The annual Fiesta Oyster Bake, in San Antonio, Texas, takes place every mid-April on the brochuresque liberal arts campus of St. Mary’s University, the oldest Catholic university in the American Southwest. Established in 1916 by an enterprising group of St. Mary’s students, the Oyster Bake has over the past century grown from a humble local diversion into an event closer in scale and volume to a major music festival, complete with corporate sponsorships, amusement rides, multiple performance stages, scores of porta-potties, and upwards of 75,000 attendees. The food options alone are overwhelming, fodder for a dietician’s nightmare. In addition to baked oysters, fried oysters, raw oysters, and the thankfully nonalcoholic “oyster shot,” purchasers of a $35 two-day wristband can gorge themselves on cucumber in a cup, chicken on a stick, fried turkey legs, grilled sausage links, churros, elote, esquites, frito pie and soft-serve, all of which can and should be washed down with Bud Light, the festival’s official sponsor. Other features include carnival games, merch stands, grill pits, mariachi bands, and a husband-and-wife mascot duo named Shuckie and Pearl, two anthropomorphized mollusks who wear cowboy boots under their tasseled shells. It’s all just a lot. Confronted with the sheer amount of sights to see and things to consume, it’s easy to overlook the oysters.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Fiesta Oyster Bake, and the 125th anniversary of the wider San Antonio Fiesta, the city’s ten-day commemoration of the Battle of the Alamo. Billed as “The Heartbeat of Fiesta,” the Oyster Bake functions as both an opening ceremony and a centerpiece for the festivities, offering a condensed Fiesta experience in 36 hours’ time, from Friday evening to Saturday night. On- and off-site parking is readily available, though black market yard parking is preferred. Tickets can either be pre-purchased at a discounted rate from participating H-E-B superstores, or from the festival’s heavily secured front gate, where honey-voiced southern ladies can be observed interrupting transactions to bob their heads to Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” The festival’s four music stages, all relatively un-near one another, are demarcated by genre–Rock, Hip-Hop, Country, Latin/Tejano–and feature headlining sets from Chevelle, Chamillionaire, Granger Smith, and Grupo Solido, accordingly. Though segregationist in the abstract, the divisions are an apt reflection of a wildly diverse crowd, an incongruous human array that somehow comprises southern chic coeds, multigenerational Tex-Mex families, goths, cowboys, and, in one exemplary case, a Gulf Coast dentist who performs slight-of-hand magic. Unlike national festivals, like the concurrent Coachella, Fiesta actually feels like a celebration of a place and its people, as opposed to, say, a nobody summit that happens nowhere; the distance between life and lifestyle may well be the 1200 miles that separate San Antonio from Indio, California. The Oyster Bake is willfully, unconsciously un-hip, meaning that it’s fucking cool.
Oysters are, literally and figuratively, a small but pronounced part of that coolness. Trending due-left from the entrance brings you to the festival’s main food concourse, a long drag of collapsible vendor stands worked, predominantly, by students and volunteers. (Fiesta Oyster Bake is technically a fundraising event, with proceeds helping to fund university programs, alumni organizations, and 70+ full or partial scholarships for St. Mary’s students: caramel apples are sold by the Student Veterans Association, soft pretzels by the National Society for Leadership and Success. It’s a sweet sell, like kids peddling lemonade.) Over 100,000 oysters are consumed over the festival’s two days, creating 10,000 pounds of unused shells that the staff meticulously collects, recycles, and eventually dumps into the Gulf to replenish the reefs. Oyster populations have, of course, been decimated by commercial fishing, habitat collapse, and poor water quality, conditions that policies like shell recycling try to offset. Relative to the blind consumption encouraged at a food festival, the choice feels almost ethical.
Oysters occupy a strange liminal space in the omnivore’s dilemma, due in large part to the fact that some vegans eat them. While PETA still officially condemns the consumption of oysters, citing their avoidance of predators and their ability to filter polluted ocean water, many individual vegetarians and vegans view bivalves as the lone exception to strict dietary rules. Besha Rodell, the food critic for LA Weekly, argues that oysters “are no more a living, feeling animal than a zucchini. They have no central nervous system, no face, no brain. They are basically a lump of protein…” Hundreds of similar rationalizations—as well as their expectedly civil rebuttals—can be found online, both in the pages of Slate and the /r/vegan subreddit. The extended relevant syllogism reads, “Oysters lack a central nervous system; animals without a central nervous system can’t feel pain; therefore oysters can’t feel pain; therefore it’s ethical to eat oysters.” The reasoning, though sound, conveniently sidesteps a few peripheral justifications for vegetarianism, specifically the problem of “bycatch,” in which other species are netted and killed as a result of commercial fishing, but it’s probably the most substantial loophole in an otherwise stringent belief system.
