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Half Shell Homecoming

Photo by Connor Raborn

PREP -- Mike Benjamin, owner of T Rivers Bar & Grill in Madisonville, prepares his tailgate trailer cooking equipment for his fourth year participating in the Amite Oyster Festival.

by Connor Raborn reporter@hammondstar.com

Downtown Amite buzzed Thursday as carnival rides went up and cooks set up equipment to prepare a variety of oyster types.

Amite Oyster Festival begins in earnest this afternoon with its chili cookoff on the corner of U.S. Highway 51 and West Mulberry Street. The festival grounds will be open throughout the weekend along Northeast Central Avenue and Mulberry on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

The parade will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, travel west on East Oak Street, turn right onto 1st Street and turn again onto Olive Street. The festival royalty will pause during the parade to toast dignitaries watching from the balcony of The Boston Restaurant.

New to the festival this year is New Orleans dance crew the 610 Stompers, who will perform in the parade and in front of the festival stage around 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

The grand marshal leading the parade is Amite native and Saintsations Cheerleaders member Tanya Crowe. There will also be entries from various parish fire departments and schools.

"We don't want people to think this is just for Amite people. It's for everybody," said Festival Co-chair Carol Brooke.

Further illustrating that is Loranger High School Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps' stepping in to provide the opening ceremony's colorguard. Amite High Magnet School JROTC, who usually performs this duty, will be out of town for a competition, so Loranger High School Principal Torrence Joseph arranged for his students to be there.

Mike Benjamin was among those setting up cooking equipment Thursday afternoon. Benjamin owns T Rivers Bar & Grill in Madisonville and has been cooking a little bit of everything at the festival for four years.

Boudin, gator sausage, blue cheese oysters and "Nacheaux" are among the offerings that Benjamin will be cooking up at his tailgate trailer this weekend.

"Half of my customers come from Amite. I have a big customer base in Amite, a bunch of friends," Benjamin said. "Even if I didn't make a dollar I'd still do it, man. I just enjoy being here."

The festival is an annual tradition for many. Brooke said there are families who come into Amite treating the oyster festival as a kind of homecoming.

This marks the sixth year downtown for the festival, which began in 1976. Brooke calls it the best decision ever for the festival.

"That was the best ever, because we've had a successful year every year downtown," she said. "We're not in a muddy mess. It rains, and then the streets dry, and we're back in business. People like it downtown."

Downtown businesses - many of whom see the festival unfold right on their front porches - get actively involved in the event and even have their food represented in the spread.

Central Avenue Sports Bar will charbroil oysters to sell across the street under Marlin and Debra McClendon's tent. The bar's owner, Kevin Miller, is brother-in-law to Marlin who is from Franklinton and made his oyster fest debut last year.

Marlin said last year was a learning experience for him and his wife and they're back this year to improve on their oyster offerings. The spouses will be frying oysters to serve alongside Central Avenue's charbroiled ones.

"All of our businesses do tremendously well that weekend," Brooke said. "Our town is so supportive. Mayor Bel has always been very helpful to us, and I appreciate that a lot. When everybody works together, it makes a good festival for everybody."

Town employees help arrange barricades, garbage cans, bleachers and drinking water. Besides riding in the parade, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office Mounted Division provides additional security to the festival grounds at night.

Popular merchandise

Attendees wanting to buy this year's festival shirt are encouraged to do so as soon as possible. The festival board ordered 1,000 of them and as of Thursday afternoon only had about 120 left, with 100 more on the way.

The design of the shirt matches this year's theme, "Rock'n Oysters." The board holds a contest in September to choose the winner.

Nine designs were entered last year, including two entries by art gallery owners in New Orleans, but it was a local artist who triumphed. Renee Miller Wallace of Amite tore a piece of paper from her son's notebook and drew a design to match the theme with no thoughts of winning, Brooke said.

"Don't think you can't win. A lot of people said, 'Oh, I don't draw well enough to do that,'" she said. "If you can draw it on a notebook paper and win, anybody can win. We like that; we like to spread it around. It's just made her day."

A lineup of local artists will help rock the oysters this weekend. Amite Oyster Festival board members will keep the event's social media page and website updated with event photos and information regarding schedules.

Identifiable by their Amite Oyster Festival signature purple shirts, board members will be available during the event to handle any issues anyone has and to make a safe, family-friendly atmosphere. That way guests can focus on enjoying the festival's namesake food.

"Come on out and get an oyster poboy," Debra McClendon said, inviting guests while setting up her tent.

For more information, call Carol Brooke at 985-969-5340.

Friday, March 15

Chili Cookoff results -- 4:30 p.m.

North Stage -- Mulberry Street

3-4:30 p.m. -- DJ music

4:30-5:30 p.m. -- local talent

6-8 p.m. -- Ivory White

9 p.m. to midnight -- Category 6

South Stage

5-7 p.m. -- Austin Stafford

8-10 p.m. -- Casey Saba

Saturday, March 16

Grounds open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

10 a.m. -- Parade with special appearance from the 610 Stompers

10:10 a.m. -- Toast at The Boston during parade

North Stage

11 a.m. to noon -- Opening ceremonies

Colors presented by Loranger High School JROTC

National Anthem by Liz Addington

Noon to 1 p.m. -- 610 Stompers

1-1:30 p.m. -- Studio 51

1:30-2 p.m. -- Covington Dance Studio

3-5 p.m. -- Ernest Scott and the Funk Children

5-6 p.m. -- Oyster eating contest

6-8 p.m. -- Royal Street Band

9-11 p.m. -- David St. Romain

South Stage

1-4 p.m. -- Fifth Wheel

5-8 p.m. -- Lindsey Cardinale

Sunday, March 17

Grounds open noon to 6 p.m.

North Stage

10 a.m. to noon -- Church service hosted by First Baptist Church of Amite

Noon to 1:30 p.m. -- Sunday Drive

1:30-3 p.m. -- Talent Show

3-6 p.m. -- The Dominoes

South Stage

1-4 p.m. -- Invisible Cowboys