Oyster festival in St. Mary’s County, MD, draws fans from across US
The first time that George Hastings entered the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Contest in St. Mary’s County, MD, he didn’t win. But his bright blue eyes were set on the prize.
“I knew right then I’d be clearing my schedule every third weekend in October and going to St. Mary’s County,” Hastings said. “I told myself, ‘I’m coming here till I win this thing.’ ”
That was in 1994, and Hastings has lined up at the shucking table every year since. He won twice, first in 1999 and again in 2003, and represented the United States at the world “oyster opening” championship in Ireland. He’s become an enthusiastic ambassador for the homegrown festival that hosts the St. Mary’s contest and part of the regular crowd that travels from across the region and across the nation to enjoy comradery, competition and good food.
“It’s a family-oriented fair atmosphere, with something for everybody, young and old,” Hastings said. “And oysters, any way you like them. You’ll find it there.”
The 50th National Oyster Festival takes place this year Oct. 15–16, at the county fairgrounds in Leonardtown, MD. The annual gathering is one of the oldest in the Chesapeake region, created and still sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park.
“It was a one day event back in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said David Taylor, Rotary member and former festival administrator. “At the first festival, they claimed they had 1,000 people, and it was $2 for all you could eat.”
The festival now draws approximately 15,000 people, with more than 75 artists and nonprofit organizations showcasing displays and items for sale, including oysters prepared in just about any way possible. There many activities for children, including small carnival rides, and a nonstop variety of live music on two stages.
“It’s grown from a little festival that attracted a lot of locals to a prominent regional if not national festival,” Taylor said.
Visitors and participants have come from as far as Washington state, Oregon, Colorado, Louisiana and Florida. In the ’90s, an RV group from Buffalo stopped by on their way south every year.
“There is a loyalty to it,” Taylor said. “It’s grown in size but the purpose remains the same — to celebrate the opening of oyster season in the Chesapeake Bay.”
Oysters, of course, are the main event. The festival serves up approximately 150,000 oysters each year, and the shells are used to help regenerate oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
Raw and cooked oysters abound, although seafood and other Southern Maryland specialties are on the menu too. You can purchase oysters from vendors or sample top-notch recipes during cooking contests and demonstrations. Fried oysters served by the St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association are always popular. In the Tasting Room, which was introduced in 2015, you can sample the difference between the various farm-raised and wild-caught oysters that are available in St. Mary’s County. You can also pair the samples with a craft beer or local wine.
The festival is also home to the National Oyster Cook-Off, which began in 1980. Hundreds of recipes are submitted every year, but only nine are selected to compete. Professional chefs judge the results, and the crowd selects a “People’s Choice.” Submitted recipes are compiled in an annual cookbook, and this year’s festival will include a commemorative collection of grand champion recipes from each year of the cook-off.
The shucking contest includes divisions for men and women. Contestants come from across the country, and the two winners face off to become the U.S. Oyster Shucking Champion. Louisiana shuckers have won five times.
There’s an amateur round for those with lesser skills, and all ages get in on the action.
In 2015, the U.S. champion was Duke Landry, who shucked his 24 oysters in 2 minutes and 16.76 seconds.
But it’s not just about speed. Presentation counts. The judges consider how cleanly the oysters are shucked, with penalties for chipped shells, dirt left in the oyster or cut oysters.
“Shuckers are a unique breed,” Taylor said. “There’s real comradery among them. It’s like a reunion weekend for them, and the chance to win the U.S. crown means a lot to them. We have contestants who have been coming 30 years or so, and win, lose or draw, they have a great time.”
Along with a cash prize, the U.S. champion receives a trip to represent the United States in the “Olympics” of oyster shucking — the annual international contest in Galway, Ireland. Cornelius Mackall, a native of Calvert County, MD, was the first to make the trip in 1976 and brought home the world title. William “Chopper” Young of Wellfleet, MA, also won the world title in 2008.
While food and fun has been a mainstay during the 49 festivals to date, changes in the oyster industry have brought changes to the festival. The biggest challenge has been a decline in the Chesapeake oyster harvest. “In the early days, oysters were plentiful and we never ran into an issue getting them,” Taylor said.
By the mid-1980s, though, disease, water quality problems and harvest pressure began taking a toll. Festival organizers had to ramp up their publicity efforts to let the public know that the festival was still taking place and oysters were available. Now, festival planners buy Chesapeake oysters, but they also draw on Delaware, North Carolina and Louisiana.
The St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association works closely with festival organizers to provide as many Chesapeake oysters as possible. “We’ve had years when we’ve had to scramble,” Taylor said. “Sometimes we’d go through so many oysters on Saturday, we’d send out a call to local watermen to help get more for Sunday.”
And Chesapeake oysters take priority. “We focus on getting Chesapeake Bay oysters,” Taylor said, “and that’s the only thing we’ll serve on the raw bar or use for the shucking contest.”
The background of the shucking contestants has changed, too.
“Back in the day, there were shucking houses all over and that’s where the contestants came from,” Taylor said. But as the industry declined, the shucking houses closed. Now the contest usually features people who work at raw bars for restaurants and caterers. Some are used to shucking two to three bushels in a shift.
George Hastings said there’s been a recent resurgence in oysters, in part because of aquaculture. Raw bars are on the upswing, too. “A few short years ago, shucking felt like a dying art form, but not anymore,” Hastings said. “We sometimes can’t find enough people to do the job.”
But you’ll find the best of them in St. Mary’s County later this fall.
Fall oyster festivals are just ahead
The 50th annual National Oyster Festival takes place Oct. 15–16 at the St. Mary’s County fairgrounds in Leonardtown, MD. Admission is $7; children younger than 12 years old are free; food is pay-as-you-go. For details, visit usoysterfest.com or call 301-863-5015.
Information about places to stay and more to do in St. Mary’s County is available at visitstmarysmd.com.
In Virginia, the Urbanna Oyster Festival takes place Nov. 4–5, 2016. This lively festival, now in its 59th year, offers food, a parade, an antique car show, shucking contest and more. There is no entry fee, but Friday parking is $10 and Saturday parking is $20. Food and other activites are pay-as-you-go. For details, visit urbannaoysterfestival.com.
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