by G.W. Mercure
Wellfleet oysters are considered to be among the best oysters in the world, coveted and celebrated by locals, by international gourmands, and by the Outer Cape’s many valued seasonal visitors. And Wellfleet OysterFest, stalled but not stopped for two years by the pandemic, has been the coveted crustacean’s annual apotheosis for almost a quarter of a century. OysterFest has been missed by ‘Fleetians, and has been missed far away from Wellfleet, as well. But it’s back this year, and it’s a little different.
“It will be held at Baker’s Field, on Kendrick Avenue,” says Deirdre Oringer, vendor coordinator for Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, Inc. (SPAT), the group that organizes the event. “All of the things people are used to experiencing will be in one location, rather than spread along Main Street,” she says. “We will also be featuring a big-screen TV in order for attendees to view the shucking contest in a more dramatic way and with more detail.”
The most anticipated event during OysterFest is, arguably, the Shuck-Off, in which local oyster veterans, intermediates, and new initiates compete to shell the most abundant batch of bivalves. There are always some favorites, some black hats and white hats, but Oringer won’t tip her hand about who will be opening oysters in this year’s Shuck-Off. “Shuck-Off participants are not revealed until just before the event,” she says.
“Yes,” adds Oringer when asked if there has been a deliberate effort to make the event smaller. “Wellfleet OysterFest is now a ticketed event. The Wellfleet OysterFest is complying with a mandate from police and fire departments and the Town of Wellfleet to reduce the number of people per day to 7,000. In 2019 it is estimated that there were approximately 17,000 people on Saturday alone. Until we can reimagine the ‘Fest back in the town center with much more stringent safety concerns, we will need to keep a cap on the number of attendees, for safety considerations.”
Although taste is subjective, there is some science to the sapidity of Wellfleet oysters. A good oyster develops its flavor from a limited range of factors: the water it lives in; how fresh it is when it gets to your plate—this has a significant impact on the oyster’s distinctive texture; and how salty the oyster is. A delicate balance must be reached; a strong salt presence is necessary to draw the tongue to the sweet finish of the oyster. An oyster that is too salty will be unpleasant to eat, but without contrasting saltiness, an oyster won’t taste as sweet. Wellfleet oysters are drawn from water that is aggressively protected. They are widely harvested in a small town and can get from the blue to you pretty quickly.
Wellfleet OysterFest is a weekend-long event that celebrates the renowned oysters, as well as shellfishing and shellfishing traditions. It brings locals together with visitors and national and international oyster aficionados. In addition to the oysters, the festival also features Wellfleet’s art scene and artists with an arts and crafts fair, highlights local cuisine and live music, and hosts the very competitive annual Shuck-Off. Wellfleet’s world-class raw bars will be open and shucking all weekend long, and there are activities for children as well as educational activities and resources. This educational initiative is a new development, as well.
“Satellite programs focus on all educational aspects of growing, farming, harvesting, and eating shellfish,” says Oringer. “And we still have our annual high school scholarship program.”
Year-round Main Street resident Sarah Pechukas agrees that the changes are welcome, and worth it. “We lived at the edge of the festival when it was held downtown so always had a yard and house full of friends, family, and passers-by every year,” she says. Although Pechukas and her family looked forward to attending the festival each year, the increased foot and motor traffic didn’t go unnoticed. “Before the pandemic, the festival definitely became so crowded that it was sometimes hard to navigate,” she says. “So much has changed these past few years; it is so nice to see the festival coming back in whatever form seems best and I hope it is a great and warm weekend for all!”
Are there further changes in store for Wellfleet’s immensely marketable mollusks? Oringer says yes. “We will be increasing our newly-formed membership, and aggressively pursuing marketing for the world-famous Wellfleet oyster.” And will the festival be back again next year and the year after, an annual affair again? “We are hoping it will,” says Oringer optimistically.
This year’s Wellfleet OysterFest is ticketed event happening Saturday, October 15 and Sunday, October 16. For more information, complete schedule, and tickets ($20/free for children under 12) visit wellfleetspat.org/oysterfest-2022.