For an oyster lover, the event was a trip to the Holy Land. Oysters on the half shell, oyster stew, oysters skewered, scalded, fried — oyster shooters lined up in little cups. Oyster rafts for propagating your own backyard oyster garden, oyster crafts, oyster festival sweatshirts selling as briskly as the breeze from the Chesapeake Bay. The reigning King Oyster, last year’s Rotary president, official greeter, dressed in red cape and crown, with an oyster knife around his neck, chatting and posing with some of this year’s 20,000-plus attendees.
The U.S. National Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, Md., at the fairgrounds near Leonardtown, is a slice of Americana. The venue is not unlike the Grange fairgrounds, but smaller, more intimate. Sponsored by the Rotary Club of St. Mary’s, the event has been celebrated for 42 years, and marks the beginning of the serious oyster season.
Historically, oysters were not eaten in months that don’t contain the letter “R,” that is, during the summer months when they spawn, but refrigeration has rendered that 15th century advice obsolete. Like other harbingers, oysters signal autumn and are at their succulent peak in the fall and winter.
In addition to dozens of food booths staffed by service organizations in the area, the festival also hosts two competitions: The national oyster shucking championship contest and the national oyster cook off. Both offer cash prizes, but clearly the bigger motivation is bragging rights and, with the shucking competition, the chance to represent the U.S. at the international oyster shucking competition in Ireland. Last year’s winner, William “Chopper” Young, of Wellfleet, Mass., took the title of 2008 World “Oyster Opening” Winner last month at the contest in Galway, the first American to ever win the international title in 32 years.
This year’s cook off featured 12 contestants chosen from 350 entries in three categories — main dish, appetizer and soup and stew. The main dish winner, Michaela Rosenthal, of Indio, Calif., competed for the fourth year and entered each category, winning honors for her Oyster Pita Sandwiches with Lemon Tahini Sauce. The grand prize winner, Brendan Cahill, is a local chef who owns the Old Field Inn located in nearby Prince Frederick and who wowed the crowd with a Cajun twist on the classic Angels on Horseback.
Marylanders showed support of their oyster industry at the festival, slurping up the bivalves and washing them down with Guinness served from a refrigerated 18 wheeler that rolled in and parked on the edge of the fairgrounds. 170 bushels, each bushel containing about 200 oysters, were opened by the Rotarians and other volunteers, a small army of helpers, all donating their time to showcase their local delicacy. At a backyard barbecue at the end of the day held along the Patuxent River, local resident Alan Shick grilled two bushels of oysters for friends, several of them volunteers at the festival. Weren’t they tired of oysters? About as tired as we get of sweet corn in season. Never.