AW, SHUCKS! OYSTER FESTIVALS ARE SOMETHING TO REALLY SHUCK AND JIVE ABOUT
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words [of Scripture] that were declared unto them. (Nehemiah 8:12)
“Aw, shucks!” Some people actually celebrate shucks – shucking oysters, to be specific. Oyster shucking competitions are a time-honored tradition in the coastal areas surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. [For youtube video, illustrating an oyster-shucking competition, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9u9JYA3yVs . To learn how to shuck oysters, see “Oyster 101 with Rickey Lee, the World’s Fastest Shucker”, posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qQsjyjEG2g .]
As the quote from Nehemiah (above) shows, there is a time to celebrate with food and drink — and enjoying the privilege of having God’s Word is certainly a proper occasion for celebrating. And, if it’s available, the feasting aspect of such celebration could include the delectable mollusk we call OYSTERS!
Of course, shucking oysters (without hurting yourself) is an art that requires tactile skill, but the real fun, for most oyster enthusiasts, is in the eating, as Lara Lutz reported in September of AD2016.
The first time that George Hastings entered the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Contest in St. Mary’s County [Maryland], he didn’t win. But his bright blue eyes were set on the prize. I knew right then I’d be clearing my schedule every third weekend in October and going to St. Mary’s County”, Hastings said. “I told myself, ‘I’m coming here till I win this thing.’”
That was in 1994, and Hastings has lined up at the shucking table every year since. He won twice, first in 1999 and again in 2003, and represented the United States at the world “oyster opening” championship in Ireland. He’s become an enthusiastic ambassador for the homegrown festival that hosts the St. Mary’s contest and part of the regular crowd that travels from across the region and across the nation to enjoy comradery, competition and good food.
“It’s a family-oriented fair atmosphere, with something for everybody, young and old”, Hastings said. “And oysters, any way you like them – you’ll find them there.”
Quoting from Lara Lutz, “Keep on Shuckin’ – St. Mary’s Oyster Festival Draws Fans from Across United States”, Chesapeake Bay Journal, 26(6), September 2016 issue (BAY JOURNEYS insert), page 4.
Thankfully, the rising industry (and art) of oyster aquaculture has been replenishing the supply of oysters for America’s East Coast, especially the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica), so that oyster festivals need not worry that oyster-craving festival visitors will go away hungry and disappointed. (Ibid.)The wild oyster populations have been seriously challenged, however, for generations now, by a vicious combination of over-harvesting (especially by dredging) and habitat pollution (especially due to untreated sewer wastes that poison estuarial waters used by filter-feeders such as oysters).
Regarding the sometimes extreme controversies involving oyster-harvesting watermen, see John R. Wennerstein’s THE OYSTER WARS OF CHESAPEAKE BAY (Washington, DC: Eastern Branch Press, 2007), which chronicles the “surf wars” (which have sometimes involved bullets and even howitzers!) over Chesapeake Bay oysterbeds.
Regarding the tragic demise of wild oysters that succumbed to inundating sewerage waste pollutants (including industrial/chemical wastes) from New York City, see Mark Kurlansky’s THE BIG OYSTER: HISTORY ON THE HALF SHELL (New York, NY: Random House, 2006).
The efforts and politics of oyster aquaculture, striving to protect the Chesapeake bay’s “white gold” populations and industry, are described in Kate Livie’s CHESAPEAKE OYSTERS: THE BAY’S FOUNDATION AND FUTURE (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015).
Back to the National Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where they don’t intend to run out of oysters – at least not anytime soon. Lara Lutz summarizes the oyster-shucking, oyster-snacking celebrations as follows: “The National Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County [Maryland] is an annual celebration of the Chesapeake [Bay] oyster harvest.” (Ibid.) But how did this annual tradition originate?
The 50th National Oyster Festival takes place this year [i.e., in AD2016, when Lara Lutz wrote the article being here quoted] Oct. 15-16, at the county fairground in Leonardtown [Maryland]. The annual gathering is one of the oldest [festivals] in the Chesapeake region, created and still sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park.
