A shucker races against the clock during the shucking competition. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times
MORE SEAFOOD CELEBRATIONS
Vieux To Do, three fests in one weekend: Louisiana Seafood Festival (louisianaseafood.com), French Market Creole Tomato Festival (frenchmarket.org) and Cajun Zydeco Festival (jazzandheritage.org)
New Orleans Seafood Festival (neworleansseafoodfestival.com)
For details on all of New Orleans’ festivals, visit the website neworleanscvb.com.
Updated: August 3, 2011 4:49PM
NEW ORLEANS — No U.S. city knows how to party better than New Orleans, where those in the fishing industry — especially oystermen — haven’t had much to celebrate in recent years.
Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Ike.
Last year’s BP oil spill.
The opening of the Morganza and Bonnet Carre spillways after this spring’s floods.
All of it has pummeled oyster production in Louisiana, the country’s biggest supplier of the bivalves.
“At this point, I feel like I can go in the ring with anybody,” said Sal Sunseri, vice president of P&J Oyster Co. in New Orleans.
Sunseri wasn’t in a fighting mood last weekend. Like a good N’awliner, he was partying — at the second annual New Orleans Oyster Festival.
Oyster fans flocked to a French Quarter parking lot on Saturday and Sunday for the two-day festival, despite unseasonably sweltering heat. Waving cardboard fans that said “Shuck, Slurp, Enjoy,” fest-goers lined up at the booths of 20 local vendors serving Louisiana oysters in just about every imaginable way: fried and stuffed into po-boy sandwiches, swimming in a bowl of gumbo, raw on the half shell and, my personal favorite, charbroiled to perfection by Drago’s Seafood Restaurant.
Kids painted oyster shells and bands played live music on stage, where the entertainment included an oyster shucking competition and an oyster eating contest. (The winner of the latter downed 39 dozen.)
“It was a big void not having an oyster festival,” said Sunseri, the driving force behind the event, which attracted 10,000 people at its debut last year.
“June is the perfect time,” he added. “The oysters are great, and we can dispel the myth about only eating oysters in an ‘R’ month.”
The festival was about celebration — and education. The message: Gulf oysters are safe to eat.
Survey after survey has shown that most Americans remain leery of eating Gulf seafood in the wake of last year’s oil spill.
“We have a huge challenge ahead of us with public perception,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. “So many agencies have independently tested our seafood and found it safe. We need to get that message across.”
After BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, most of the seafood samples tested had no detectable oil or residue, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The small percentage of samples that tested positive did so at levels that were 100 to 1,000 times lower than the safety threshold.
Louisiana’s wildlife and fisheries department put it this way: the average person could eat five pounds of oyster meat — 130 oysters — each day for five years without there being a health concern from the oil. (Although that diet undoubtedly would cause other health concerns.)
Ironically, the big problem for oystermen wasn’t the oil itself; it was the freshwater that was poured into the estuaries and along the coastline to keep the spill away from the shore. This reduced the salinity of the water. Many of the fish, shrimp and crab could escape to saltier environs. Oysters were stuck.
“We lost half our oyster beds after the BP spill because of the freshwater flooding,” Smith said. Before the spill, Louisiana produced 250 million pounds of oysters a year, or 40 percent of the nation’s domestic supply. “It’s going to take two to three years to get those oysters back.”
The situation, while not good, is better than it was a year ago. Supply was so low, some restaurants had to yank oysters off the menu or get the bivalves from other parts of the country.
And for New Orleans chefs like Darin Nesbit, there’s no substitute for Louisiana oysters.
“Ours are sweet, not as briny,” said Nesbit, who grew up in suburban Des Plaines and is now executive chef at Dickie Brennan’s trio of French Quarter restaurants. “They have a different mouth feel. The plumpness and texture is so much better, especially when they’re fried.”
As for the future, Smith is optimistic the state’s seafood industry will have plenty to celebrate.
“We’ll bounce back and we’ll be even better,” he said. “We’ve done it before.”
Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.