The first weekend of Fiesta got off to a lively start Friday, with events across town ranging from A Taste of New Orleans at the Sunken Garden to the Tejano Explosion at Cattleman’s Square. But for many, the only place to be was the St. Mary’s campus for the first night of Fiesta Oyster Bake.
Friday evening is vastly different from Saturday’s free-for-all, which runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., many traditional visitors will tell you. For one thing, the crowds are a lot lighter, making the grounds not so crowded. Plus, Mother Nature was ready to party Friday night, providing a breeze that kept the evening from becoming too sweltering.
Friday night at Oyster Bake, also brings a wine tasting area, which is where I volunteered for several hours, pouring a host of wines to thirsty patrons.
The lineup, from SmartWineDirect.com, included a Spanish Tempranillo, a Chilean Carmenère, a dry rosé, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from California, and a pair of softly sweet wines, red and white, from Idaho’s Ste. Chapelle. For the lovers of sweet whites, there was a Beringer Moscato. At the other end of the scale, for dry wine lovers, choices included the Hob Nob Chardonnay and the Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon.
After the shift, it was off to try the foods, which run the gamut from chicken and steak on a stick to sausage on a stick and chocolate-dipped strawberries, also on a stick. Gotta love those sticks. Of course, there are oysters. Baked oysters, fried oysters and oyster shots are all available. None of the oysters is served on a stick. And if sticks aren’t your thing, think fried cheesecake, funnel cakes or kettle corn.
Behind the baked oyster booth, patrons could watch the flames of the charcoal leap up and bake the briny shells before they were sorted into buckets and served up with packets of cocktail sauce spiked with plenty of horseradish. Newcomers to the Oyster Bake should know that they’ll have to visit the neighboring booth for a shucker, which is loaned out for $10. Return the shucker and get your $10 back.
Kathleen Burke has volunteered at Fiesta Oyster Bake for many years now, selling both beer and wine. Working the event has a special meaning for her. “I work the Oyster Bake because my entire family went to school at St. Mary’s,” she said, adding that her grandmother’s brother once as served dean of the law school. “And this raises money for scholarships for needy students, so they can come here, too.”
One treat you won’t find Burke eating at the event is the oysters. She does, however, open each one in the bucket for her friend, Cindy Hernandez, who devours the baked bivalves with a beer. This has been going on for 11 years now. “Apparently I have an aptitude for shucking oysters,” Burke said with a laugh. “We do this every year.”
Another tradition for Burke is to gather as many friends to help out at the Oyster Bake. Chris Fowler joined her group four years ago, shortly after moving to San Antonio from Phoenix. He loves the event, in part because there’s nothing like it back in Arizona.
Live music is another part of the Oyster Bake fun, with jazz on the smaller stage and rock on the main stage. The Gin Blossoms performed such hits as “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” So, while the crowds enjoyed the perfect weather and the music, they moved back to food booths for an ear of corn sprinkled with cayenne and lemon pepper or another cold brew.
The end of the evening brought a splashy fireworks display. It was a bright way to launch the 120th Fiesta San Antonio.
For schedule of food-related events during Fiesta, click here. And remember to drink responsibly.
Photographs by John Griffin