Wellfleet OysterFest puts new spin on favorite tradition
By Denise Coffey / firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted Jul 16, 2020 at 8:46 PM Updated Jul 17, 2020 at 10:36 AM
YouTube video will offer close-up look at shucking contest.
WELLFLEET — The shuck must go on.
That’s the new tag line from Shellfish Promotion and Tasting Inc. about its annual Wellfleet OysterFest.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the event centered on the town’s shellfishing industry and its star, the briny, sweet oyster.
Last year 23,000 visitors listened to live music, participated in shucking workshops and cheered on shellfish harvesters in shucking contests during the two-day street festival.
This year things will be different because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The live event is canceled, but the focus will remain on the oysters culled from the intertidal flats of Wellfleet Harbor.
SPAT Executive Director Michele Insley said the cancellation was necessary. “We knew it was the right thing to do,” she said. “It wouldn’t be safe. But we decided to jump in and celebrate in another way.”
This year’s celebration will take the form of a two-hour production featuring a celebrity host and live music. It will feature former OysterFest shucking champions dating back to 2001.
Filmed at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, the contest will pit past winners against each other and the clock, according to the theater’s executive director, Christopher Ostrom.
“We’re treating it like a sporting event rather than a culinary event,” Ostrom said. “It’s incredibly athletic and energetic. People will get to see exciting closeups.”
Shellfish harvester Keith Rose wants to win again.
Rose won the first shucking contest in 2001 and has come in second four times in the past 19 years.
Oysters have been Rose’s life. He harvests wild and farmed oysters, owns the sea clammer Kimberly Ann and the dragger Clam Nation.
OysterFest started off small, but it’s been a huge driver for shellfish harvesters since, he said.
“I was doing this anyway, but it’s been incredible,” Rose said. “It’s changed everything. It gave us recognition around the world.”
Wellfleet oysters are widely recognized for their flavor by oyster aficionados.
Chef James Martin has been serving Wellfleet oysters for 20 years in the restaurants he manages in Connecticut. He believes their reputation is due to the currents and the water’s mineral content. “It’s always a clean oyster,” he said. “They are a consistent size and shape and have a great reputation for salinity.”
Last year’s champion shucker, Calen Bricault, said he found Wellfleet oysters during a visit to Paris. “They were the first ones I saw,” he said.
Bricault is excited about this year’s shucking competition. “It will be on a smaller scale, but more in depth,” he said. Ten contestants will compete. They will maintain social distance, and the only people in the audience will be the production crew.
Closeups of the shuckers at work will show details that audience members have not been able to see before. In the past the audience stretched out for hundreds of feet while the shuckers worked their 24 oysters.
“They’ll be able to see what’s going on,” Bricault said. “How we do it. How fast shuckers handle it.”
This year’s OysterFest will feature Zoom videoconference workshops on how to shuck oysters. The live workshops have been popular in the past. “We want to equip people with the confidence and ability to open oysters,” Insley said. “We’ll give them a few tips and tricks to practice.”
An online auction and videos that cover the history of Wellfleet’s shellfishing industry, shellfish harvesters and the emergence of SPAT will be woven into the production.
“The idea is to see if we can create a nationwide OysterFest and have a larger footprint than Wellfleet,” Insley said. “That’s our vision.”
A livestreamed YouTube video will run from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 17.
“We’re thinking of it as a cocktail hour,” Insley said. “You can have your oysters at home, drink your favorite beverage and cheer on your favorite shucker.”
Follow Denise Coffey on Twitter: @DeniseCoffeyCCT.