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Oyster Fest's Rocky Return

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An hour into the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival, the lines for oysters at the Obento stall stretched across the battered grass and under the red and blue striped tent where local food businesses were tabling. The shade was a relief on a sunny day that promised traditional Oyster Fest sunburns, but those in the queue were in for a test of patience and the charm of their company, since those at the front of the line reported waiting 45 minutes or more to place orders.

It was the same story in the next line and the next, where attendees, nearly all unmasked, with commemorative steel cups stood packed together in clumping lines that one had to cut through to reach the music stage. Scanning the offerings from the back of the stalls, where oysters popped on the grills and cooks shucked frantically, I wondered idly what kind of bribe it would take to buy a Kumamoto under the table. Finally, I gave up and headed to Brio to enjoy the smoked and fried oyster special on the shaded patio.

After two years of virtual and dispersed iterations meant to keep up community spirit and promote local food producers amid the pandemic, the festival welcomed an estimated capacity crowd of 5,000 revelers to the field in the Creamery District for a $15 entry fee, halting ticket sales at 3 p.m. When the grills cooled, the stage cleared and the tents came down, however, the reviews were harsh. Hour-long waits for food and drink, not enough shade, a scant four oyster booths, the admission fee and missing the broad and accessible plaza location were the top complaints in Arcata Main Street's Facebook page, as well as the Journal's, issues echoed in conversations over the following days. Music from the stage, it seems, can only soothe the hot, hungry and thirsty so much.

It's hardly the first time Arcata Main Street has taken a flogging for its main fundraising event, which fills the coffers for the rest of the year's events. Previous years have seen tumult over an exclusive deal with out-of-town SeaQuake beer, parking, intoxicated attendees, crowds and fencing off the plaza.

This year a pair of beer booths tapped out more than 40 kegs from Lost Coast Brewery, Six Rivers Brewery, Mad River Brewing Co., Eel River Brewing Co. and Humboldt Cider Co. But, points out Shoshanna, one of the main organizers of the event, filling steel cups is slower than passing out pre-filled plastic ones destined for landfill, which is what the five beer booths serving the typical festival crowd of 15,000 usually do.

Shoshanna admits more food vendors would have shortened lines but says it was tough getting them on board. Two oyster stalls dropped out, leaving Nori, Obento, North Bay Shellfish and Sammy's Barbecue, as well as non-oyster eateries Oak Deli & Brewery and Rax on Rax wings.

Some of the 45 vendors from the 2019 oyster festival have shut down or stopped doing events. Others are fighting to stay afloat in an industry hit hard by COVID. Aside from the $500 booth fee, the requirements of a mobile setup and the marathon of feeding the masses, it was a big ask for restaurants already facing staffing problems and shrinking margins. For many, it was a safer bet to participate by serving specials in their usual locations. "They were trying to figure out whether to stretch and go or just stay where they are," she says, adding it's not easy "believing in an event that hasn't happened in two years." She's hopeful the strong attendance this year will give vendors more confidence they can turn a profit at next year's event.

Festival coordinator Matthew Cook, a 20-year veteran of the North Country Fair and Reggae on the River, echoes her tone of resignation. "Every food vendor that wanted to come came and we just couldn't get anymore," he says. "People just aren't geared up to do this kind of thing anymore."

The annual Best Oyster competition, no longer requiring a booth at the event, drew seven entrants, some representing restaurants, others independent. Gaby Long of Taste of Bim won Best Hot Oyster with her Caribbean curry with mango topping. Best Cold went to the Nosh's Ryan Clair who served an oyster with nasturtium leaf, green apple, horseradish cream sauce, dill and watercress oil, wasabi and almond oil. Norberto Angon from Nori took Best Presentation with an oyster boat garnished with carved fruit. Named for the local chef who died this year, the Dave Griswald Best Overall went to home cook David Orluck for his Umami Tsunami raw shooter with mirin, ponzu, Sriracha, scallion and quail egg, and his Surf and Turf hot oyster with wagyu beef, chimichurri and a home-raised and cured duck egg yolk. Walter Rubke from Mazzotti's took the Unleashed Award with a raw oyster served with honey, homemade three-month champagne vinaigrette, apple, mango, cilantro, shallot, lemon and sugar. It's hard to imagine composing some of these entries with speed in a hot tent on the plaza.

As for the hustle at the Creamery field, Shoshanna says, "I think people were doing as much as they could as fast as they could," noting a few key organizers had been out with COVID in the past months. "People were frustrated with long lines at the event but there were so many people also running around and having a good time." She's not wrong. I was especially struck by younger attendees walking around smiling in high festival fashion. Perhaps as the world crumbles, Gen Z has necessarily evolved to enjoy a party amid high temperatures and limited access to food and drink.

"I know what we accomplished and I know how difficult it was to accomplish anything this year," says Cook, particularly since details weren't solidified until February. He says some of the criticism is "valid," but, "A lot of people are talking about things they know nothing about ... . I've done this so long, I just kind of let this stuff roll off." He won't be back for 2023 and has this advice for future organizers: "I think things will be a little bit easier next year. More people will be able to help and participate. Get an early start. Like now."

Shoshanna, who's moved on to a new post as youth services outreach coordinator for the Humboldt County Library, won't be returning either. But she'll be rooting for the event and is characteristically optimistic. "It's a comeback event ... and it is a bumpy ride."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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