The U.S. Oyster Festival: A Maryland Pearl
About an hour southeast of Washington D.C. lies a peninsula carved by the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers just as they run into the Chesapeake Bay. And every October, thousands flock here to participate in a festival celebrating the bounty harvested from these waters. Now in its 57th year, the U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County is one of the leading cultural heritage festivals along the entire Eastern Seaboard, bringing oyster-loving fanatics from all across the country up close with an iconic Chesapeake way of life that is still just as celebrated today as it has been for decades.
“I think the festival maintains its early cultural heritage feel,” festival administrator Karen E. Stone tells me. “You can’t avoid that when you are surrounded by people in long wet aprons, wearing gloves that reach their elbows and boots that reach their knees, all of whom are shucking oysters faster than you can imagine,” she said, then quickly adding, “and these are just the ones working the food stands, not the pros who are competing!”
Speaking of competing, the U.S. Oyster Festival is home and host to both the US National Oyster Shucking Competition and the U.S. National Oyster Cook-Off. These two faceoffs are the heart and soul of the two-day festival as shuckers and chefs compete for the ultimate bragging rights and a chance at a national title.
There’s a lot more at the Oyster Festival to experience and taste. From culinary delicacy to celebrated industry, here’s why the U.S. Oyster Festival is a “shucking” good time.
The Early Days
It all began in 1967 as a little project for the newly-formed Lexington Park Rotary Club. Their intention, as recorded, was to:
- 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.
- To provide funds to benefit the charities of the various participating service and civic organizations.
These objectives held focus and vision, which provided the blueprint destined to make the festival last through the years.
As the festival grew, it saw its heyday in the early 80s, when more than 30,000 people attended. The festival has hit a comfortable stride with about 10,000 attendees yearly, and Stone tells me this year is expected to be the same.
A few things have changed, however. In the festival’s early days, eating as many oysters as your appetite could handle only cost two bucks! As one advertisement promised, “Delicious bivalves served raw, steamed, scalded, fried with traditional trimmings and all you can eat!”
Beyond the Bivalves
When it comes to festival food, naturally, the oysters are the star, and you can order them every way they can be prepared: fried, stewed, scalded, or “nude.”
“All of the oysters sold at the festival came from the local waters and were either caught or farm-raised by the local watermen,” Stone says, “and believe me, there are a lot of oysters consumed over that weekend.”
But there’s a lot more going on than oysters. Today more than 12 civic and service groups put on the Oyster Festival. And with more than 34 lines of food tables, visitors should make room for other celebrated icons of Maryland’s culinary heritage, including crab cakes, crab soups, clam chowders, shrimp, and fish sandwiches. There are non-seafood items too— the regionally famous St. Mary’s County stuffed ham, barbecue, and more. In other words, there’s something for everyone.
Back to the oysters, “I think what surprises most people is what they learn in the tasting tent about the different tastes of oysters,” Stone says. It’s there where the festival offers the public “the opportunity to try a variety of farm-raised oysters so they can learn the difference between them, and why where they are grown matters,” she said.
The National Oyster Shucking Contest®
The shucking competition was originally between a few local watermen to see how fast one could shuck 12 oysters. Now, the event is a full-blown competition with more oysters, more significant stakes, better prizes, and a chance to win a spot at the international championship shucking contest in Ireland. There are two contents—a men’s and a women’s— and the respective winners of both are crowned the champions.
The quality of the shucking has also become part of the points awarded, as presentation along with speed is considered in the final score. But shuckers can’t be so fast that oysters fall off the plate; each missing oyster adds 20 seconds to the final time.
The National Oyster Cook-off®
The National Oyster Cook-off® came along in the 80s as a major addition to the festival after the food editor of Good Housekeeping Magazine, Lucy Wing, suggested it. Like the shucking contest, it too has gone on to become one of the feeder events into an international competition, the World Food Championships.
Held on the Saturday of the festival, the Cook-off features nine finalists who compete across three fresh-oyster cooking categories: hors d’oeuvres, soups and stews, and a main dish. Winners get a silver platter and $1,000, but it’s the festival goers who get the real prize since not only do they get to vote on a “people’s choice” ballot, and watch the contestants cook, but they will get to taste test each recipe, as well!
Service Above Self
Since the festival has Rotary Club roots, the “Service Above Self” Rotary creed is hardly forgotten. “People are always surprised by how much money is raised by the nonprofit agencies at the festival in support of the local community.” Stone said.
Charitable funds are raised from the festival to support causes and scholarships locally and abroad, including $20,000 for local nonprofits such as food drives, energy assistance, veteran support, dental services for the needy, disaster relief, and tree planting, to name just a few.
And like any good rural festival, there’s always a proud display of local crafts, foodstuffs, and handiwork for sale. Live music, too, is staged at two different locations throughout the area featuring an array of genres like Irish rock and Blue Grass.
Still a Vibrant Industry
True to its roots as a festival that reflects and honors the oyster catching and farming industries by the watermen of the Chesapeake, I’m assured the industry is still in good health today. But that’s “thanks to the work of so many organizations, many of whom participate in the Oyster Festival such as the Waterman’s Association who give 100% of the money they earn selling fried oysters at the festival back to the Bay.” Stone tells me.
To help interpret the ties to industry and ecology, educational exhibits sponsored by local and state government agencies as well as private community organizations are also on display at the festival. In particular, many exhibits celebrate the men and women who made—and still make—their living working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that feed into it, like those that shape St. Mary’s County.
“The festival is perhaps a bit more polished now,” Stone says, “but it is still a great down-home event that is fun for the whole family.”
One thing is sure, you can catch me there trying as many oysters as I can.
The Oyster Festival will be held October 21-22, 2023, in St. Mary’s County. Click here for more information and to order your tickets.
This article is sponsored by Rotary Club of Lexington Park.
Lead Photo: Visit St. Mary’s MD
About the Author
New to exploring Maryland, Joseph is always searching for that unexpected gem in unassuming places. From forgotten corners in big cities, to hidden historical markers in the middle of nowhere, he wants to find them all, and hit up every small town, museum, craft brewery and point of interest in between.