45th Annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival

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45th Annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival

Leonardtown MD - 10/12/2011

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It’s that time of year once again.  When, for oyster lovers, the St. Mary’s County fairgrounds near Leonardtown transform to nirvana. Oysters 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, just about every way imaginable and then some. They’re here for the eating and enjoying at the 45th Annual St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival. This year's festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday, October 15th and 16th at the Fairgrounds on Route 5 just south of Leonardtown.

The idea of the oyster festival was first hatched back in 1967 when the Lexington Park Rotary Club was looking for a project in which the entire membership could involve itself for the good of all concerned.  In addition to the member’s involvement, the festival had three main objectives:

  • Promote a weekend of fun, food and fellowship in a rural atmosphere
  • Promote the bounties of life in this land of pleasant living, especially St. Mary’s County oysters, as an attraction to visitors
  • Provide funds to benefit the charities of the various participating service and civic organizations

A little under a thousand visitors relished this first endeavor. Through the years, attendance steadily grew, as did the festival.  In 1974, the festival went from a one-day event to a two-day event and was moved from the first weekend in October to the third weekend in October where it remains today. Today, the St. Mary’s Oyster Festival is one of the Eastern Seaboard’s leading folk festivals. Good food, quality entertainment and two nationally recognized contests, the National Oyster Cook-off and the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Contest, are the elements that attract visitors from across the country each year.

“Oysters any way you like 'em’” have always been the trademark of the festival, and this year is no different.  Visitors can stroll around the festival midway and sample the delicious bivalves served in chowder and stew, raw, fried, grilled, scalded, and on a sandwich. If you can’t get enough, oysters will be available “to go” in pints and quarts. Seafood lovers can feast on a delicious range of specialties like scallops wrapped in bacon, fried clams, crab cakes, shrimp, fried fish, crab soups and seafood and clam chowders. For those who might be hesitant about all of that seafood, other dishes will be available.  Polish and Italian sausage, hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, barbecue, chicken tenders and sweet potato fries are just a few of the non-seafood options. Of course, no event in Southern Maryland is complete without our world famous stuffed ham sandwiches, so be sure to leave some room!  Volunteers from numerous local non-profit organizations make the event run smoothly by cooking and serving most of the food, contributing to the funds available to charitable causes.

On Saturday, nine finalists from across the country will compete to determine the nation’s premier oyster chef in the National Oyster Cook-off.  Their recipes were chosen from nearly 150 entries submitted by contestants from coast to coast. The finalists will cook their fresh oyster specialty dishes for a panel of six expert judges.  The judges are: John Shields, Owner of Gertrude's Restaurant, cookbook author, and MPT cooking show star, Vicki Milburn, editor for Southern Maryland- This is Living Magazine, and Betty Wreen Day, food editor for Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal. The contestants will compete not only for the coveted Grand Champion Award, but for People’s Choice and Presentation awards as well.

The three fresh oyster categories that the finalists will compete in are: Hors D'oeuvres, Soups and Stews, and Main Dishes.  Past winning recipes include such titles as “Oyster Pita Sandwiches with Lemon Tahini Sauce,” “Oyster Barley Soup”, and “Oyster en Brochette with Remoulade Sauce,” just to name a few.  

Oyster Cook-off cookbooks featuring all the recipes submitted for this year’s competition are available for purchase.  First, second, and third place cash prizes will be awarded in each category.  The recipe deemed best overall by the panel of judges takes home the Grand Champion prize totaling $1,000 cash and a silver platter.  Visitors can watch the preparation and later sample the contestants' dishes.  In addition, visitors will have an opportunity to vote for their favorite dish to determine “The People’s Choice Award.” The Cook-off begins on Saturday at 10:00 a.m. in Building 16 on the festival grounds.

In conjunction with the National Oyster Cook-off Contest, oyster-cooking demonstrations will be held at the festival. Sunday’s cooking demonstrations will highlight several talented and creative chefs as they prepare their favorite oyster dishes.  Demonstrations will be held throughout the day starting at 12:30, 1:45, and at 3:00. There will be literature available with recipe ingredients and instructions, and visitors will be able to sample the dishes prepared.  All cooking demonstrations will be held in Building 16 on the festival grounds.

The U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship Contest, held both days, features the fastest men and women shuckers from around the country as well as the fastest local tidewater shuckers competing for cash prizes totaling $1,800 and a trip to Galway, Ireland to  represent the United States to compete for the World Oyster Opening Champion title.  Contestants are given 24 oysters, and like most competitions, speed is but one crucial element; the U.S. Oyster Shucking Championships require aesthetic presentation as well, as time penalties are added for broken shells, cut oysters and blood.

Current U.S. National Oyster Shucking Champ, Mike Martin, from Florida, will be here to defend his crown. Martin recently returned from the International Competition in Ireland where he placed 10th in the International Championship. Shucking champions will begin their competition on Saturday with several heats held for both men and women contestants.  Winners of the first round will compete on Sunday, with the women’s final beginning at 3 p.m., and the men's final at 3:30 p.m.  Then at 4 p.m., the women's champion and the men's champion will square off head-to-head for the U.S. championship crown and the right to represent the United States in the International Oyster Shucking Competition.

