Find competitions and oysters prepared every way imaginable at the festival
Renowned as one of the largest and oldest oyster festivals in the country, the U.S. Oyster Festival in Maryland’s St. Mary’s County stands tall as an outstanding culinary adventure for gourmets, gourmands, and gastronomes of all tastes and palates. For two days, Oct.15 and 16, the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds south of Leonardtown will host the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship, the National Oyster Cook-off, and a panoply of Southern Maryland’s best food, music, and entertainment.
Begun in 1967 and hosted by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park, the festival benefits the local community. More than 15,000 visitors will enjoy 75 local artists, displays, vendors, and a range of live musical acts and entertainment.
“There will be lots and lots of food,” promised Karen Stone, the festival’s administrator. “You can eat oysters any way possible and try other regional specialties such as St. Mary’s stuffed ham.”
The 50th anniversary of the festival also offers a prime opportunity to view the exciting shucking competitions and celebrate the county’s Chesapeake Bay heritage. You might even see Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan honoring the 50th year and helping to “crown” the champion shucker.
International shucking competition
The shucking contest is one tier of an international competition. Shuckers come from all over the country to compete for the title of U.S. Shucking Champion and an opportunity to represent the United States in the International Oyster Opening Competition in Galway, Ireland.
It’s not just about speed: Judges grade on presentation and how cleanly the oysters have been shucked, giving penalties for chipped shells, dirt left in the oyster, or cut oysters. The 2015 winner, Duke Landry, of Louisiana, shucked his 24 oysters in two minutes, 16.76 seconds. Landry’s 2015 win was his second championship in a row.
This year, shuckers from 10 states will vie for the crown, starting at noon Saturday when amateur shuckers take the stage in the first competition. The masters competition begins shortly after with a “friendly heat” of past national champions. The professional heats follow with a women’s and men’s competitions. The contest reaches its crescendo on Sunday with the final championship rounds.
Oyster cookin’, too
National Oyster Cook-off competitors also come from around the country — some as far away as Oregon — and compete in three categories: hors d’oeuvres, soups/stews, and main dishes.
The contest begins Saturday morning as contestants have to race against the clock to prepare their creations. Professional chefs serve as the judges, although members of the public get a chance to vote on their favorite dish as well. The awards ceremony is held Saturday afternoon. Winning entries are collected into a cookbook available at the festival.
Last year’s winner, Lynne Laino, of Downingtown, Pa., took the crown with her Oyster Tacos with Chipotle Crema.
The cook-off is just one opportunity festivalgoers will have to appreciate the bivalves’ culinary versatility. Throughout the festival, you can partake of an authentic taste of Southern Maryland in the U.S. Oyster Festival Tasting Room. Oysters will be “served up raw, scalded, grilled on the barbie, on bread, on the half shell, stewed, nude, cooked in savory sauces, in salads, even in desserts, and just about every way imaginable … .”
Purchase a “flight” of oysters and sample the different tastes of oysters locally caught from different Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
“We are showcasing oyster farmers from different rivers,” explained Stone. “This is an opportunity to learn all about aquaculture.”
Pair your oysters with Maryland-made craft beers — including an oyster stout — or with locally produced wines from the Port of Leonardtown Winery. Look for the special 50th celebration label.
The festival serves more than 150,000 oysters. In case you are wondering what happens to all of those empty oyster shells, local environmental science students collect them and return them to the bay to help regenerate oyster reefs.
Festival gates open from 10:00am–6:00pm on Saturday, with a special evening concert at 6:30pm. The festival ticket is also good for the concert. Sunday’s events start at 11:00am and run until to 6:00pm. Admission is $5 for adults and no charge for children 12 and younger; there is plenty of free parking. The festival events continue rain or shine.
For more information:
U.S. Oyster Festival: usoysterfest.com
St. Mary’s Co. Tourism: visitstmarys.com