New Orleans Oyster Festival celebrated with urgency because of BP oil spill
By Masako Hirsch, The Times-Picayune
June 05, 2010, 9:04PM
John McCusker / The Times-PicayuneTalisa Meeks, of Oceana Grill, charbroils oysters at the inaugural New Orleans Oyster Festival Saturday, June 5, 2010 in the French Quarter. The event, meant to celebrate the Louisiana delicacy, featured top area restaurants serving their signature oyster dishes. Other attractions included music, an oyster shucking contest and an historical exhibit on the oyster industry and ecosystem.
Raw oysters, chargrilled oysters, oysters Rockefeller -- the oyster in all its forms was celebrated Saturday at the first New Orleans Oyster Festival, but with a sense of urgency for some, as the BP oil spill continues to threaten the future of the local seafood industry.
"I'm trying to eat as many oysters as I can before they're all gone," said John Cameron of New Orleans.
The festival, which will continue Sunday in the 500 block of Decatur Street in the French Quarter, was the idea of Sal Sunseri of P&J Oyster Co.
Sunseri started thinking about holding an oyster festival in the city even before Hurricane Katrina, said Lucien Gunter, the chief operating officer for Acme Oyster House, a festival sponsor.
The goal of the festival is to extol the virtues of Louisiana oysters and to honor the restaurateurs and oyster farmers who prepare and provide them.
Part of the proceeds from the festival will go to the "Save Our Coast" program of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the Gulf Coast and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, and to support local industry workers.
The festival has become more important with the oil spill looming in the Gulf, Gunter said.
"Obviously we're trying to make a statement that Louisiana seafood, Louisiana cuisine is still alive," he said.
Gunter said Acme, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has not been badly affected by the oil spill. Tourists are continuing to come to the city and its restaurants, but some locals are coming to Acme with the notion that the oysters may not be around for much longer, he said.
"It's almost that Last Supper mentality," he said.
Booths for Acme and other local restaurants like Red Fish Grill, Lüke and the Court of Two Sisters lined the parking lot, offering a menu of mainly oyster dishes.
Much of the crowd stayed in the shade, at tables with umbrellas or under several large tents, including a "cultural tent" and a children's tent. But others gathered around a stage to listen to the Treme Brass Band and to watch a largest oyster contest and oyster shucking contest.
Some also braved the heat to stand in long lines for food, such as Heather Stewart, who waited in the line for Oceana Grill's chargrilled oysters. Stewart, who moved to New Orleans in November, said she had never eaten them before.
She said she came to the festival to support its cause.
"It felt important to come," she said. "I think I would have been here regardless" of the oil spill.
Some others also said the oil spill did not influence their decision to attend the festival. Dee Laumann of Destrehan had planned to come with her son Branden, who was visiting from the Washington, D.C., area, since before the oil spill started.
"We were going to come to this festival no matter what," Laumann said.
Brian Landry, executive chef at Galatoire's Restaurant, which had a booth at the festival, said the festival was a good idea.
"I think it's great that we have this going on right now. It draws attention to a product that might be scarce in the future," he said.
Landry said, however, that the oil spill has not affected his restaurant yet. "My menu is still the same it was a month ago as far as availability," he said.
Allan McNulty, his wife Marian and their friends Lyn and Errol Price were visiting New Orleans for the first time from Australia. They said they sympathized with everything that has happened to southeast Louisiana, first Katrina and now the oil spill. They were, however, enjoying their trip.
"The food is superb down here. We're eating as much food as we can since who knows when we'll come here again," McNulty said.
For others, like Ramona Richoux of Mandeville and her family, the oil spill was the main reason to attend the festival.
"We wanted to support" the oyster farmers and restaurants, she said. "It just affected everybody."
Masako Hirsch can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3330.