WELLFLEET — Like almost everything else in 2020, the Wellfleet OysterFest will look very different this year. The town’s signature celebration, which in 2019 hosted about 23,000 visitors and routinely brings in several million dollars to local businesses, had to be completely re-imagined due to the pandemic.
In early April, it was clear there would be no big in-person event. But before deciding on a virtual fest, its nonprofit organizers, Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting), focused on developing ways to support local shellfishermen who had, as restaurants closed across the country, abruptly lost the market for their harvests.
During those first few months, SPAT put together two relief programs through which it has by now distributed $92,400, according to Michelle Insley, the organization’s executive director. First, a community food share program purchased oysters from local growers and donated them to organizations and restaurants that were providing free food for people in need. Next, SPAT put $50,000 into the Wellfleet Shellfish Harvester Relief program, a new emergency fund managed in partnership with the Lower Cape Outreach Council. Farmers and wild pickers may access the fund two times in a calendar year.
The OysterFest usually nets around $100,000, which goes to SPAT’s work promoting the local shellfish industry. Funds also support two scholarships every year, Friends of Herring River, and Mass Audubon’s coastal ecology program at Wellfleet Elementary School.
Insley said she hopes the upside of the virtual event will be the possibility of reaching a national audience hungry to know more about the history of the shellfish industry here, the unique growing environment, and the work of oyster farmers and wild harvesters.
Going virtual has turned out to be a big production. But, Insley said, “We found all this great local talent to help pull it off.” Justin Lynch, a shellfisherman, has filmed and directed a series of promotional spots and a video with G. Love (who lives in Orleans). Liz Shook, who grew up in Brewster and went to Nauset Regional High School, has brought a background in advertising and film production to the virtual shuck off.
“We knew people would be kind of ‘Zoomed out,’ ” Shook said. “There are so many virtual things and people are asked to watch so much content on screens — so how do we make this special?”
The online ’Fest will feature the shuck off, but add some color with videos and a few well-known names. G. Love is the musical guest, while Ming Tsai, Jamie Bisonette, and Elle Simone Scott are featured chefs. Longtime SPAT board member Jodie Birchall will be the emcee.
The format is similar to that of the Democratic National Convention. In between the shucking heats, there will be prerecorded videos of each chef sharing a favorite oyster recipe. Because it was impossible to send film crews, chefs made their own videos, which Shook says “really adds something awesome and homemade about it all.”
Nancy Civetta, Wellfleet’s shellfish constable, who has been the producer of the live shuck off for years, sees lots of good in the virtual version ahead. “Because we’re having it filmed professionally,” she said, “you’re going to be able to see, close up, the people shucking, their technique and facial expressions, and much more of the banter.”
Civetta said the new format will also provide a view of the judges at work — something the crowds have never seen before. “It will show just how meticulous and nit-picky they are,” she said.
Music has always been an important part of the ’Fest. Since the very first year, only two songs have been played during the finals, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and “Jungle Boogie.” The organizers got the rights to “Miserlou,” and a local band from Orleans, The Stellwagen Symphonette, recorded a version that will be played during the shucking heats.
The 10 participating all-star shuckers represent the very best of the past 19 years. Many have won or placed several times. William “Chopper” Young, who traveled to Galway, Ireland, and took the world champion title there, has entered five Wellfleet shuck offs and won every time. Barbara Austin, James Gray, and Calen Bricault have all won or placed seven times.
Keith Rose, who won the very first shuck off, has been sea clamming from his boat in Provincetown. He thinks the shucking might be a bit comical this year because everyone is so out of practice with no raw bar work all these months. But all are glad to participate in what has become a townie tradition, and, at a time when the bars are closed, it’s a welcome chance to hang out and reconnect. And, of course, there’s the bragging rights and $1,000 cash prize for the winner.
‘The Shuck Must Go On’ will stream on YouTube on Saturday, Oct. 17 at 5 p.m.