Friday, January 17, 2014

Oysters, raw and in the rough

Photo credit: Ian McNulty

By Ian McNulty
For some, oysters have an appeal that goes beyond making a meal. Consider, for instance, the experience of Woody Ruiz. A former oyster shucker and now a festival food vendor, he’s still known to load up his 30-year-old Mercedes sedan with sacks of oysters, park somewhere strategic — near the Fair Grounds Race Course on Thanksgiving, say, or in the Marigny on Fat Tuesday — and proceed to shuck them directly from the car trunk for his friends and for strangers passing by.
“It’s kind of amazing the reaction you get with oysters,” Ruiz said. “It’s the feel, the look, the smell. I don’t think people associate oysters with food as much as with an experience. So you can sit there, outside, totally rustic, just opening raw oysters and handing them out and whip people into an oyster frenzy.”
Ruiz, with help from plenty of his friends, aims to do just that on a bigger scale this Sunday at the inaugural Freret Oyster Jam. Held outside the Freret Street Publiq House, you’ll find live music on stage from the New Orleans Suspects, Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra and (of course) Raw Oyster Cult. The NFL playoffs will be on TV. And, the way this party is shaping up, the food booths will be offering the makings for oyster overload.
Ruiz operates his Woody’s Fish Tacos stand at festivals and markets across the city. Instead of tapping restaurants to serve food for the Oyster Jam, he’s invited other food vendors from the festival circuit to participate. They’ll be selling a variety of cooked oyster dishes (grilled oysters, fried oyster tacos, oyster pasta) and other food. You can also add oysters to Ruiz’s (otherwise) vegan gumbo, and watch them poach in the hot roux, and there will be an oyster shooter station, for for gulping down booze and bivalve simultaneously.
But the focal point will be a tag-team raw bar, to be staffed by a coterie of shuckers recruited from local oyster bars for the party.
“It’s the raw oyster that gets people the most,” said Ruiz. “You could have food from the best chefs at your party, and if you had an oyster bar, too, that’s what everyone would be talking about the next day.”
Published in the New Orleans Advocate

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