Where Y'Eat: Tapping The Elemental Oyster Appeal

Jan 16, 2014

Start with a pile of fresh oysters and you don't need much more to make a party. That's part of the inspiration for a new event coming up this weekend in New Orleans.

Confronted with the crazy abundance of oysters in coastal Louisiana, we have come up with countless ways to prepare them.

But then, there is the simple pleasure of the raw oyster itself. It’s an elemental thrill, potentially magnetic in its draw, with an appeal that goes way beyond making a meal. It’s there waiting for oyster lovers wherever oysters are opened and eaten, but sometimes this unique allure of the oyster shines brightest when the setting is the most rustic and the accoutrements most minimal — and, sometimes, when it all comes together as something of a surprise.  

Consider, for instance, the experience of Woody Ruiz. If you frequent the neighborhood festivals and art markets that dot the New Orleans calendar, you are probably familiar with this guy from his roving food stand Woody’s Fish Tacos. But prior to this gig Woody was an oyster shucker, working mainly at private events, and it was here that he learned the captivating effect a simple oyster shucking station can have on people of a certain mindset, no matter what other entertainment or indulgences might be competing for attention in the room.

Some people just cannot leave that oyster bar alone. They want to talk about the oyster, toast the oyster, show other people the oyster. They gorge, depart, then sneak back for more. They say this next oyster is the last for the night, but they lie. It can start to resemble a form of oyster worship and addiction rolled into one. 

Today, Woody is still known to load up his vintage Mercedes sedan with sacks of oysters and park it somewhere strategic — near the Fair Grounds Race Course on Thanksgiving, say, or in the Marigny on Fat Tuesday. Then, he’ll proceed to shuck those oysters directly from the car trunk for friends and strangers passing by, who are often gobsmacked to find the easy elegance of the oyster offered so simply out of hand and in the rough. 

All of this was the inspiration for a new type of oyster festival coming together this Sunday, Jan. 19, outside the Freret Street Publiq House, a bar and music hall in New Orleans. It’s called the Freret Oyster Jam, and Sunday’s inaugural edition is planned as a combination block party, with football showing on big screens, a rock concert with local bands performing, and most of all, an exercise in oyster overload.

Other food vendors from the festival circuit will be on hand for the Freret Oyster Jam, selling a variety of cooked oysters dishes — the grilled, the fried, the stewed and the poached. The focal point, however, will be a tag-team raw bar, staffed by a coterie of local shuckers recruited for the party.

It’s fair to ask at this point if New Orleans really needs another food festival. After all, some of the biggest names in the local seafood industry already host an annual oyster festival downtown each spring. But to one way of thinking, the oyster is less a food source than it is an experience, and this town always hungers for experiences. When we find oysters in the spotlight, and in their raw and ready state, that’s all the justification we need to get slurping again.

Freret Oyster Jam

4528 Freret St., New Orleans

Jan. 19, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Tickets $20 advance/$25 at the door

Information at freretoysterjam.com