Maryland may be for crabs, but it could easily be argued that Southern Maryland is also for oysters. Every October, St. Mary’s County lures tourists and local families to a nationally recognized festival honoring the bivalve mollusks.
It is a celebration that often comes down to happiness in just a bite. “I love sampling the food,” says Donna Sasscer, agriculture manager for St. Mary’s County and a Park Hall resident.
The weekend of Oct. 15 and 16 marks the 45th time that the Lexington Park Rotary Club will host the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival, which has grown from about a thousand attendees at its start to close to 20,000 last year, according to former festival administrator David Taylor. Visitors come from as far as New York and Texas.
In the arena of events that have nabbed clout among food lovers, competitive cooks and avid contest followers, the festival has transitioned from a tri-county happening to a national phenomenon. It has received attention from heavyweights such as Food Network, the “Today” show’s Willard Scott, The Washington Post, top food websites, and culinary and travel publications and ventures.
The oyster festival includes two national draws – the National Oyster Cook-Off and the National Oyster Shucking Contest. Vendors also dish up oysters in every form and fashion, along with other Southern Maryland culinary specialties. Add music, arts and crafts, kids’ activities, a nod to farming and watermen, exhibits, grassroots outreach, and crowds who like to watch the timed challenges, and it’s a good time.
“The shucking contest is probably my favorite and I have been lucky enough to do the timing of the heats and finals for the past few years,” says Bill Moody, a Rotarian also dubbed “King Oyster” for this year’s festivities. “That would closely be followed by the cooking contest as I am a big foodie. … We have a cookbook of all the dishes every year, and that part of the festival has grown by leaps and bounds.”
The cook-off involves vetting 100 to 200 original recipes yearly, with nine chefs invited to compete for a silver tray and grand prize of $1,000, plus $300 for first place in their division. Three expert judges sample dishes from three categories: hors d’oeuvres, soups and stews, and main dishes. There are also awards for “people’s choice” and best presentation.
In the shucking battle, women and men compete separately. Then, the women’s and men’s champions compete against one another for the “crown.” The contest is a qualifier to compete at the Galway International Oyster Opening Championship in Ireland, and the winner gets a fully paid trip there.
Taylor shares that the festival has been successful because it has kept its “country charm and flair” while morphing into a high-end food gathering with proceeds in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. That meets the Rotary Club’s goals of investing in the community and providing college scholarships for local students. Volunteers and sponsors help the club meet additional objectives of bringing the club and community together, and promoting the county’s rural and unique characteristics.
Through the Rotary’s robust relationship with the county tourism and economic and community development departments, as well as the state’s seafood marketing endeavors, the festival is promoted in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and nationally. And the buzz has grown.
“We’ve always reached out across the nation, including through the Internet,” says Noreen Eberly. Now working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ seafood marketing program, Eberly became involved with the cook-off in 1985 and helps screen submitted recipes.
Social media is playing a part, too. “We have updated the Facebook page for the event, and since late March, we have over 605 fan ‘likes’ to the page. The goal is 1000-plus before the end of the summer,” current festival administrator Beverly Brown said in June. “Additionally, we are following other festivals and oyster houses to extend our reach across the country, and to attract some new shuckers to the contest.”
Indeed, the contestants have become part of the soul of the event. There’s national oyster shucking pro Deborah Pratt from Jamaica, Va. Her sister, Clementine (Macon) Boyd, whom she now often competes against, taught her how to shuck. Pratt has won 10 times in the women’s division, travels the U.S. to compete in other shucking contests and demonstrations, holds a personal record of shucking 30 oysters in two minutes and 30 seconds, and works shucking oysters part time during the season. However, Pratt is an enigma: she doesn’t eat oysters and began bristling at the briny smell of oyster houses when she was young.
The festival also attracts competitors such as Oregonian celebrity chef Jack Campbell (aka “Chef Jacques”), and Loic Francois Jaffres, chef and owner of Café des Artistes in Leonardtown.
Campbell says that each year he waits for the call inviting him to compete. He won in 2006 for his sautéed oysters with a raspberry coulis in a cup made out of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Jaffres, who has roots in Marennes-Oléron, the oyster capital of the world, spends countless hours concocting, refining and practicing his annual oyster offerings, which have become increasingly elaborate during the fours years he has been invited to compete. For the 2011 cook-off, he’s planning a “Treasure of the Chesapeake Oysters Casino” recipe, with a presentation that will include a mirrored tray, the creation of a Maryland flag, a treasure chest made from sugar, and an island made out of oyster shells. ✦
The festival is held at the county fairgrounds in Leonardtown. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 15) and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 16). Admission is $5. Contact: email@example.com or www.usoysterfest.com.