LEONARDTOWN — Leonardtown---I ate them cooked with champagne and topped with caviar. I ate them wrapped in pasta and flavored with saffron. I ate them in a stew flavored with whiskey. And I ate them as a pizza topping.
They were Maryland oysters, and these were just four of the ways I ate them as a judge in the 11th annual National Oyster Cook-Off last weekend in Leonardtown. Every year on the third weekend of October, cooks whose recipes have been selected from entries sent to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Office of Seafood Marketing gather in the kitchens of the county middle schools to vie for the title of best oyster cook in the nation.
Meanwhile across the road, at the St. Mary's County fairgrounds, oyster shuckers from around the nation competed over the weekend for the title of fastest shucker in the land.
This year the title of top oyster cook went to Robert Fedorko, chef of the Westin Hotel in Hilton Head, S.C. His oysters broiled in champagne with sturgeon caviar in beurre blanc sauce won both the hors d'oeuvres category of the competition and the $1,000 prize for best dish in show.
The fastest shucker was Roland Duke Landry of Baton Rouge, La., who, when all the calculating was done, opened 24 oysters in 2 minutes, 59 seconds, or one oyster about every 7 1/2 seconds.
Other winners in the food competition included Dorrie Mednick of Baltimore. Her pasta shells stuffed with oysters and bathed in a saffron cream sauce won first place in the main dish category.
N. Peter Seiler of Miami, Fla., fixed an oyster stew with corn and mushrooms and heavy cream, and an ounce of Jack Daniels whiskey. He called it Oysterstewed, and it won first place among soups and stews.
And the oyster pizza made by Robert F. Zella won first place in the outdoor cookery and salads section of the competition.
This was the first time I had ever eaten a pizza with oysters as a topping. It also had basil, red peppers and walnuts and cheese. And it was the first time I had ever eaten a pizza cooked on a barbecue grill.
That is what happens when you go to these food competitions -- you stretch, you grow, you expand. I guess that is why my jeans felt so tight at the end of the weekend.
Not only did I eat these four award-winning oyster dishes, I ate six dishes prepared by runners-up. They were smoked oysters with applesauce and horseradish by Mike Grambo of Alexandria, Va.; Oysters a la Naples by Timothy C. Wheatley, Herrington Harbor Restaurant, Friendship, Md.; fine oyster ragout on spinach mousse with Muscadet by Mark Mayers of the Ocean City, Md., Reflections Restaurant; oysters o'lay by Pat Labarre of Glen Burnie; tangy cheese and herb outdoor oysters by John Macon of Baltimore; and oyster won ton soup by Marty Hyson of Glen Burnie.
The night before the judging I ate seven other oyster dishes at a grand gala dinner at Sotterley mansion, prepared by William Taylor, a Hollywood, Md., caterer and fellow cook-off judge. Other judges were Dr. Fred Tidwell, owner of Bon Appetit restaurant in Seaford, Del., Anne MacKenzie, food editor of the Harford County Aegis, and Marian Burros, food writer for the New York Times.
Usually I pace myself at these pre-competition oyster dinners, saving myself for my favorite, Taylor's Louisiana-style oyster loaf sandwich. He used to serve it right around the seventh course. But this year, Taylor crossed me up, replacing the overstuffed sandwich with a salad of romaine lettuce and walnuts topped with oyster fritters. The walnut-oyster salad was very good. But I missed my loaf, and so Taylor fixed one just for me to take home.
And after eating oysters fixed 17 different ways I drove back to Baltimore. And that night for supper I ate the oyster loaf. The bread, the fried oysters, the pickles -- were terrific.
But I had my fill of oysters, until next week.
A 31-page booklet containing the oyster cook-off recipes can be ordered by writing: Oyster Cook-Off,P.O. Box 653, Department of Economic and Community Development, Leonardtown, Md. 20650. The cost is $3 per book. Here's Robert Fedorko's best-of-show recipe:
Oysters in Champagne
( with caviar beurre blanc
3 ounces champagne
6 turns of black pepper mill
Shuck oysters reserving the juice, and loosen from the shell. Pour the saved juice over the oysters and splash each with 1/2 ounce champagne. Give each oyster one turn of the pepper mill. Place oysters on a rack 6 to 8 inches from heat and broil for 60 seconds.
FOR CAVIAR BEURRE BLANC:
1/4 teaspoon shallot, chopped
2 ounces white wine
2 ounces heavy cream
2 ounces butter
pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon lemon
1 tablespoon sturgeon caviar
Place shallots and wine in small saute pan and heat over medium flame; reduce wine to almost dry. Add heavy cream and reduce by half. Remove from flame and slowly stir in butter. Season with pepper and lemon. Add caviar to sauce. Spoon over warm oysters and serve immediately.