Oysters are nature's stimulus package -- especially when you add thousands of people and over 100 kegs of beer to the equation.
”For us, it definitely is,” said Jennifer Koopman, Executive Director of Arcata Main Street, the nonprofit organization that put together the 20th annual Oyster Fest on the Arcata Plaza Saturday. “I think it's great that even in hard economic times, people step up and support the community.”
Koopman said Oyster Fest, which provides funding to allow for other events throughout the year, generated $41,000 for the city last year -- more than the entire budget for Arcata Main Street. “This is our big event; without it, we wouldn't be able to do all the different things Arcata is known for.”
More than 50 tents dotted the plaza, attracting thousands of people and leaving behind over 100,000 oyster shells. Festivities got under way early on with the Shuck and Swallow contest, which featured teams of two: One shucking the oyster and the other eating.
Three-time defending champs and local oyster farmers Aidan Semingson and Conor Eckholm took the early lead. The pair didn't look back, winning their fourth consecutive Shuck and Swallow by eating 48 raw oysters in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Semingson, who did the shucking, shared his secret.
”It's just tenacity,” said Semingson, who has been shucking oysters for more than 10 years. Teammate Eckholm said the pair has the advantage of year-round practice. “I give all the credit to my shucker,” said Eckholm. “I've got the tasty job.”
The Oyster Calling contest drew a large crowd and featured wigs, costumes and dancing. But it was 9-year-old Michael Berkowitz who stole the show with his original poem, which earned a perfect score from the judges:
”Oysters belong upon my table, Oysters belong inside of me; I've got to be where my shell can run free, I've got to get my bivalve in the sea.”
The taste test results came in toward the end of the festivities. The “Best Oyster” award went to Plaza Grill for the “Lobster Diablo,” a creation featuring bacon, lobster and tomato. The best raw oyster was served up by Curly's restaurant, and Masaki's Kyoto Japanese restaurant overcame a small fire in their tent to win the best cooked oyster award.
Live music could be heard throughout the day, including performances by Acacia Collective, Woven Roots and the Mother Hips. Oysters were served up in a slew of different ways, including barbecued, raw, fried, grilled and even one with chocolate.
The Humboldt Bay Oyster Company provided 38,000 oysters for the event alone, and served them up with a sweet chili-cucumber sauce. Todd Van Herpe owns the company and was on the plaza for the event for the fifth year.
”The water quality here is so good,” said Van Herpe, who graduated from Humboldt State University with a Fisheries degree in 1992. “This is just a great opportunity to meet people and get feedback.”
Karen Wehrstein and Ellie Carr can't remember exactly when they first started coming to Oyster Fest.
”We've just made it a tradition,” said Carr, who added that the two usually come early to avoid long waits in line. “There are just so many different flavors,” said Wehrstein, who added that the deep-fried garlic butter was “ear-ringing good.”
But one man has been to more oyster festivals than anyone.
Al Cooper is the owner of Humboldt Beer Distributors, which provided a handful of local beers from Mad River and Lost Coast breweries. Cooper remembers coming to his first Oyster Fest 20 years ago.
”That first year I think we had seven kegs,” said Cooper, who was born and raised in Arcata. “Then it just exploded.” Cooper bought Humboldt Beer 38 years ago, and said that this year is probably the most popular yet.
”This is the most wonderful one-day event Humboldt County has to offer,” said Cooper. “There isn't a single person here having a bad time.”
Matt Drange can be reached at 441-0514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.