When the autumn air turns clean and sharp there is no a better spot for oyster lovers than St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
Located on a spit of land that juts into the waters of the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, it is home to the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival (Oct. 16-17) that features the National Oyster Shucking Championship.
Contestants are celebrated for their fiercely competitive spirit. Spectators are wowed by speed demons that flash a knife blade, and with a slight bob-and-weave pry open a recalcitrant bivalve. The method of attack (where to insert the blade) is key. And like any red-blooded American competition there is a wealth of equipment-- knives, gloves, eyewear, water bottles, rags and even good luck charms.
Thrashing through 24 oysters apiece, oyster-shucking rivals are on a stopwatch. Seconds are deducted from the shucking time for ragged oysters or those showing less than pristine presentation. Presentation of the shucked oysters is as important as speed.
A panel of judges evaluates the shucked oysters for “restaurant condition” qualities. Seconds are added to a competitor’s time if the presentation doesn’t shine. After the judging is wrapped up each contestant shares the oysters with the ever-ready spectators in the stands.
The Oyster Festival was born in 1967 as a fundraiser for the local Rotary Club when a little under a thousand visitors attended the inaugural event. These days upwards of 20,000 folks turn up for the festival that unfolds at the fairgrounds in Leonardtown on Maryland’s western shore. Over 80% of the visitors are now from out of the area. More than 150,000 oysters (and 70 kegs of beer) are consumed.
On Saturday, nine finalists from across the country compete to determine the nation’s premier oyster chef in the National Oyster Cook-off. They will compete in three fresh oyster categories: hors d'oeuvres, soups and stews, and main dishes. Their recipes were chosen from nearly 150 entries submitted by contestants from coast to coast. The winner will travel to Galway, Ireland to compete in the International Oyster Cook-off in September 2011.
The St. Mary’s peninsula-- south of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.-- is surrounded by natural habitats of oysters, blue crabs, sea turtles, great blue herons, snowy egrets, and all manner of aquatic wildlife.
Ever since 140 hardy adventurers first stepped ashore roughly 350 years ago, the county has been welcoming travelers. Farm products were shipped regularly through the port. During the Civil War, the pro-Confederate town was a hotbed of spying, blockade running, and smuggling of people, goods, and messages across the river to Virginia. Steamboats carried goods and passengers all over the Chesapeake Bay area well into the 20th century, and a floating theater docked each year which provided entertainment.
Today, Maryland’s oldest county blends a vibrant economy with its rural past, giving the area a unique character. The State House is the oldest structure dating back to 1676. Other points of interest include the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation, a woodland Indian hamlet and Smith’s Ordinary, a tavern where you can dine in 17th century style.
As for the National Oyster Cook-off, the 2010 edition is offering cash prizes of $300, $200 and $150 awarded to the top three finalists in each of the three categories. The Grand Prize Winner will be selected from the first place winners of each category and will receive an additional $1,000 and a silver tray.
The morning of the competition, the shuckers gather at the far end of the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds in “the practice barn,” where the St. Mary’s Optimist Club sells raw shucked oysters with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce. It’s an opportunity for competitors to flex their hands and arms while opening local oysters. You also witness a special camaraderie as contenders swap tales and compare shucking methods and knives.
Most of the top competitors learned their craft from earlier generations at local seafood bars while in their early teens. Shucking oysters has become a life-long passion. They grasp the knife with a bare right hand while the left hand holds an oyster, protected by two black rubber gloves. A seriously sharp knife is key. So is a lot of practice.
The rounded front of the oyster is the bill. The opposite edge is the hinge. The round side is placed down on a board and the oyster is stabbed in the bill, slipping the blade between the two shells. Next the muscle is severed from the bottom shell, and is flipped over discarding the top shell. It all transpires in the blink of an eye.
Contestants are distinguished by signature shucking styles. If you open an oyster at the bill, you’re a stabber. Less prevalent is opening it on the side, then known you’re as a hacker. St. Mary’s County is “Stabbing Country.”
Not only the pros get to compete. On Saturday an amateur oyster-shucking contest takes place at the Oyster Shucking Stand followed by the preliminary Men's and Women's Shucking heats. Over on the Oyster Shucking Stand Sound Stage, live musicians perform big band and popular music.
With the declining oyster harvest in the Bay the festival also helps to tout oyster awareness and what needs to happen to keep this way of life alive and kicking.