OysterFest featuring 12 oysters from Pearl’s and 12 beers from Molly Malloy’s, 7-9 p.m., Fri., Sept. 23, $50, ReadingTerminalMarket.TicketLeap.com.
Philadelphia was once the oyster capital of America. In the late 19th century, the Delaware Bay’s 2 million-bushel annual haul were served up by almost every Philadelphia bar, restaurant and street vendor, in addition to 379 dedicated oyster houses. The discarded shells paved the streets, formed makeshift wharves and served as ship ballast.
It’s perhaps ironic that Reading Terminal Market’s (nearly) annual fundraising OysterFest was inspired not by Philly’s long and strong oyster heritage -- but by an annual oyster festival held at a counterpart public market in Milwaukee since 2010. (As you might have guessed, oysters are not indigenous to the Great Lakes.) In 2013, then-Market-manager Paul Steinke had heard about the Milwaukee Public Market’s Oyster Fest and approached David Braunstein of Pearl’s Oyster Bar about the idea of doing it here.
Reading Terminal’s OysterFest debuted that September and was held again in fall 2014. (The event paused in 2015 because of the pope’s visit.)
The Braunstein family has owned the Market’s lone oyster bar since the early 1980s and oyster stew and fried oysters were longtime specialties. But Steinke’s idea for a Philadelphia Market OysterFest was in part sparked by a serious program of fresh-shucked local oysters that Braunstein had started earlier that year. Pearl’s still offers a menu of six fresh-shucked raw oysters daily. It usually includes four from the Jersey Shore, at least one from the West Coast and, often, one from Atlantic Canada.
What’s the difference?
“West Coast oysters are normally sweeter and creamier,” says Braunstein. “East Coast oysters are brinier. The further north you go, the brinier they are.”
Although Braunstein won’t know for sure what oysters will be available for the festival until just before OysterFest, Pearl’s oyster menu regulars and Braunstein favs Cape Shore Salt and Sweet Amalia’s, both from Cape May, are two likelies.
The Delaware Bay’s identity as the nation’s oyster bar ended by the early 1900s due to overfishing and pollution and today most local oysters are farmed. That mollusk’s relative rarity today compared to colonial and Victorian times makes them more of a higher-end treat, though Braunstein notes that modern aquaculture oysters have the advantage of being a lot more consistent than wild-caught.
Considering local oysters’ brininess, it’s good that OysterFest will pair the 12 oysters with 12 beers -- almost all local -- curated and poured by Market bar Molly Malloy’s. And historians say beer was probably the drink accompaniment of choice for lower and middle-class Philadelphia oyster eaters of yore. Every style of beer known to go well with raw oysters will be at OysterFest, including sours, ambers, lagers, pilsners, India pale ales and even stouts (in the form of a black and tan). Brands include Yuengling, Yards, Straub’s, Philadelphia Brewing Company, Neshaminy Creek, Dogfish Head, Flying Fish and Evil Genius.
When you consider that the average price of a craft beer is $5 to $7 and fresh-shucked oysters, $16 or $17 per half-dozen; and the fact that this event is all you can eat and drink, OysterFest is a great value that can also make you feel great because proceeds will fund a weekly cooking class held in the Market’s City Kitchen for kids from the nonprofit Strawberry Mansion Learning Center in North Philadelphia.
Given the city’s oyster heritage, attending OysterFest should also make you feel like a true Philadelphian.
Carolyn Wyman is the Market's news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal's bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour (www.tasteofphillyfoodtour.com).