“Oyster riot is my favorite event of the year,” said my friend Maureen, who is the only person I know whose event calendar rivals that of the Bitches. “OK, I’m there,” I said—trusting her authority yet grimacing slightly at the $125 ticket price tag.
“Well,” she said, “Tickets sold out within hours months ago.”
“Oh,” my heart sank. What a tease. Unsurprisingly, she worked her magic—as she often does—and we trotted into the courtyard behind Old Ebbitt Grill last Saturday. The folks at the door checked us in via iPad, slapped wristbands on us, and handed out Oyster Eater’s Bill of Rights (“Served in a casual, convivial environment by a knowledgeable staff,” “Harvested in their season from certified clean waters,” “Laboratory tested,” “Received directly from farm.”)
Shortly thereafter, we were slurping down oysters and white wine with reckless abandon to live music amid hundreds of other happy revelers. There were dozens of stations with oysters from the East Coast, Pacific, Olympia and European Flats regions—from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Hammersley Inlet, Washington. Big, small, briny, sweet, salty, meaty, or smooth—it was an oyster lover’s dream come true. While I naturally have more experience with East Coast oysters and loved a few from Massachusetts, my favorite for the evening had to be the sweet and tiny Olympias from Totten Inlet, Washington.
As for wine, prior to the event, Old Ebbitt convenes a panel of experts to judge 233 wines from across the globe as part of its “International Wines for Oysters Competition” and serves the ten gold medal winners at Oyster Riot. This year, a Jules Taylor Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from Marlborough, New Zealand, was awarded grand champion—and Maureen and I fully supported the win. However, I also made a few trips back to the “Best Sparkler,” La Marca Prosecco NV from Veneto, Italy, and “Best European,” the Meinhard Forstreiter Gruner Veltliner from Niederoösterreich, Austria, which were both excellent, albeit sweet, and paired well with the oysters.
As you make your way through the crowd, balancing your very messy tray with built-in wine glass holder, sweet Southern music fills the atrium with tunes from six live-bands all weekend long—Mudcat, Lil’ Joe Burton & the Atlanta Horns, Captain Luke, Big Ron Hunter, Robert Lee Coleman, and Sol.
In addition to top-notch wines, fresh oysters from around the country, and live music, the event also offers fruit and cheese tables, a beer bar serving regional microbrews including Charlottesville’s Starr Hill, a photo booth for wine-induced memories, and plenty of Oyster Riot paraphernalia for sale. Best of all, nestled near the back, is the shrimp shack, which hands out fresh shrimp and stone crab claws—this Florida girl’s favorite food.
Let’s not forget this is a charity function, too. (Aren’t they all in Washington?) The evening benefits the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which works on the large-scale restoration of oysters to Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay and has planted 1.6 billion acres of oysters on the reefs, and the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports the preservation of Southern music and traditions.
I leave you with a recommendation you mark your calendar for September 2012, when tickets for next year’s event go on sale, and a quote from one of my favorite books that was brandished on the back of the menu.
As I ate the oysters, with their strong taste of the sea
And their metallic taste, that cold white wine washed away,
leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture,
and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell
and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine,
I lost the empty feeling
And began to be happy
and to make plans.
– Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.