WELLFLEET — Last weekend was all beer, brine, and bright smiles as crowds of locals and out-of-towners gathered on Main Street to celebrate this town’s small but mighty delicacy.
WELLFLEET — The addition of two big screens brought the Bakers Field crowd closer than ever to the action on the stage at the finals of this year’s OysterFest Shuck Off — SPAT’s 22nd. Each one of the 11 contestants started with 26 oysters. They then each rejected two that somehow looked especially recalcitrant — a decision that depends on the shucker’s approach to the oyster, said SPAT board president Nancy O’Connell.
WELLFLEET — The board of the nonprofit Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT) announced on June 25 that the annual Wellfleet OysterFest, scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 16 and 17, had been called off for the second consecutive year. The official reason was to protect public health, but the delay may serve as a chance for organizers to rethink some aspects of the event.
The Fest’s popularity — it grew from an informal get-together on the town pier in 2000 into Wellfleet’s busiest weekend of the year, attracting about 23,000 people in 2019, according to SPAT — has become its Achilles’ heel in a not-yet-post-pandemic season.
The decision to cancel “was not made lightly,” said Nancy O’Connell, president of the SPAT board. Getting to “No” involved discussions with the Wellfleet Select Board, interim Town Administrator Charlie Sumner, the police and fire depts., and town Health and Conservation Agent Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, O’Connell said.
The absence of the Fest for the second year in a row will have a “big negative impact” on the local economy, said O’Connell.
“Its impact is just huge across just about every business in town and surrounding towns,” O’Connell said, “at gas stations, hotels — we’ve had realtors say they’ve had people come to the Fest and want to buy a house in Wellfleet.” All told, the economic benefit of the 2019 festival has been estimated at between $2 million and $3 million.
What another year without the OysterFest will mean for local shellfishermen is not as clear. Theoretically, they profit from the opportunity to sell directly to the public. SPAT estimated that 126,940 pieces of shellfish, mostly oysters, were devoured at the 2019 edition.
Calls to various shellfishermen for comments on the cancellation were not returned. No reply came to messages left with Nancy Civetta, the town’s shellfish constable. Long days of sunlight mean this is a busy time for those working on the flats.
“Selling 125,000 oysters in one day is a good thing,” said Alex Hay, owner of Wellfleet Shellfish Company, a wholesale operation that handles many producers’ harvests. “But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not so many oysters.” What Hay worries about more, he said, is how this second cancellation could affect the Wellfleet oyster brand.
“The Fest is followed far and wide,” Hay said, “so it’s a way to really get the Wellfleet oyster and what’s special about it out there.”
O’Connell agreed that the importance of the Fest goes well beyond a single weekend. It establishes the town as a “premier oyster destination,” she said. “We want people to enjoy the oysters here and then ask for them when they go home.”
While festival crowds may seem fixated on food and drink, Frances Francis, owner of the eponymous Main Street women’s clothing store, said OysterFest weekend was the biggest of the year for her business. She described last year’s cancellation as “devastating” and “a huge blow,” and said that if it weren’t for higher than usual sales so far this summer there would be a risk of her shop having to close. She wishes the SPAT board had not decided to cancel.
Susan Leigh Bonn, owner of Drift Home and Gift, also on Main Street, originally thought the decision to cancel was made prematurely, but now thinks it seems more appropriate with the recent spike in Covid-19 cases on the Cape. “Anything that protects the public, I support,” she said. Leigh Bonn loves the revenue and excitement brought by the Fest, but said that one weekend doesn’t make or break the season.
Jeanie Bessette, owner of Ragg Time Ltd., said she had mixed emotions about the decision to cancel, but added that the Fest’s large crowds are a safety concern — coronavirus or no. She said she hopes a two-year break will help slow the festival’s growth.
The SPAT board’s cancellation statement promised a “new and improved” Wellfleet OysterFest in October 2022.
One possible change that has been floated in the past is moving the main attractions — the food stands, crafts, and the stage where music and the “shuck off” take place — to the town pier.
A chance to rebuild SPAT’s leadership may also be in order.
Alex Hay was a founding member of the organization behind the festival, and for years provided logistical help for it. In particular, his warehouse became a kind of staging area, handling at a discounted rate the required tagging and refrigeration of the oysters local shellfishermen would then offer at the Fest.
Both Alex and his brother Mac Hay, who was also a founder, resigned from the board in 2019, with some other members suggesting that, because of Alex’s wholesale business and Mac’s markets and restaurants, the two had too great a financial interest in the success of the OysterFest to serve on its board.
O’Connell said the Hays’ resignations had nothing to do with the decision to cancel this year, an assessment Alex Hay agrees with. “The festival went off just fine in 2019,” he pointed out. “But after this hard year, I can understand how the whole undertaking might seem daunting.”
