October has arrived on the Bay, and communities are ready to celebrate oyster season.
With three major festivals lined up this month, perhaps the most notable is the one that brings nationwide fame. The 55th annual U.S. Oyster Festival, held in St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland this weekend, draws the best shuckers and the best oyster cooks from across the country for an oyster skills showdown.
Reigning American oyster shucking champion Honor Allen hopes to earn his 4th national victory, going up against 28 other competitors from all over the country. For those new to the world of competitive oyster shucking, Allen provides a brief overview. Having competed since 2013, he explains that the shucking is a timed event in which each competitor is presented with 24 whole oysters to open. After their initial time is recorded, each oyster then gets analyzed by a team of judges who “add penalty seconds to your flat time for every impurity they find, like bits of shell left on the oyster meat, oyster still attached to the bottom shell, and so on. Whoever has the lowest final time wins.
Former national champion George Hastings, of Maryland, agrees, adding that presentation can be just as important as speed in the competitions. “Speed is only part of it. Presentation should be as perfect as what gets served in a fine dining establishment,” he explains. “I practice every time I shuck an oyster.” After judging, the overall winner is declared and the oysters get shared amongst the enthusiastic crowd of onlookers.
Both Allen and Hastings have earned champion status and gone on to defend their titles at the Galway, Ireland I nternational Oyster Opening Contest in past years. Neither shucker has plans to throw in the towel any time soon, and both will compete at the U.S. Oyster Festival this weekend. “I still compete because there is a family-like bond between the shuckers from around the country and we can be with the best in the trade to share means and methods and a few yarns,” Hastings says. “The festival is a great family friendly weekend in beautiful Southern Maryland with good food, good drink, and oysters any way you like them!”
Last year’s U.S. Oyster Festival shucking competition was virtual, but this year promises normal operations with the exception of mask requirements when in indoor spaces.
Also this weekend is the 24th Captain Avery Museum Oyster Festival, held on Saturday. Taking place at the Captain Avery Museum in Shady Side, the festival promises to be a family-friendly event. Museum director Deborah Gangloff says that attendees can expect to find “oysters, events for the kiddies, oysters, music, crafts, oysters, food from local restaurants, beer and coffee, oysters, and oysters.” Did she mention that there will be oysters? There will be, in all forms: fried, stewed, raw, and in shooters. After having to cancel last year’s festival, Gangloff is “thrilled to be back in form this year.” Their festival is the museum’s biggest fundraiser, helping to raise money for cultural events and programs to benefit the community. Captain Salem Avery, who owned the property in the 1860s, was himself an oysterman, earning his living harvesting on the Bay. The Oyster Festival hearkens back to his livelihood and celebrates the rich traditions surrounding the humble bivalve. “Oysters are amazing creatures,” Gangloff says, “not the least because of their filtering abilities. The original populations before settlement could filter the Bay in a day. Our current population can do it in a year.”
Still can’t get enough of oysters? Later this month, half shell enthusiasts can head across the Bay to St. Michaels for OysterFest on October 30. At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, attendees can expect to “sip, slurp, and savor” as they check out all on offer. One highlight each year is the oyster stew cook off, in which local chefs and restaurants are judged in a blind taste test. The first 500 to the contest get to sample the savory stews and help crown a People’s Choice winner. Unique to OysterFest are the opportunities to take scenic river cruises, sign up for an oyster slurping competition, and even try your hand at traditional oyster tonging.
Of course, we have only to wait until November for the storied Urbanna Oyster Festival on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. It’s the second oldest oyster festival in the world, with an incredible run approaching 64 years. It boats the Viriginia state oyster shucking championship, and, of course, an Oyster Queen and Little Miss Spat will be crowned.
-Molly Weeks Crumbley