Oysterfest: How to Cope With Disaster the Louisiana Way

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No matter the occasion, the proper thing to do in New Orleans is throw a party—even if you're using gluttony to forget an oil spill

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In Louisiana, the only appropriate reaction to anything at all is to hold a festival. Good, bad, or just plain existing, there is nothing so insignificant or confusing that it doesn't warrant a festival. Swine festivals, meat pie festivals, and festivals for every crop, musical style, or environmental feature in the state round out a calendar that looks a little like what one imagines medieval Europe must have looked like: a couple of days of work, a couple of days of festival, followed by some sort of crisis.

So when the oystering community was faced with a near endless string of man-made and natural disasters that have at times seemed to threaten its basic existence, the most reasonable response seemed to be to hold a festival.

About a week ago, New Orleans held its second annual oyster festival, a tradition the city began in the wake of the oil spill—with an inaugural event that took the tenor of an desperate orgy to eat as much seafood as humanly possible before an encroaching wall of oil consumed the Gulf.

The oil didn't do much damage, but the fresh water that the state used to push it out of the marshes were punishing to the oyster industry. Oysters are designed for salt water, of course, and some beds saw upwards of 50 percent mortality.

Coming on the heels of Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Gustav, a disaster like the BP spill was nothing new. Nothing good, but nothing new.

The oyster industry presses on. Some of the affected beds could take up to two years to recover, but there are others, and oystermen don't face as intense pressure from foreign imports as their brethren in the shrimping and crawfishing industries.

This year, the same comfortable level of crisis that the industry has faced for years replaced the possible horror of the oil spill. Of course, that was less apparent on the surface. For those concerned with selling their products, normalcy, was key. The oyster festival was a by-the-book Louisiana festival—local musicians, restaurants trotting out oyster pastas, po' boys, platters. Abita beer flowing like water. That last one was especially important, considering the festival took place in a parking lot baked to 95 degrees by the sun.

The underlying message behind this sort of production is the same thing that organizations like the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing board have been beating as hard as they can since the oil spill: Gulf seafood is safe, Gulf seafood is safe, Gulf seafood is safe.

It's a hard message to sell. After three months of underwater camera footage of that gaping wound that BP had cut into the sea floor, it's still hard for many customers to imagine anything but black tar and oiled pelicans when they bit into anything out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Unfortunately, bringing up the issue only makes it worse, and time may be the only thing to really help the beleaguered industry. But things like oyster-eating contests might do something to relieve the pressure. On Sunday, the festival held one such contest, the most perfect image of excess even in a city practiced at such display. Akin to guzzling champagne out of a beer bong. Vinegar was provided but not frequently used.

As is common in New Orleans, excess masks pain. It's not over for oysters. Oystermen on both sides of the Mississippi are bracing for the floodwaters to come in from the spillway openings, and while most have their opinions on how bad it will be, it certainly won't be good.

At a certain point, hope becomes the only strategy.

"Throughout all of that our industry and our species have survived, and we'll continue to survive," says Wayne Hess, manager of New Orleans Based American Seafood. "But I wonder, what's next? I think maybe we could get a spring, a summer, and a fall of normality. I think God is gong to bless everyone who has gone through all of this."

Images: Heather Gilchrist

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Dave Thier

David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, AOLNews, Wired.com, IGN.com, and South Magazine.

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