Sunday Dispatch: Oyster Fest at Fort Mason

Categories: Food Fests

Oyster Fest
Fort Mason
May 18, 2008

Review and Photos by Edward Paik

The subtle stains on Sergio “Chacho” Valencia’s red apron are proof of nearly 5,000 oysters he’s shucked in the span of 11 hours. Proof of the patrons that have forked and swallowed an estimated 30,000 mollusks since gates opened at 11 a.m.

But it was that kind of festival.

Oysters, stout beer and live music were served in abundance earlier today at the 9th annual San Francisco Oyster Fest presented by O’Reilly’s Productions at Fort Mason, S.F. The event went toward the Genny Fund Scholarship at St. Mary’s college, supporting “students with a sense of humor.”

A two day event that went on Saturday and Sunday, the festival featured music from the Dropkick Murphys, Juliette and the Licks, She and Him (feat. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward), Chuck Prophet as well as others.

“It’s a good gig,” said Valencia, a 26-year-old salesman who stood behind the grill of a tent selling BBQed oysters by the dozen. “It’s fun. Even though we’re still back here...”

“...we have fun,” interrupted a coworker.

“Mingle,” says another.

Laid back and relaxed, Sunday was the second part of the SF Oyster Fest, an event not as crowded or as heated as the day before. Still, the event provided enough “fun” for Valencia and his oyster grilling crew to enjoy the alternative bands and the bay breeze.

Though this was Valencia's first experience with the Oyster Fest, Myles O’Reilly has been there from the beginning. But it might take him a minute to remember when.

“It started on a shoe string back in 19...” he pauses.

“1998? That must be nine years. 1999?” O’Reilly asks himself.

What started out as four or five tents at Washington Park back in the 90s has since grown into a San Francisco tradition that continues to expand and cultivate, says O’Reilly, the festival producer and owner of the O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, O’Reilly’s Holy Grail and McTeague’s.

O’Reilly can recite the history, the importance of why the oyster is celebrated. He can tell you how early American settlers ate oysters and used shells for currency, how in Ireland he was raised on oysters and how his first experience with the oyster reminds him of his first Catholic communion.

“Like the communion, I remember distinctly where I was. The taste, the flavor. I was worried whether I was going to choke. Was I going to swallow? It was how was it going to taste. The flavor, was it too strong? How can I eat something that is alive,” O’Reilly said.

He swallowed and found something beautiful, something different.

“The oyster. There’s nothing in Christianity that comes remotely close to the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster, and any religion for that matter,” he said.

The SF Oyster Fest celebrated the mollusk with an “Oyster Information Center” providing knowledge of how oysters are grown around the world and on the bay that sat less than a mile from where curious bystanders stood.

Yet, the SF Oyster Fest has grown as one the upcoming biggest festival, drawing nearly 15,000 people on Saturday, because of the quality and quantity of the entertainment. Aside from the BBQ’d, grilled or raw oysters, or the other foods for those who prefer their food dead, the Fest featured several well-known bands and artists.

California-native singer and songwriter Jim Page opened the event on Sunday with his socially active lyrics. Indie band,Whispertown2000 followed the folk and protest of Page’s songs with an upbeat tempo and the dual vocals from Morgan Nagler and Vanesa Corbala.

Providing a lower-key and more family-oriented genre of music, compared to yesterday’s “high tension” from bands like the Dropkick Murphys, Whispertown2000 had softer alternative beats. Members of the band shared the drumming position, as Tod Adrian Wisenbaker simultaneously playing the guitar and the drums, and with both vocals sang on a different song with a self-provided drumbeat.

The Mother Hips and Chuck Prophet both picked up the beat with the sea breeze.

“I’m going to play a few chords then the band is going to go with the groove,” Prophet said and delivered. The Hips carried the same beat, driven by heavy drums that kept a cool contemporary sound, evolving into modern rock near the end of their performance amidst periodic requests for songs.

Throughout the festival, crowds gathered like tides, sitting and laying on the golden grass in the brisk weather, an opportunity that wasn’t possible with the numerous people on Saturday. But the crowd finally stood and swarmed the stage for the final performance by She and Him. Lead by singer and actress of films such as “Elf” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Zooey Deschanel, the indie pop band closed the festival by bringing down the beat built by their predecessors with Deschanel’s soft, pitching voice.

Alcohol and cigarettes patched the outdoor venue as the festival came to an end. Yet, from the Barbecue Oyster stand 400 feet away from the stage Valencia experienced the first of many Oyster Fests to come. Valencia expects more of the celebration and the shucking of oyster shells next year. After all, it’s a growing tradition. The stains on Valencia’s red apron proof of San Francisco’s history, life and love.

As O’Reilly said: “You’ve got to love life to love oysters.”


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