Contributing editor Andrew Nelson is in San Antonio this week celebrating Fiesta, and he’ll be sending us dispatches from the road all this week.
How hard is it to eat a Texas-sized bucket of baked oysters? Really hard, I’m discovering. Each mollusk is the size of your fist, shut tighter than Area 51, they mock my feeble efforts to pry them apart.
I’m at the 92nd annual Oyster Bake, one of the kick-off events Fiesta San Antonio, a ten-day-long party that is to the Texas city what Mardis Gras is to New Orleans: colorful parades and raucous revelry marked by too much food, too much drink and way, way too much fun.
Around me swirl many of the 70,000 people who will pour into the campus of St. Mary’s University on the city’s west side, home of one of the USA’s oldest and proudest Mexican communities. Tonight San Antonians of all backgrounds are going to drink, dance, listen to Tejano and rock and roll, and wolf down entire beds of shellfish. This is their party, and San Antonio, unlike Louisiana’s Crescent City, appears to have kept the fun to themselves. Few travelers outside of Texas it seems have heard of Fiesta. But while it’s on, America’s seventh largest city can think of little else.
Fiesta San Antonio began in 1891 as a way to honor the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. It’s evolved into 100 different events, which include over-the-top balls held by San Antonio’s Old School Old Money elites, spectacular parades and satirical mockery of pretense in a counter-cultural Fiesta Cornyation. Here’s a guide to the whole shebang.
All I can think about – after failing to crack even one lip on five oysters in a row – is scoring a Frito pie, a Texas treat that’s a mix of chili, cheese and the ubiquitous snack food. Around me are rows of booths offering cold beer, turkey legs, roasted corn, and something called a "hot beef sundae" – a scoop of mashed potatoes on which is dribbled beefy sauce, cheese. A dollop of mayo serves as whipped cream.
A cherry tomato substitutes for a maraschino.
Delish? I save the protein desert for another time. My Frito pie is gone in a flash, and the oysters still need attending to. Luckily, I’m wielding my oyster knife standing next to Jimmy Jiron.
The lifelong native San Antonian instructs me and my friends in the art of the shuck and what he calls "the luck of the suck."
"Bang on it with the oyster knife handle," he says. "Hard." Twack.
Twack Twack. Oyster grit – a gray grime covering the crustaceans’ shell – flies producing a fine spray over shirts and sunglasses.
"Don’t wear your Sunday best," he cautions. "If you’re not getting dirty, you’re not doing it right."
"Now twist the knife sideways and the shell’ll pop right open."
Sure enough. The halves part and a big juicy oyster lies quivering in its shell. It’s hard work, but covered with cocktail sauce and placed on a Saltine, it is a just reward.
Twack. Twack. Slurp. Slurp. Glug. Glug. (We chase each one with a swig of beer.)
"Can’t stop eating them," says Jiron. "It’s what Fiesta’s all about."
Photo: Andrew Nelson