The Feast Before the Fast

It’s the faces, the sudden faces. You see them as you wade through the crowds at the Wellfleet OysterFest. Some you know, most you don’t, but there’s a commonality. It’s that look of ballpark expectation: big eyes, easy smiles. “You see everyone,” says Elspeth Hay, a Wellfleet-based writer and author of the popular culinary blog Diary of a Locavore. “Everyone’s there, in the street, both days. I love that.”

The Feast Before the Feast

Amidst drifting seafood smells and art booths, cultures blend and swirl. Women who look like they just stepped off Boston’s Newbury Street talk to guys who just stepped off a work barge out in the harbor—a fashionable crowd in North Face fleece and designer jeans and Uggs talking to a grubby Grundens guy with bluefish blood on his boots, fish scales flecked on his wrists, and beers in both hands. It’s October in Wellfleet and the streets are jammed, all for the oyster, that magnificent bivalve.

Mac Hay is the president of  Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), the nonprofit board that organizes the OysterFest. “Personally,” says Mac, “my favorite part is the morning, when the shuckers start to arrive and open oysters. I like to go around and look for that one perfect oyster.” Mac describes “perfect” as being full-bodied, not too huge, and October-fresh, with no bits of shell. “It’s a great way to start the day.”

The Feast Before the Feast

Half the fun of the Wellfleet OysterFest is the sloppy bonhomie of it all. Everywhere, people share from cheap paper trays overloaded with oysters and clams, the little red pitchforks impaled in lemon wedges, daubs of fiery horseradish blurring in a larger pool of red cocktail sauce. It’s purity meets simplicity meets street meat.

With crowds that swell into the thousands (recent estimates climb as high as 8,000 attendees per day), the event has gone huge, but it wasn’t always this way. The first OysterFest, co-founded by Lisa Brown and the Wellfleet Recreation Department’s Becky Rosenberg, was held in 2001. The idea sprung from a variety of sources, among them Wellfleet’s wish to have a hometown event similar to Truro’s popular Dump Dance and partly as a way to organize the oyster shucking contests that had gone on in town, informally, for years. Keith Rose won the first shuck off. He then drove his shucking knife into a wooden table, one that had been borrowed from a local elementary school. “They didn’t loan us any tables after that,” says Brown.

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Rob Conery is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life Publications.

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