In south Louisiana, where I come from, if you can eat it or dance to it, there’s probably a festival for it. We have festivals celebrating crawfish, gumbo, catfish, soybeans, jazz, blues, rice, frogs, strawberries, zydeco, boudin, alligators, yams, po-boys, and more. I’ve been going to them for the food, the Ferris wheels, and the crowning of the Andouille Sausage Queen all my life.
Christopher and I were set to go to New Orleans for the jazz festival right about now. But with the rise of the D variant, we sighed deeply and travel-banked our JetBlue tickets (again). At least, we thought, we’d soon be sampling Wellfleets at the OysterFest.
When we first discovered a festival right down the road from our Truro home, and one honoring an important Louisiana food — the oyster — I knew we’d chosen the right place to settle in.
I’ve loved watching the OysterFest evolve over the years. I am charmed by the way it mushrooms, suddenly filling the center of Wellfleet with music and art and beer and so many oysters. Even though it’s never chilly at the JazzFest in New Orleans, I look forward to the bright and chilly weather that accompanies the festival here — that’s when oysters taste best. I count on the chance to strike up conversations with a stranger while we wait, side by side, for a plate of fried oysters. I’m reminded how small the world is when the person ahead of me in the beer line knows my friend Lucy from Orleans.
When I heard that this year’s OysterFest was canceled, I mourned the conviviality and serendipity and neighborly beer line conversation Covid has stripped from our lives.
As usual, Christopher is practical in the face of my self-pity. He reminds me that last spring we salved our disappointment about canceling the trip to New Orleans by listening to JazzFesting-ing in Place on WWOZ, the city’s community-supported radio station, also known to folks there as “Guardian of the Groove.”
’OZ reached deep into its JazzFest archive and broadcast some of the best performances of the festival’s 51-year history. When Queen of Soul Irma Thomas sang her now-famous Gospel Tent tribute to Mahalia Jackson in 2011, she brought us to tears. The rebroadcast last year moved us to tears all over again.
Christopher has a point. Cancelations be damned — we will celebrate the NOLA JazzFest and the Wellfleet OysterFest right here at Wiley Cottage.
We print out the JazzFest-ing in Place schedule — “the cubes” as those in the know call it — and circle our favorites performers, just like we do when we’re there in person. We get out our festival chairs (you know them as beach chairs) and set up our day-drinking supplies.
Next, I scrub 50 Wellfleet oysters so they’re ready to shuck for a pot of chef Melissa Martin’s version of her grandmother’s oyster soup. The recipe is from her cookbook, The Mosquito Supper Club, also the name of her uptown New Orleans restaurant. In this year of Truro and Wellfleet’s Ochlerotatus sollicitans infernum, her book seems like an appropriate source for the main course at our makeshift music and oyster festival.
Martin’s recipe is designed to feed a crowd. It calls for two pounds of shucked oysters. I’m a pretty good shucker, but I’m no Chopper Young, so I halve the recipe. In order to figure out just how many oysters I actually need to shuck, I consult a Wellfleet friend and oyster shucking contest judge, Necee Regis. We decide that, for a scaled-down version, a pint of shucked oysters will be right and that about 4 dozen medium Wellfleets will give me that.
I’ll also need about 6 cups of oyster liquor. When my four dozen oysters yield only about 2¾ cups, I use a trick from Martin’s book — I whizz four oysters in a blender with 3 cups of water to make the extra oyster-flavored liquid I need.
Martin’s soup is nothing like a cream-based New England oyster stew. It is made, instead, with a tomato-tinged, onion-sweetened, garlic-and-cayenne-spiked broth. Still, its flavor turns on the shellfish-pork axis that will be familiar to Cape Cod oyster lovers.
Martin gives instructions for making your own salt pork, though I’ll cop to the fact that I always get some packed with my annual sausage shipment from Best Stop in Scott, La. Her technique is easy (just make sure to prepare a few days ahead) and the extra pork will flavor a pot of beans exceptionally well.
While I’ll have to rely on memories of those beer line conversations, I’m feeling good about our homegrown festival. In a world that seems to be tossing curveballs right and left, I’m trying to take what I have and make it special. And with Wellfleet oysters, we have the raw materials to make that easy.
Velma Marie’s Oyster Soup
1 Tbsp. canola oil
4 oz. salt pork, diced
2 lbs. yellow onions, about 4
1 lb. ripe tomatoes, about 2
½ cup finely chopped garlic
½ tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
6 cups oyster liquor or fish or clam broth
4 doz. oysters, shucked to make a pint
4 oz. pasta shells, cooked
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup finely diced scallion
Shuck the oysters and drain them over a sieve, collecting their liquor in a bowl — you will want that liquor. Cook the pasta shells and set them aside. Mince the parsley and dice the scallion for the garnish.
Warm oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottom pan. Dice the salt pork and cook, stirring to brown on all sides, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, dice the onions, core the tomatoes, and chop the garlic. Add the onions to the salt pork in the pot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent, about 30 minutes.
Stir in the whole tomatoes, garlic, black pepper, and cayenne. Reduce the heat, cover, and let everything cook together, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are completely broken down and fall apart when you press on them with a spoon, about 45 minutes.
Add the oyster liquor and increase the heat bring the soup to a low boil, then reduce the heat again to simmer for about 45 minutes.
Just before serving, add the oysters to the soup and let it simmer for not more than 5 minutes. Add the cooked pasta shells, then turn off the heat. Taste and add more salt or cayenne as needed.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley and green onions.
Homemade Salt Pork
1½ lbs. skin-on pork belly or shoulder
1 cup kosher salt
1 bay leaf
Wash and dry the pork and cut into pieces that will fit into a shallow casserole dish. Working over the dish, rub the pork liberally on all sides with the salt, pressing it into the meat. Arrange the meat in the dish and cover with the remaining salt. Add the bay leaf. Wrap the casserole dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 days.
Unwrap the dish and pour off any liquid. Use the salt in the bottom of the dish to give the pork another good rub. Rewrap and refrigerate for 2 more days. The salt pork is now ready. Whatever you’re not using immediately can be wrapped air-tight and frozen. It will will keep for up to a year.