Shuck and Awe

For the fastest oyster-shuckers in the country, every millisecond counts.

For the fastest oyster-shuckers in the country, every millisecond counts.

The excitement in the stands is electric. The echo of chanting fans fills the air, the mantra, “Shuck! Shuck! Shuck!” rippling through the crowd. But suddenly time seems to stand still. A hush falls over the crowd. In just a few moments, finalists will compete for the title of U.S. National Oyster Shucking Champion. The countdown begins, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1— SHUCK!” and the crowd goes wild.

Once a year, thousands of people flock to St. Mary’s County for the U.S. National Oyster Festival and U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship Contest. What started as an appeal to the county commissioners in the 1960s for a small-town festival to celebrate the oyster has become a national spectacle.

And on a particularly balmy weekend in late October, I’m about to find out why. 

As early as nine on Saturday morning, an hour before the festival starts, the county fairgrounds begin to fill with oyster lovers old and new. Punny oyster t-shirts are abundant and 51st Annual National Oyster Festival hats for sale greet festival-goers upon arrival. 

Booths and barns line the festival streets, showcasing artisan goods, handmade crafts, and, of course, oysters. Oysters “any way you like them,” on the half shell, steamed, fried, or, even as a shooter.

For some, though, getting a taste of each National Oyster Cook-Off dish is the biggest treat of the day. At first, there are no more than a dozen people in the cook-off barn, but within the hour, the room is packed and the taste-testing line winds around the perimeter and out the door. 

You’ve got to be quick as the shuckers if you even want a taste. One girl knows this better than an amateur like me, and she rushes down the aisle before tasting begins, practically shouting, “If I’m not first in line, I’m going to freak!” 

As someone who had never eaten an oyster, I’m soon impressed with my refined palate. My favorite, the Miso-Mayo Oyster Gratin by Hidemi Walsh wins the hors d’ oeuvres category and the overall grand prize too. Miso, mayonnaise, and mushrooms go surprisingly well with the taste of the sea. 

Wandering through the festival, I bump into the Oyster King and Queen, wielding oyster-shell-adorned staffs and sporting royal capes and crowns. (The current president of the Rotary Club of Lexington Park serves as the Royal Oyster and chairman of the festival.) And there’s the monkey man with his ukulele and pet monkey on his shoulder. There’s wine and beer to taste and Chesapeake seafood prepared every kind of way. Along comes a miniature railroad shuttle to take everyone around to the arts, crafts, wine, beer, entertainment, and food areas. Continuous live local music blares from an open-sided pavilion as the great cook-off and non-stop shucking continues in the auditorium. 

When I ask the king how the rotary club ended up with the national festival and U.S. shucking championship, he isn’t too sure. “We trademarked the name?” he supposes.

This is the primary fund-raiser for the Rotary Club of Lexington Park, which distributes dictionaries to St. Mary’s County elementary; provides scholarships to college-bound high school seniors; delivers direct support to local non-profits for programs like the local food pantries; and sponsors a house for the annual Christmas in April project. The Club also participates in Rotary International relief efforts to support communities in developing countries. 

The shucking contest begins on Saturday afternoon and runs through Sunday in heats to determine winners in men’s, women’s, amateur and overall categories in flights of competitors who come from as far away as Washington State and Florida where they have most-likely won regional championships. The 2017 competition featured thirty-two contestants, the largest field yet.

The national champion will go on to represent the United States in the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland. 

In each heat, pairs of timers are assigned to each one of six shuckers, and every millisecond counts. But, speed is not the only factor. It takes skill and finesse to ensure a whole, undamaged, ready-to-serve oyster on the half shell. “Shucking oysters is something of an art,” senior contest judge Larry Crowder explains. He was 12 when he started shucking oysters. When his father saw the first oysters his son ever shucked, he was not impressed, “You feed that to the cat, ’cause no one will eat them. But, when I was about 13, [My dad] decided I was good enough to put them in a jar.”

Contestants shuck 24 oysters as quickly and neatly as possible. Then the oysters go to an examination table where judges grade the result. Standardized time penalties are assessed for such things as dirty oysters, meat not properly severed from the shell, and even improper placement of the half-shell and meat for presentation.

Preliminary rounds whittle the field down to six women and six men. In Sunday’s grand finale, the winning woman and man face off to determine the national champ. 

For most of these competitors, shucking is a way of life. One sports a tattoo of an oyster and oyster knife on his upper arm. Another walks off the stage with her hands held out to a friend. Her palms are blistered, and it’s clear that she wears the damage proudly. 

The returning 2016 champion, Honor Allen, is from Panama City, and he opens his oysters at the hinge. It appears that most Maryland and Virginia competitors go in at the lip of the shell. In this year’s finals, Allen successfully defends his championship with a time of 2 minutes, 12.16 seconds, only 3.08 seconds over the national record. He and the women’s bracket winner, Cathy Milliken, finish their final heat with only nine penalty seconds added, practically unheard of in the contest’s history. 

By the end of the weekend I’m exhausted, but far from oystered out. My stomach is full and I’m happy. The adrenaline from the final shucking heat is still flowing, and I begin to think about beautiful St. Mary’s County in October 2018 and Miso-Mayo Oyster Gratin and cold, fresh, local oysters on the half-shell.