It was a one day event back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s [i.e., AD1960s and AD1970s]”, said David Taylor, Rotary member and former festival administrator. “At the first festival, they claimed they had 1,000 people, and it was $2 for all you can eat[!].” The festival now draws approximately 15,000 people, with more than 75 artists and nonprofit organizations showcasing displays and items for sale, including oyster prepared in just about any way possible.
There are activities for children, including small carnival rides, and a nonstop variety of live music on two stages. “It’s grown from a little festival that attracted a lot of locals to a prominent regional if not national festival”, Taylor said. Visitors and participants have come from as far as Washington state, Oregon, Colorado, Louisiana and Florida. In the ‘90s [i.e., AD1990s], an RV group from Buffalo [New York] stopped by on their way south every year.” “There’s a loyalty to it”, Taylor said. “It’s grown in size but the purpose remains the same – to celebrate the opening of oyster season in the Chesapeake Bay.”
Oysters, of course, are the main event. The festival serves up approximately 150,000 oysters each year, and the shells are used to regenerate oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. Raw and cooked oysters abound, although seafood and other Southern Maryland specialties are on the menu too. You can purchase oysters from vendors or sample top-notch recipes during cooking contests and demonstrations. Fried oysters served by the St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association are always popular. In the Tasting Room, which was introduced in 2015, you can sample the difference between the various farm-raised [i.e., aquaculture-produced] and wild-caught oysters that are available in St. Mary’s County. . . .
The festival is also home to the National Oyster Cook-Off, which began in 1980. Hundreds of recipes are submitted every year, but only nine are selected to compete. Professional chefs judge the results, and the crowd selects a “People’s Choice”. Submitted recipes are compiled in an annual cookbook, and this year’s festival will include a commemorative collection of grand champion recipes from each year of the cook-off.
The shucking contest includes divisions for men and women. Contestants come from across the country, and the two winners [i.e., the victorious man and the victorious woman] face off to [see who will] become the U.S. Oyster Shucking Champion. Louisiana shuckers have won five times. There’s an amateur round for those with lesser skills, and all ages get in on the action. [A lot more details about the festival follow.]
Quoting from Lara Lutz, “Keep on Shuckin’ – St. Mary’s Oyster Festival Draws Fans from Across United States”, Chesapeake Bay Journal, 26(6), September 2016 issue (BAY JOURNEYS insert), pages 4 & 12.
Ironically, the U.S. Oyster Festival in Southern Maryland is not the oldest oyster festival in the Chesapeake Bay region – because the Urbanna Oyster Festival, in Virginia, is 9 years older than the Southern Maryland oyster festival in Leonardtown. (Ibid.)
For current information on the Urbanna Oyster Festival , check out http://www.urbannaoysterfestival.com/index.php — a very informative website. (In AD2017 the 60th Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, November 3rd & 4th.)
For similar information on the one in Leonardtown, Maryland, see https://www.visitstmarysmd.com/events/st-marys-county-oyster-festival and http://usoysterfest.com/ . The latter website summarizes the shucking contest as follows:
All oyster shucking contestants are timed. The speed of shucking 24 oysters is a key component of the contest. Presentation of the shucked oysters, however, is also very important. Seconds are deducted from the shucking time for improperly shucked oysters or those showing less than perfect presentation. Thus, the winners need to be fast, but also must pay attention to the appearance of the oysters they shuck. After judging is complete each contestant shares his or her oysters with the spectators in the stands.
(In AD2017 this event is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, October 21st and 22nd.)
Because the Urbanna Oyster Festival (in Urbanna, Virginia) is held in early November, about a half-month after the one in Leonardtown (Maryland), there is no calendar competition between the two oyster festivals. If you missed both of them – well, shucks! Maybe you can attend one in the near future. Music at these events is a mix – folk guitar, reggae, whatever – so you can shuck and jive. ><> JJSJ
PHOTO CREDITS: oyster shucking, oysters cooking, & St. Mary’s County fairgrounds map (with event labels) adapted from https://www.visitstmarysmd.com/events/st-marys-county-oyster-festival .