Michele Insley, SPAT’s executive director, is reported to have resigned, but declined to comment.
With vaccine-induced herd immunity still to be accomplished, oyster grants to transfer, and plans for an improved organization and festival to build, the people who make the Wellfleet OysterFest happen will be plenty busy, even without a festival to run.
In the meantime, SPAT says, people can support the town’s shellfishing industry by buying more Wellfleet oysters and clams.
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.
letter from the publisher
This week marks a year since we sent our very first edition to press. It was a “preview” edition, full of hope that we’d find the support to develop into a weekly. We weren’t really ready, not in terms of start-up capital, but it seemed important to start. We’re still not there yet, funding-wise. But as we work through this strange and challenging year, we are inspired by the resilience of the people around us. Our writers. The photographers and artists who contribute. And the people we’re writing about.
This picture, by Edward Boches exemplifies that. In it, Wellfleet videographer Justin Lynch and Liz Shook of Brewster are setting up a shot of Irving and Jake Puffer at work in Wellfleet Harbor.
WELLFLEET — Organizers of the Wellfeet OysterFest announced last week that this year’s event will be “plastic free” in response to rising concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastics.
Lead organizer Michele Insley said of SPAT (Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting), the group that puts on the festival, “We’re a nonprofit that supports the shellfishing industry, and we want to create a festival where we have a great time but are also acting sustainably when it comes to our waste.”
Changes at this year’s festival will include serving canned wine, beer, and water instead of beverages in plastic cups or bottles and requiring all vendors to use either compostable or reusable products for food service.
Festival organizers have been working to reduce trash from the event since 2009, when SPAT partnered with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Wellfleet Wastewater Management Planning Committee to implement shell recycling, removing clam and oyster shells from the solid waste stream and returning the shells to Wellfleet Harbor as part of a habitat restoration effort.
In the years since concern over single-use plastics has intensified locally. “The citizens of Wellfleet have had this desire on their own, organizing from the grassroots level to implement various single-use plastic bans,” said Insley. “We want to be in sync with our host community.”
In recent years the festival has slowly chipped away at its plastic use, swapping plastic beads for wooden ones in the kids’ area, offering refillable water stations, and following the town’s lead on initiatives such as the single-use plastic bag ban and the polystyrene ban. Following a vote at Wellfleet’s 2019 spring town meeting to ban municipal purchase of plastic bottles, SPAT organizers began working to follow suit.
“This year is going to be a big change,” Insley said. For the past decade recycling volunteers at the event have instructed the public on how to sort three waste streams — shells, trash, and recycling. “We’ve been trying to eliminate single-stream recycling because it’s hard to keep uncontaminated,” she added. “This year we’ll still have single stream on Main Street, but inside the festival we’re going to focus on trash, shells, and aluminum cans.”
SPAT has partnered with Open Water, a Chicago-based company, to sell water in aluminum cans at cost to food vendors so they are able to offer water to patrons. In the beer tent Sam Adams will offer four canned beers and an oyster stout, brewed especially for the festival, which will be available for purchase in a reusable 16-ounce stainless steel cup. Truro Vineyards will offer kegged wines for purchase in nine-ounce reusable stainless steel cups as well as a canned rosé.
“It can be hard to change packaging,” said Vineyard co-owner Kristen Roberts, “but we are constantly trying to decrease our carbon footprint, and we are thinking more and more about canned products as we move forward.”
The lead recycling organizer for the festival, Christine Shreves of Wellfleet, said SPAT has partnered with the nonprofit Sustainable Practices of Brewster to sort through cans, and recycling stations will feature new containers with four-inch-square openings to prevent contamination. Sustainable Practices has been behind many of the municipal plastic bottle bans across the Cape and will receive a check from SPAT for the total redemption value of recycled cans.
Changes to food vendor packaging are less clear-cut. The ultimate goal is to move to all compostable packaging and partner with a Truro farmer who is interested in taking the waste.
“Unfortunately he still has some improvements to make in order to get licensed by the state,” said Shreves, adding that composting is “still the plan” long-term. In the meantime, the festival is requiring vendors to make the packaging switch to either reusable or compostable goods this year in an effort to be ready when a compost site does become available.
“The most challenging thing [in working with vendors] is figuring out packaging for soups and hot drinks,” said Shreves. “The only options if you’re using paper are to have a liner of PLA [polylactic acid] or the plastic polyethelyne. PLA has been hard because while it’s not a petroleum product and it is made from plants, it breaks down only in industrial composting facilities.” For the time being these products will still be allowed for use by vendors.
Some vendors will be skipping compostable utensils in favor of ordering reusable metal utensils, said Shreves, and will provide a bucket for customers to return used silverware. “I’d love to mimic festivals in Europe where when you enter you get a reusable plate, a cup, and utensils and bring them back when you leave,” she said, “It’s exciting to see vendors thinking like that.”