If anyone at Fiesta Oyster Bake is upset over obscure disputes in the vegan community, they are adept at hiding their anguish. Like the rest of the Barbeque Belt, the festival is the type of place where, when you tell someone you’re a vegetarian, they tend to react like you’ve revealed a terminal illness. Choosing to become a vegetarian also means becoming a skillful apologist—for the wedding menus you complicate, for the holiday dinners you must opt out of—and Oyster Bake can sometimes feel unfriendly to that reflexive deference, if only for its stalwart refusal to apologize for seemingly anything. There is zero observable irony in the Friday headlining set from Denis DeYoung: The Music of Styx, zero hesitation exhibited over the consumption of sausages the size of elephant tusks, turkey legs like medieval cudgels, chicken breasts with Frisbee radii. Standing in line for Bud Light, sandwiched between a man in a 2nd Amendment t-shirt and a woman with an Iron Maiden calf tattoo, the festival can seem, at least on the surface, like the last peopled place a cynical northern liberal should ever be.
But truth is rarely surface-level; common ground is typically near before it’s far. It’s a short but sensually rich walk from the Bud Light Zone to the oyster stands, the air thick with grill smoke and the “people watching” quotient high. To keep the festival crowd out of school facilities, particularly the bathrooms, the walkways are fenced everywhere with chain link, much of it alternately emblazoned with ads first for Bud Light, second for a local injury attorney named Thomas J. Henry. The sequencing is undeniably ominous, though any collusion between the two companies isn’t provable. (Further investigation reveals Thomas J. Henry to have one of the sickest booths at the festival, a multi-tent setup conspicuously close to the Bud Light Zone that offers swag bags, cornhole, strobe lights, and a live DJ.) Costume is a major part of San Antonio Fiesta, and peppered throughout the crowd are girls in pastel royalty gowns, grandparents wearing decorated sombreros. For decades, it’s been tradition for local business to have custom pins made for the festival, where they’re traded like baseball cards and exhaustively affixed to cotton vests and sashes. The look is that of an obsessive compulsive Eagle Scout, and a great way to kill time in the overlong food lines is to ask vest wearers about their various pins and have them explain how this one’s from a tax accountant, or a dance studio, or a gun shop, obviously.
A bucket of a dozen raw oysters costs 14 Oyster Bake coupons, the equivalent of $7, and they aren’t sold pre-shucked like in restaurants—one must do the shucking oneself. Oyster knives (long handle, short blade, upturned point) can be rented for ten refundable dollars from an adjacent stand, which also provides helpful yellow pamphlets on How to Shuck an Oyster. Most of the shucking happens at an assembly of mismatched picnic tables behind the food concourse, where, granted scarce seating becomes available, the arduous shucking process can begin.
Opening an oyster happens in four simple steps, though no two shell shapes are exactly the same. (Some just look like rocks, others like elegant makeup cases, still others like the primary hull of the Starship Enterprise.) The shucker first locates a small gap—or hinge—between the top and bottom shells, always in the rear but nevertheless hard to find. The knifepoint gets inserted into this hinge (Step 2), and then the shucker runs the knife along the shell halves until they come apart. Step 4 consists of cutting the oyster’s muscles from the shell, a ruthless bit of surgery that doesn’t seem painless, central nervous system or not. Add cocktail sauce, squeezed lemon, and serve. Veteran shuckers should speed through a bucket in 15 minutes; novices could need the better part of an hour. You will probably cut yourself, definitely glove your hands in brine, but the end result is the same regardless of skill level, the process a part of the pleasure. It’s like a second salty tongue in your mouth, meant to be swallowed.
Like lobsters and secondhand clothing, oysters were a commoner’s commodity long before they became an upper class preoccupation, a delicacy. This is one of the Oyster Bake’s main underlying draws: the democratization of the gourmet, a consumption not predicated on class. San Antonio has mostly dodged the gentrification that’s taken hold of nearby Austin, and the result is an Oyster Bake crowd that’s predominantly working class, a dying breed in American cities. The holes in people’s shirts aren’t preconceived. Work boots are worn to work. Though it may not contribute directly, the overall vibe, in contrast to national festivals, is anything but hostile; it’s genuinely inclusive, not inclusive for profit’s sake. Good food and good company, it suggests, are nondenominational; the country is not as unwound as it seems. Or in the words of Kevin Fowler, Friday headliner of the Country Stage at the Oyster Bake, “I’m tired of the Republican Party. I’m tired of the Democratic Party. I’m starting the cocktail party!” Amen.
Oyster season along the Gulf Coast culminates at the end of April, when high water temperatures make raw oysters unsafe for human consumption. The region stands as one of the last with a fixed season for wild oysters, which sets Fiesta Oyster Bake apart from other regional festivals: In a few weeks’ time, it literally couldn’t happen. St. Mary’s could organize a comparable event later in the year, but something essential would be lost, the equilibrium of strangeness disrupted. It’s the sum total of experiences that make vegans eating oysters seem halfway normal in comparison. Like the voice of two backpacked monks saying, “We’re not monks, we’re friars.” Like the taste of oysters sucked down without a worry after years of worry. It’s the feeling of being deep-ish in the heart of Texas, where even the most cynical liberal will turn to watch fireworks set to “America, The Beautiful,” a display of sound and vision so unapologetic in its majesty that it sets off car alarms for blocks.