A family-oriented festival, the St. Mary's event is also noted for its quality entertainment.  Lots of exciting attractions are planned for this year's festival.  Parents, bring the kids along because carnival games and rides are featured from M&M Amusements and Reggie Rice Super Magic Man will be performing his special brand of magic in the Auditorium at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Rice has been named DC’s Comedy Magician of the Year twice and is always a favorite with children of all ages.  

Live entertainment will be provided at three locations on the festival grounds including the Pavilion Building, the Auditorium, and a stage next to the oyster-shucking stand.  Saturday's schedule at the Pavilion includes contemporary jazz and swing music performed by the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Combo and Jazz Band at 11:30 a.m., followed by the folk sound of Ben Connelly at 12:45.  The GEEZERS will be performing at 2 p.m. and then at 3:15 p.m. visitors can enjoy the music of The Eastport Oyster Boys, from Annapolis a group whose performances and emotionally crafted songs capture audiences of all ages.  
The Saturday entertainment schedule in the auditorium features Daughters of Veda Mid-Eastern Dance Troop at 12:30 p.m., and the Southern Mix Chorus performing at 1:30 p.m.

On Saturday afternoon, at the Oyster Shucking Stand Sound Stage, Gary Rue and the Blue Crabs featuring Blues, Big Band sounds and popular music will perform from 3 to 5 p.m.

These popular and entertaining shows present a music style that will appeal to fans of bluegrass, folk, jazz and country music alike.

Also on Saturday, at the Shucking Stage at 2:30 p.m. will be the awards ceremony for the National Oyster Cook-off.  Following the awards ceremony several amateur oyster-shucking contests will take place at the Oyster Shucking Stand followed by preliminary Professional Men's and Women's Shucking heats from 3:30 until 5 p.m.

Returning musical headliners at the Festival for Sunday begins with Jay Armsworthy and Eastern Tradition, a four-piece bluegrass band performing an extended set at 12:00 noon followed by the Celtic sounds of Danny Flynn and Pond Scum, playing at 1:30.  At 3 p.m., local favorite The Sam Grow Band  takes the Pavilion stage.   

On Sunday, at the Oyster Shucking Stand, the final rounds of the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championships will be held.  The women's final will begin at 3:00, the men's final at 3:30, and the overall final at 4:00.   Gary Rue and the Blue Crabs will perform an encore at the Oyster Shucking Stand starting at 3 p.m.  At 1:30 p.m. in the auditorium, the Tri-County Chapter Barbershop Harmony Society will perform in the barbershop-style of four-part vocal harmony.

Don’t worry football fans, you won’t be forgotten! There will be a large television set up at the fairgrounds so visitors can watch the game while they are enjoying the festivities. We’ve even added a “Sports Bar” area that has a view of the Sucking Stands in the event it is a close game!

There's always something for the curious shoppers in the crowd as well.  Two buildings will be dedicated to displaying and selling local arts and crafts, in conjunction with the Craft Guild of St. Mary’s County, the St. Mary's County Art Association and Unique Boutique.  Always a crowd pleaser, exhibitors are restricted to local arts and crafts to preserve the local flavor.

Entertaining and educational exhibits sponsored by county, state, and private community organizations participate in the festival. There is also a building on the grounds filled with exhibits including old farm and watermen's implements. These exhibits showcase and celebrate a time and place when men and women made their living working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  

In addition, this year the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, DC and the Department of Veteran Affairs Vet Center in Annapolis, MD is sponsoring an outreach/information event for recently returned combat Veterans. This event will take place on both Saturday and Sunday at the festival and all Veterans will be granted complementary admission to the Festival as well.  All Veterans of all eras are invited to come join in for a day of family fun and camaraderie.

Local organizations that participate in the festival include: the Rotary Club of Lexington Park, Charlotte Hall Rotary Club, Leonardtown Rotary Club, Seventh District Optimists, Mechanicsville Optimists, St. Marie's Optimists, Third District Optimist Club, Jolly Gents, Kiwanis Club of Charlotte Hall, the St. Mary’s County Watermen's Association, Job's Daughters, and the Woman's Club of St. Mary's.  

Commercial vendors include Wayne Copsey Seafood, McKay’s Food and Drug, Bell’s of St. Mary’s, Smokey Joe’s Barbecue, Sunshine Catering, and Brusters Ice Cream.

The gates are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.  Admission is $5 for adults, no charge for children 12 and under and there is plenty of free parking. The festival events continue, rain or shine, since adequate buildings and tents are provided on the grounds.  Proceeds from the Oyster Festival go to local charities.

The Festival has come a long way since 1967 when the stalwart bunch worked night and day to stage the first festival.  The Rotary creed of “Service Above Self” has been at work in its most graphic state, not only by Rotarians but also by all those who participate.

For more information on the festival and a full schedule of events contact the Oyster Festival office at 301-863-5015, or write to P.O. Box 766, California, MD 20619, or visit the festival website at www.usoysterfest.comwww.facebook.com/nationaloysterfest  Twitter @USOysterFest

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