2006 Oyster Festival Delivers Another National Shucking Champion - Southern Maryland Headline News

2006 Oyster Festival Delivers Another National Shucking Champion


Angela Leeth, a finalist in the 2006 National Oyster Shucking Contest, shares the spoils of her efforts with lucky members of the audience.
Angela Leeth, a finalist in the 2006 National Oyster Shucking Contest, shares the spoils of her efforts with lucky members of the audience.

By David Noss

LEONARDTOWN, Md. - At the end of the festivities, the announcer proclaimed that they had enjoyed over 20,000 visitors this weekend. David Taylor, the administrator for the event, noted that they stopped counting cars coming into the parking lot on Saturday when the number hit 2100. Held annually on the third weekend in October, the 2006, and thirty-ninth, St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival has come and gone.

Long before NAVAIR came to town, St. Mary’s County was known for its agriculture and seafood industry. The county is bounded by numerous bodies of water—the Patuxent River, the St. Mary’s River, and the Potomac River—all of which feed into the bountiful Chesapeake Bay. Every year, as their fathers have done before them, our watermen harvest fish, oysters, and crabs from local waterways.

The festival’s website explains that, “the festival showcases the opening of the oyster season on the Chesapeake and celebrates the tradition of men & women making their living working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.”

Aside from the opportunity visitors get to experience fresh fried oysters, steamed oysters on the half-shell, and grilled oysters straight from the barbie, the festival may be best known for the National Oyster Shucking Championship. The championship pits the fastest shuckers, from states across the country, against one another. There are separate competitions for men and women. The men’s champion and the women’s champion ultimately compete against one another for the title of National Oyster Shucking Champion. The National Champion then goes on to compete in the International Oyster Festival in Gallway, Ireland.

The shucking contest takes place on both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, several heats are run for both the men and women to determine who will compete in Sunday’s final competition.

Each competition begins with the selection of the twenty-four oysters that each contestant will be required to shuck. This year, the oysters were taken from the Chesapeake Bay and provided by an oyster house that is located on the eastern shore of Maryland in Garrisonville.

A member of the contest’s staff empties a box of oysters onto a table where he cleans them with a garden hose. Large clumps of barnacles are then removed from the exterior of the shell—in this case with the handle of a standard wire brush that one would find in a hardware store. The person handling the selection process then removes bad oysters from the bunch. Bad oysters are defined as those with a poor hinge, an oyster that is clumped together with one or more other oysters, or one that is filled with mud—determined by striking it on the table to listen for the proper sound.

Once the oysters have been cleaned and the bad ones filtered out, twenty-four of them are placed onto a tray for each contestant. The trays are carried to the stage and placed on the bench in preparation for the arrival of the contestants.

The contestants are called to the stage where they promptly inspect each oyster and organize it next to their tray. Contestants can call for a replacement of a bad oyster.

When all are ready, the judge instructs the contestants to place both hands in the air as the people in the crowd count down from five. A horn signifies the official start. Each contestant has behind him an official timekeeper who records the event down to a hundredth of a second.

As the contestants shuck away, the festival’s band—this year it was the Blue Crabs—plays a fast paced tune to set the mood. Family members and friends call out support for their man in the race.

As each contestant finishes his tray of oysters, he throws both hands up into the air to indicate to the timekeeper that has finished.

After the last contestant in the heat has finished, the trays are carried back behind the stage where the judges await. The contest is not just a matter of the fastest man winning. It is also a contest of skill. The quality of the shuck and the final presentation of the oyster weigh heavily in the determination of the ultimate winner. This event tests the skill of the contestant to prepare an oyster that will be presented on the half-shell to a restaurant’s customer who will ultimately eat it for his pleasure—appearances count!

The judges are not newcomers to the process. This year’s three judges are all life-long watermen who hail locally from St. George Island: Bob Feldman, Larry Crowder, and Harry Heusman. Crowder proudly notes that both his father and grandfather before him were watermen. In fact, Crowder is also a fifth-generation St. Mary’s Countian.

The men take their work very seriously. Each contestant’s oysters are carefully inspected according to six criteria. Failing to meet any of the criteria will cost the contestant by adding unwanted seconds to his overall time.  Feldman noted that in all his time judging, he has never seen a tray that was given a perfect score.

First and most importantly, each contestant must have delivered a full 24 shucked oysters to the judges. Failing to do so will add a hefty twenty seconds to their time for each missing oyster. Next, if the oyster is not on the shell—it has fallen off to the tray—two seconds will be added for each incident. Each broken shell will add one second. A dirty oyster will add three seconds—customers don’t want to taste dirt. An oyster that has accidentally been cut by the shucker’s knife will add three seconds and each oyster that has not been completely cut loose from the shell will also add three seconds.

After the judges have inspected all of the trays and recorded the infractions, the trays are sent back to the contestant. What happens next is often the most enjoyable part of the event for many of the spectators. The contestant carries his shucked oysters over to the waiting crowd where several lucky individuals will get to eat them. On Sunday alone, the crowd was able to enjoy fourteen trays of 24 oysters each.

The contestants who made it to the Men’s Final for 2006, including their placement and final time, are:

First Place, Scott O’Lear with 2:53.68
Second Place, George Hastings with 2:56.58
Third Place, Vernon Johnson with 2:58.28
Fourth Place, Scott Stiles with 3:02.55
Fifth Place, William “Chopper” Young with 3:03.94
Sixth Place, Robert Hastings with 3:26.87

O’Lear also took the Championship in 2002, 2001, and 2000. He hails from Florida. Stiles, who placed fourth this year, was the 2005 Champion. He hails from Texas.

The contestants who progressed to the Women’s Final for 2006, including their placement and final time, are:

First Place, Deborah Pratt with 3:20.48
Second Place, Lisa Bellamy with 3:23.62
Third Place, Clemintine Macon with 3:58.46
Fourth Place, Annie Bonifacio with 4:05.39
Fifth
Place, Allison Paine with 4:13.49
Sixth Place, Angela Leeth with 6:28.34

Pratt, who took first place, is no newcomer to the winner's circle. She was the national title holder for 2005, 1997, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1989, and 1987. She hails from Virginia. Bellamy, this year’s second place winner, also held the national title in 2003, 2000, and 1998. She hails from North Carolina.

When the Men and Women’s Champions squared off, O’Lear edged out Pratt with a time of 2:46 versus her 3:26.

The annual Oyster Festival is sponsored by the Lexington Park, St. Mary’s County, Rotary Club. The Rotary Club is an international affiliation of people dedicated to community service. According to the Rotary International website, “Rotary club members help promote peace and understanding throughout the world.”

Editor's Note: We will be adding photos and videos to our Multimedia Gallery throughout the week. Please check back. If you have never experienced a shucking contest, you can watch the entire 2003 Men's Final Heat ( WMV Format, 5.55MB ).

RELATED INFORMATION:

St. Mary's County Oyster Festival Website
http://usoysterfest.com/

International Oyster Festival, Gallway, Ireland
http://www.galwayoysterfest.com/

Lexington Park Rotary Club
http://www.rotarylp.org/

Rotary International
http://www.rotary.org/

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