When the air turns crisp and cool and the trees start turning into the dazzling shades of reds and yellows, there’s no better spot than St. Mary’s County, Md. for oyster lovers.
Whether its slurped raw on the half shell or fried, baked, braised or roasted, tinged with the aroma of fresh herbs and seared garlic, the Chesapeake oyster is king. More than 150,000 bivalves (and 70 kegs of beer) will be consumed by the approximately 15,000 folks that will turn up at St. Mary’s Fairgrounds to welcome oyster season at the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship on October 21-22.
Now celebrating its 51st year, visitors and participants come from as far as Washington state, Oregon, Colorado, Louisiana and Florida. The empty oyster shells from the competition are used to help regenerate oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
A couple of generations ago there were shucking houses all over the Chesapeake Bay region which provided a wealth of contestants. But as the industry declined, the shucking houses closed. Now the contest usually features people who work at raw bars for restaurants and caterers where some are used to shucking two to three bushels in a shift.
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, how cleanly the oysters are shucked, with penalties for chipped shells, dirt left in the oyster or cut oysters. 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 2016 U. S. National Oyster Shucking Champion, Honor Allen, won with a composite score of 2:58.96. Allen, 22, is from Panama City, Fla and holds a number of shucking titles prior to his national win. He won the championship with a knife given to him by the 2007 U. S. National Shucking Champion, William Chopper Young.
However, the biggest challenge for the festival has been a decline in the Chesapeake oyster harvest. In the early days, oysters were so plentiful that supply was never an issue. However, by the mid-1980s, disease, water quality problems and over-harvesting led to a severe drop in oyster populations. Scientists are working to manage harvests, establish sanctuaries, overcome the effects of disease and restore reefs with hatchery-raised seed in an effort to bring back the bivalve.
The festival planners buy Chesapeake or eastern oysters, but they also draw on Delaware, North Carolina and Louisiana. Still, Chesapeake Bay oysters are the only variety that will be served on the raw bar or used for the shucking contest.
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. Tammy David of Chesapeake Beach, Md. captured the 2016 Oyster Cook-Off Grand Prize for her winning soups and stews entry, “Coconut Curry Oyster Soup.” All dishes are prepared in a timed competitions. The top winners in each category are then judged for the best overall recipe and the winner receives $1,000 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. Returning cook-off winners and creative chefs are on hand to demonstrate and prepare their favorite oyster dishes after the contest.
The taste of an oyster depends on where it’s grown. Not unlike wine, geography matters. It’s the salinity and the type of plankton or food that’s in the water, and the chemistry of the water that affects the flavor. Festival goers can purchase a “flight” of oysters and sample the different tastes of oysters locally caught from different Chesapeake Bay tributaries. The festival showcases oyster farmers from different rivers. It’s an opportunity to learn all about aquaculture.
And, did you know that oyster farmers never have to feed their livestock? These bivalves consume algae and plankton. They’re in effect tiny water filters, and so good at it that these oysters can turn murky water clear. Incredibly, a single oyster can filter 20-50 gallons of water a day.
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 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 oyster shuckers, most of the top competitors learned their craft from earlier generations and have been shucking oysters all their lives. In this region they are distinguished by their signature shucking style known as “Chesapeake stabbering.”
And, 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.
There has been a recent resurgence in oysters, in part because of aquaculture of oyster farms. Raw bars are thriving, too. A couple of decades ago, shucking felt like a dying art form. But that’s all changed. If you head to St. Mary’s County, you’ll find the best of the best later this fall.