The amazing thing about New Orleans bivalves is that they are so huge and meaty," says Jason "Crazy Legs" Conti, a competitive eater and three-time Acme Oyster Eating contest winner. (He's consumed 20 dozen Louisiana oysters in less than 10 minutes.) "In New York, oysters are just a taste, but in New Orleans you make sandwiches out of them."
Celebrating Louisiana oysters inspired P&J Oyster Company owner Sal Sunseri, along with oyster-loving board directors and sponsors, to start the New Orleans Oyster Festival in 2010. "We wanted a festival that would showcase farmers, restaurants and the oysters themselves in the oyster capital of America," Sunseri says. "Many people think we started this to build awareness after [the] BP [oil disaster], but we planned on doing it in June 2006, before [Hurricane] Katrina had even happened. It just happened things turned out this way."
Now in its third year, the festival is moving to a larger space in Woldenberg Park. There will be contests, cooking demonstrations, live music and oyster dishes from 20 local restaurants. The options range from commonplace to quirky: oyster ravioli from Andrea's Restaurant, smoked oyster boudin balls with Rockefeller aioli from Bourbon House, fried Lousiana barbecue oyster po-boys from Katie's Restaurant & Bar, and fried oysters with foie gras and truffle aioli from Elizabeth's Restaurant. There also are nonseafood options, including red beans and rice and chicken tenders.
Festivalgoers can enter the 10th annual Acme Oyster Eating Contest, as long as they promise to use cocktail forks per Major League Eating guidelines: "The thing about oysters, the shells themselves are sharp. If you're eating for pleasure, you won't notice that, but when you're eating for speed, it becomes an issue," says Richard Shea, president of Major League Eating. "In 2002, we had face tape for the guys, but the oyster liquor made the tape fall off and it was pretty hilarious. And when you eat oysters you typically use a fork, anyway — those guys can pile three or four oysters on a fork and take them down."
For Conti, it's more about the Zen of eating than worrying about equipment.
"Rookies need to not be overwhelmed by the girth of oysters and just take time to enjoy them," Conti says. "Look at the crowd and listen to the great music at the fest." He compares his oyster-eating strategy to his marathon-running strategy: "I run a marathon around Audubon Park every year. All I do is put one foot in front of the other, not rushing into it and still taking time to enjoy myself. Same thing with oysters: I finish one dozen then I move to the next. I've placed second, third and fourth in previous championships and have savored every oyster." (Conti also has held competitive eating titles involving pancakes, string beans, beef brisket and Twinkies.)
The festival has two other competitions. Oyster growers can compete in the New Orleans Fish House largest oyster contest, and winners from past years will be on display. The P&J Shucking Contest will determine who can open the most oysters in two minutes.
The music lineup includes Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, the Treme Brass Band, Rockin' Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters, Bonerama and others. The Saintsations and Honeybees will make appearances and there is a kids tent with oyster coloring books, shell painting and a visit from Ollie the Oyster.
Proceeds from the festival benefit Gulf coast restoration and French Quarter preservation.