When the air turns crisp and cool there is no a better spot for oyster lovers than St. Mary’s County.
Fried, stewed, scalded and "nude", oysters are tinged with the aroma of fresh herbs and roasted garlic. More than 150,000 oysters (and 70 kegs of beer) are consumed by more than 20,000 folks that turn up October 16-17 to welcome oyster season.
St. Mary’s County is largely bordered by water: the Patuxent River to the northeast), the Chesapeake Bay to the east, the Potomac River to the southwest, and the Wicomico River to the west. Celebrating its 44th year, the southern Maryland festival was launched as a fundraiser for the Lexington Park Rotary Club, but it has evolved into an annual tradition that is now home to the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship. The event has become one of the Eastern Seaboard’s leading folk festivals attracting visitors from across the country.
The oyster shucking rivals are battling a stopwatch as they thrash through two dozen oysters. 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 finished each contestant shares his or her oysters with the spectators in the stands.
The winner earns the right to represent the United States in the International Oyster Shucking Competition held in Galway, Ireland each year.
The festival’s National Cook-off pulls in over 350 recipes from 30 states. Held on Saturday, the Cook-off spotlights nine finalists from across the country who compete for prizes in three fresh-oyster cooking categories – main dish, hors d’oeuvres, and soups and stews. The top winners in each category are then judged for the best overall recipe and the winner receives $1,000.00 and a commemorative silver platter.
Festival goers have the opportunity to watch each contestant prepare their dish and “taste test” each contestant’s recipe. Attendees are also given the opportunity to vote on their own “people’s choice” award among the recipes prepared. Additionally, returning cook-off winners and creative chefs are on hand to demonstrate and prepare their favorite oyster dishes after the contest.
A great source of nutrients, containing protein, lipids, and carbohydrates, four or five medium size oysters supply the recommended daily allowance of iron, copper, iodine, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese and phosphorus.
For St. Mary’s County, the festival is another slice of history. For over 350 years, from the time when 140 hardy adventurers first stepped ashore, the county has been welcoming travelers. Leonardtown was founded when Maryland officials moved the county seat from St. Mary's City up to the undeveloped land located right off of Breton Bay. 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 an 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.
Tied up on the south side of Church Point is a reproduction of the golden brown-hulled Maryland “Dove.” It is a full-scale operating replica of the 57-foot square-rigged vessel that carried supplies across the Atlantic during a 1634 expedition. Constructed in the mid-1970s using many 17th-century methods and tools, the Dove serves as an educational exhibit and traveling historical reminder of Maryland's settlement.
St. George’s Island waterman Capt. Jack Russell built the Dee of St. Mary’s in 1979, one of the last working skipjacks in the world, to ply his trade. A dozen years ago Russell launched skipjack tours that offer school field trips and tours as he shares the watermen’s lore. His guests can learn to tie a bowline, tong an oyster, or even get a turn at the wheel as they learn all about the Bay. For tours aboard the Dee of St. Mary’s and visits to the Lab-- housed in an old oyster packing plant— call ahead.
The Brome-Howard Inn is a relaxing retreat set on 30 secluded acres along the St. Mary's River. The Inn is the perfect example of a mid-nineteenth century gentleman's plantation house and was built by Dr. Brome for his new bride in 1840. It was the cornerstone of a 3,000-acre tobacco and wheat plantation and was the center of life in St. Mary's City.
In an effort to reconstruct the original St. Mary’s settlement, the house was moved to its present location in 1994. A country inn and restaurant owned and operated by Michael and Lisa Kelley, the couple has maintained its original charm and grace with a traditional southern hospitality that would make Dr. Brome proud.
As for the oyster shuckers, most of the top competitors learned their craft from earlier generations and have been shucking oysters all their lives. They are distinguished by their signature shucking style known as “Chesapeake stabbering.”
It’s just not the pros who 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, country and pop music.
With the oyster harvest ever-dwindling 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.