High time for oysters at Ocean State Oyster Festival

 

  • The first such event, held Saturday on the Providence waterfront, featured about 25,000 oysters from 18 farms to celebrate the renaissance of R.I.’s aquaculture industry.
 Drew Douglass of Attleboro, Mass., and Heather Heineke, of Providence, check out the selection of R.
  • Drew Douglass of Attleboro, Mass., and Heather Heineke, of Providence, check out the selection of R.I.-grown oysters at the first Ocean State Oyster Festival, held Saturday on the Providence River Walk. The Providence Journal/Steve Szydlowsk
  • Drew Douglass of Attleboro, Mass., and Heather Heineke, of Providence, check out the selection of R.Bob Lukens, of Cranston, downs a freshly shucked oyster at the Ocean State Oyster Festival. The Providence Journal/Steve SzydlowskiDon Nguyen, co-founder of the Ocean State Oyster Festival, raises a huge oyster for the crowd to see. (It was not eaten.) About 1,500 people attended Saturday's festival in Providence, held to promote the return of Rhode Island's aquaculture industry.A crowd gathers around the oyster-shucking contest table at the Ocean State Oyster Festival, which also featured educational displays, food trucks and live music.
    By Amanda Milkovits
    Journal Staff Writer

    Posted Sep. 19, 2015 at 10:30 PM

    PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Peter Sebring shucked an oyster and held its brimming cup in his gloved hand. The meat was briny and plump, its taste from plankton and the waters it was raised in.

    He’s been in the fishing industry since he was 13, and now, at 54, Sebring and his 24-year-old son, Ben, work together on their oyster farm of three acres off Portsmouth Abbey. Sebring also opened the Bristol Oyster Bar last year, which showcases Rhode Island’s shellfish.

    And, like dozens of other oyster farms in Rhode Island, Sebring is experiencing the revival of what was once part of Rhode Island’s heritage, which was celebrated at Saturday’s first Ocean State Oyster Festival on the city’s waterfront. “For the first time in my life, I’m doing the right thing, at the right place, at the right time,” he said with a laugh, as his son shucked oysters for a line of customers.

    More than a century ago, Rhode Island was an epicenter for oysters, with 21,000 acres of oyster farms — later depleted by industrial runoff, said Andy Cutler, a communications specialist, and one of the festival organizers.

    They’re coming back, with oyster farms growing from 6 in 1996 to 55 farms producing about $5 million in oysters today. Civic pride, the state’s heritage and the desire to help the local oyster farmers reach new customers led to the idea for the festival, which was founded by Cutler, designer Don Nguyen (farmer liaison), editorial photographer Frank Mullin, Dave Roebuck from the Salt Pond Oyster Company, and designer Kaitlyn Frolich.

    About 25,000 oysters were supplied for the festival, Cutler said. The farmers were paid market rate, and 10 percent of the $25 festival ticket sales went to Save The Bay’s youth program, Explore the Bay. As Cutler said, “We’re trying to create the next generation of environmentalists.”

    The organizers hoped for 2,000 attendees and had more than half that number by mid-afternoon, with people sampling oysters from 18 different farms and trying the signature Shucker’s Revenge oyster beer from the local Revival Brewing Co. The recipe, created by brewmaster Sean Larkin, features Belgian- and German-style malt, Rakau hops, and oysters and oyster shells that adjust the mineral content. Designed to complement the oysters, it was created for the festival.

    The farmers, who have little time for marketing, found themselves surrounded by new customers under the late-summer sky.

    “This is a blast. It’s a great experience for the farmers,” said Sebring. “It gets people to [try] the oysters, and then they can order them by name.”

    — amilkovi@providencejournal.com

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