St. Mary's County Oyster Festival Approaches: Julia Copley talks to David Taylor about the festival, depleted oyster supplies and, of course, the best way to eat 'em

The St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival is coming! For thirty-eight consecutive years, the residents of St. Mary’s County have celebrated the beginning of fall with oysters--fried, raw, and in a seafood chowder to die for. This year the festival will be held October 15th-16th at the county fairgrounds.

David Taylor, the administrator of the Festival since 1992, oversees all aspects of the festival. “It’s quite an undertaking,” said Taylor, who makes contact with the shuckers, finds them accommodations; arranges the cook-off, entertainment, and vendors; oversees Festival public relations; and interfaces with the fair committee (the owner of fairgrounds).

The Oyster Festival encompasses two championships: the oyster cook-off and the national shucking competition. The cook-off begins with 300 sent-in recipes, which are whittled down to nine competitors who create their dishes at the Festival. Fairgoers can watch and taste-test as judges determine a winner of each category: hors d’oeurves, soups/stews, and main dishes, and finally declare one contestant the overall grand champion. And of course there is the national oyster shucking competition, which incorporates winners of state competitions. The winner here is the national champion, and goes on to compete in Galway, Ireland, for the international title. In shucking, neatness counts, with not only the fastest but the cleanest job being awarded first prize. When the contestant finishes, his or her time is clocked, but having grit or blood adds time to the total. After it is judged, the contestant passes the platter around, and “the crowd quickly gobbles ‘em up,” Taylor chuckles.

David Taylor was born and raised in southern Maryland and this year will be his 14th Oyster Festival as Administrator. He maintains an office and phone for the oysterfest year-round, and the busy-ness picks up in the spring, growing until in the fall it’s pretty much full-time.

This year, a central concern is the availability of oysters. “It’s a real problem,” Taylor reflects. Locally, disease has “almost obliterated” the shellfish, and additionally, “[there’s] not a lot of people oystering.” Nowadays, lots of oysters from the Chester River and from Louisiana. Taylor estimates 80% of the country’s oysters come from Louisiana, which is now recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival generally goes through approximately 18,000 oysters, or 130 bushels. “That’s a lot of oysters consumed.”

The Oyster Festival puts all its profits into charity, such as scholarships and local energy assistance. All the participating clubs with booths at the Festival are also non-profit. The Festival is also one of the largest tourism events in St. Mary’s county, drawing day-trippers from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. as well as oyster devotees from all over the country. Taylor estimates 70% of the fairgoers are from outside St. Mary’s county.

Taylor’s personal recommendation is to try oysters scalded until the shell just opens, then dip them in some melted butter or cocktail sauce, add a saltine and–gulp!

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