Go All in For Oysters

Deborah Pratt, champion oyster shucker. – photo by Virginia Tourism Corporation

by Karen Soule

Dig in at the 60th Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival: November 3–4, 2017

When Deborah Pratt of Jamaica, Va., steps on stage at the Urbanna Oyster Festival this November, she’s aiming to do more than defend her past titles as the Commonwealth’s Oyster Shucking Champion. She’s hoping to teach and inspire young people to learn more about these local delicacies and to celebrate the return of oysters to the Rappahannock River. 

“Shucking oysters really opened up the whole world to me,” this Middlesex County native says. She’s represented the U.S. at the International Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland, attended festivals in Canada and promoted oysters through Virginia’s Tourism Corporation. And when she dons her gloves, expertly holds her oyster knife and prepares to open two dozen of the Bay’s finest bivalves at the festival’s shucking contest, she’s more interested in making friends among her fellow shuckers than she is in having the fastest time. 

Making friends, is just one of many good reasons to boat, drive, walk or crawl to this year’s 60th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival, November 3–4. “It’s like a family reunion for residents and out-of-towners alike,” says Pam Simon, the festival’s spokeswoman. More than 75,000 people are expected at this year’s event. They will visit the 125 food and craft booths and slurp raw oysters from the half-shell, consume them roasted or bite into the best oyster fritter sandwiches in the world— or at least that’s what folks say about the Middlesex Lions Club’s oyster fritters.

“We have people lined up in the street to get our oyster fritters,” says Lions Club Vice President Mike Corkill. “We sell about $40,000 worth of them at our booth in just two days, and all the proceeds go for student scholarships and to support local nonprofit organizations.” Corkill notes that it takes 25 volunteers each day to serve up these heavenly battered and deep-fried delights. “I like to tell everyone that our fritters are fat-free,” he relates. “But we all know the truth!”

If your oyster preferences lean to a lower-calorie style, stop by the Rappahannock Oyster Company’s stall. There you can sample different raw varieties ranging from the sweet and buttery Rappahannock to their Olde Salts variety, harvested from the salty waters off Chincoteague Island. The company hopes to have a new offering this year named the Rochambeau after the French general who helped defeat the British in the Battle of Yorktown where these shellfish are being cultivated.

Kevin McEligot, the company’s operations manager says, “We wanted an oyster a bit saltier, and the water there helps them thrive. They’re fantastic!”

 Frying fritters with the Middlesex Lions Club (top); and an oyster-festival goer showing off her bivalve-themed jewelry. -  photo by karen soule photos
Frying fritters with the Middlesex Lions Club (top); and an oyster-festival goer showing off her bivalve-themed jewelry. – photo by karen soule photos

To wash them down, the festival will showcase local vintners Byrd Cellars, Lake Anna Winery, Mattaponi Winery, Prince Michel Vineyard and Williamsburg Winery. And if you lean to more sudsy beverages, craft breweries such as Devil’s Backbone and Williamsburg Alewerks will have representatives on hand to help you pair their libations with the appropriate oysters. Along with the tasting tents, there are numerous other stands featuring less-adult beverages and food that will please the taste buds of even the youngest festival-goers.

Catering to those youngsters is the primary focus of the event’s Education Day, Thursday, November 2. Open only to local students, the day celebrates the past, present and future of the Chesapeake Bay. Students will go aboard the traditional vessels at the Town Marina, discover more about our Native American and Colonial heritage, experience the watermen’s traditions and learn about ongoing efforts to improve and preserve the Bay. Many of those students will, no doubt, encourage their parents to return on the weekend.

When the 60th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival has completed its run, the remaining shells, and any funds generated, will be used to help develop more oyster habitat in Urbanna Creek and surrounding waters, to thrive and grow for future festivals.

—Karen Soule