If you put about 300 people in a room with upwards of 5,000 fresh, raw oysters, what happens?
Increased appreciation of locally farmed oysters and, consequently, the support of area farmers — at least that's what those behind the Alabama Oyster Social hope.
Dr. Bill Walton, who helps train oyster farmers through the Auburn University Shellfish Lab in Dauphin Island, said a new method of raising oysters has led to a movement similar to the craft beer movement, where farmers work to grow the "perfect" oyster.
"They're trying to grow these beautiful shapes, the deep cups and, of course, great flavor," Walton said. "Once they do that, you start getting oysters named by the farm or the area that they're grown."
A handful of Alabama farmers are expected to show off their product on Saturday at the third annual Alabama Oyster Social — an event that brings area farmers, chefs and drink sponsors together to shine a spotlight on the varieties of oysters the South has to offer. More than 5,000 oysters will be shucked for this event, and tasting tables will offer raw oysters, cooked oysters and gourmet hors d'oeuvres for ticket holders.
The oysters will be coming from farms in Alabama as well as North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, said Walton, who is coordinating the oyster orders for the social.
"I really do think it's going to be one of the best oyster bars in the South that is put together in terms of showing off what (oysters farmers) can do," Walton said.
He explained that although the farmers are growing the same species, an oyster from a North Carolina farm will taste remarkably different than an oyster from Louisiana.
"It's the same species of oyster, but it takes on the flavor of where it's grown," Walton said, adding that you don't have to be a "fancy foodie" to taste the differences. "Every raw bar that I've been to, there's always that wow-moment for people who have just grown up having Gulf oysters — and there's nothing wrong with that — but if you have them side by side, I've had people just not know you could taste differences like that."
Many of the oyster farmers coming from farms in Alabama have worked with Auburn University to get their businesses started. The AU Shellfish Lab trains new farmers, and once the farmers are ready to invest in their own business, they start their farms within the business park in Dauphin Island created by the university.
It is those farmers that the Alabama Oyster Social will support.
Recently, troubles with the lease on the current business park property have uprooted the farmers, forcing the university to find new land in which to re-establish the farms — an expensive and tedious process, Walton said. Money raised at the Alabama Oyster Social will go directly to covering moving costs for the farmers.
"All we're trying to do is get money donated to Auburn so we can use that to help those farmers in that move," Walton said. "We want them to have to focus on the cost of raising the oysters; we're trying to defray the cost of the move, so that we don't lose these businesses due to an unexpected move happening through no fault of their own."
The university has found two new properties for future business parks, and will work to expand its oyster farming program.
"We're trying to come out of this stronger," Walton said. "You try to take something bad and make something better. Once we saw what was happening and realized we couldn't fix it, we applied for two areas. What we're hoping to do is provide these farmers with the choice of two different areas. ... We're hoping to help the folks in it survive this change, but also provide opportunities for more farmers as we go forward."
So far, about 300 tickets have been sold, according to Christin Bancroft, director of marketing at Acre — an Auburn restaurant that has been instrumental in the coordination of the oyster social. Because of the huge response, tickets sales are expected to be capped off soon.
Bancroft said not only have residents responded well to the event, but area chefs and companies have as well, either by committing to cook at the event or provide all the seafood and meat that will be used at the event.
"I think (Acre chef) David (Bancroft) has just a great network of people that support this movement and support using seafood from Alabama and their respective states," Bancroft said. "When people hear the plight that these farmers are facing, and they realize this market could possibly not be available anymore, they really take that to heart and jump on board."
The Alabama Oyster Social will be held from 6 to 9 pm. on Saturday at the Red Barn at Ag Heritage Park. Tickets must be purchased prior to the event.
For more information, visit www.alabamaoystersocial.com.