Wednesday, September 15, 2010

44th Annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival

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 44th Annual St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival. This year's festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday, October 16th and 17th at the County 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. Today the St. Mary’s Oyster Festival has become 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 Championship 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. If you can’t get enough, oysters will be available ‘to go’ in pints and quarts. Seafood lovers can also 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 that might be shy about all that seafood, other dishes will be available. 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. The three fresh oyster categories that the finalists will compete in are: Hors D'oeuvres, Soups and Stews, and Main Dishes. Their recipes were chosen from nearly 150 entries submitted by contestants from coast to coast. Visitors can watch the preparation and later sample the contestants' dishes.

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 and a trip to Galway, Ireland to compete for the International Oyster Opening title. 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 champion and the men's champion competing 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. Live entertainment will be provided at three locations on the festival grounds. There's something for the curious shoppers in the crowd as well. Two buildings will be dedicated to displaying and selling local arts and crafts, 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 (DCVAMC) is sponsoring an outreach/information event for recently returned combat Veterans on Saturday and Sunday, at the festival. All Veterans of all eras are invited to come join in for a day of family fun and camaraderie.

The gates are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and from 11:00 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 web site at
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