ASTORIA — On the Oregon North Coast, seafood plays an important role in the area’s cuisine, recreation, industry and culture, a fact both highlighted and celebrated every year since 1982 at what’s now officially known as the Astoria Warrenton Crab, Seafood and Wine Festival.
“It’s a huge aspect of our area and part of our heritage and our history,” Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce event coordinator Kelsey Balensifer said. “We as a chamber promote the business community, but we also want to stay true to our roots as well.”
The 37th annual Crab, Seafood and Wine Festival, presented by Fred Meyer, kicks off Friday evening, April 26, and runs through Sunday, April 28, at the Clatsop County Fair and Expo Center. More than 150 local purveyors and groups will sprawl across the festival site, selling prepared and packaged food, beverages and arts and crafts. With sponsorship from Lum’s Auto Center, the festival also features live entertainment on two stages during all three days of the event, with the 16-act lineup representing a range of musical genres.
“Every corner you turn, there’s something new and different to see,” Balensifer said. “Our area is fantastic and we love living here. And we love showcasing that to people who come from Portland, Seattle and all over the country.”
A time-honored tradition
The chamber originated the event in the early 1980s as part of an initiative to bring more people to the coast during the offseason. The organization’s inaugural one-day Great Astoria Crab Feed and Seafood Festival drew about 6,000 people and featured 30 booths offering food, Oregon wine and crafts. Attendees also got tours of commercial and charter fishing boats and viewed films of local sea life.
Since then, the festival has evolved in various aspects, moving locations several times along the way until finding its current home at the fairgrounds in 2002. At the core, though, the festival remains unchanged in its purpose of showcasing the North Coast’s plentiful bounty.
“We do get some folks who lament the fact that it’s not by the water anymore,” Balensifer said.
Relying on tents outdoor during April’s unpredictable weather, however, has historically posed a concern and even occasional problems. Moving a majority of the festival indoors makes it more secure and reduces the chance “something could go wrong in regards to the weather,” she said.
Opportunities for everyone
The festival is one of the Astoria-Warrenton chamber’s largest events of the year in terms of length and the volunteer labor required to run it. The payoff is boosting the local business community during an empirically slow time of year.
Not only do businesses participate as vendors, but festivalgoers also tend to make a weekend trip for the event and spend ample time about town, visiting restaurants and shopping. The chamber also hires local companies to handle various aspects of the event, including security and temporary toilet facilities, and provides volunteer opportunities to nonprofit groups in exchange for a monetary donation.
Additionally, some regional organizations use the festival as their own personal fundraising opportunity. The Astoria Clowns group sells its popular Clown Bread — a prepared dish featuring French bread slathered with a secret sauce and topped with crab or shrimp and then grilled. Annd a group representing the Willapa Harbor Chamber of Commerce comes down from Washington to peddle the region’s world-renowned oysters in both fried or shooter form.
“It’s one of our biggest fundraisers, helps keep the chamber alive, and, darn it, we make a good fried oyster,” Willapa Harbor Chamber Director Michelle Layman said.
They use the much-desired extra small oyster for their shooters, paired with cocktail sauce or fresh-squeezed lemon, and also sell packages of oyster breading crafted from their special recipe. Layman and other volunteers generally take turns vending and enjoying the festival throughout the weekend.
“It’s just a great time of people getting together, trying wine, enjoying the seafood,” Layman said.