysters are at their best only in months spelled with the letter r. That would of course exclude June. But Sunseri is among those in the industry who say that's a myth and argue that Louisiana oysters are at their peak right now, just before the beginning of summer. This June weekend, with the fate of Louisiana oysters now so much in the spotlight, it's a good bet many people at the New Orleans Oyster Festival will agree right now is the perfect time to enjoy oysters if ever there was one.

For details on the New Orleans Oyster Festival, see the official festival Web site.