Old-timers tell you the Maryland oyster isn't what it used to be. Attacked by diseases that bother the oyster but not the oyster eater, the mollusk has lately been living a troubled life in the Chesapeake Bay. But down in Southern Maryland, where the Potomac and Patuxent rivers flow into the bay, the oyster is being celebrated this weekend like the royalty it once was.
Ed Forsman, the outgoing president of the Rotary Club of Lexington Park-St. Mary's, will don a crown and a flowing red robe and be hailed by all as King Oyster. He is expected to reign over a crowd of 20,000 people attending the annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival and the affiliated National Oyster Cook-Off.
At the festival site, St. Mary's County Fairgrounds in Leonardtown, oysters are served a number of ways. They are fried, floated in steaming soups, steamed in their shells and served piping hot with drawn butter. At past festivals, I have seen stands selling oyster-themed sweat shirts and an entrepreneur hawking jars of raw oysters. But for me the prize oysters are the ones opened by the guys and gals competing in the oyster-shucking contest.
Like gunslingers traveling to Dodge City to see who has the fastest draw, shuckers from around the nation show up in Leonardtown vying for the title of the nation's fastest oyster opener.
On Saturday, countless oysters are pried opened -- usually in eight to 10 seconds per oyster -- as the ranks of competitors are narrowed to the top male and female finishers. On Sunday afternoon, the two finalists compete, shell-to-shell, for the title of the nation's top shucker.
During the festival's 28 years, the shucking title has bounced around America. A couple of years ago, Duke Landry of Baton Rouge, La., had to be retired from the competition because he'd won the contest so many times. Back in 1985, a husband and wife from Shelton, Wash., Diz and Viki Schimke, ended up competing against each other for the top prize. The husband won. But according to the wife, he beat her because he was left-handed, and oysters are easier to open for southpaws. The next year, Cathy Carlise from Shallotte, N.C. -- described as "just a little slip of a thing" -- beat all comers.
Some families from the Chesapeake Bay area have developed reputations for their prowess with an oyster knife. Year in and year out, for instance, there is a Copsey, of the Copsey clan of Mechanicsville, Md., in the thick of the oyster-shucking competition. And two sisters from around Urbanna, Va., Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon, have virtually turned the women's competition into sibling rivalry. Last year, when Clementine won the women's title, she beat the defending female champion, Deborah.
The overall winner last year was Scott Stiles from San Antonio, Texas. In addition to $300 in prize money, he got a free trip to an international shucking contest held in Galway, Ireland. The Americans have not fared very well in the Irish competition, which uses a different type of oyster. But traditionally they have such a good time at the festivities that they didn't give a hoot about losing.
While the oyster shuckers get the glory in Leonardtown, the audience gets the spoils. After the hastily opened oysters have been examined by judges who penalize contestants for any torn meat or pieces of shell, sheets of the plump raw oysters are passed to the crowd to snack on.
"Eating oysters down here is like breathing," says William G. Taylor, who has lived in St. Mary's County for 22 years. "When you are at home and are having a drink before dinner, you have an oyster."
Taylor, a chef with a deft touch with oysters, is especially busy on the festival weekend. On Friday night he cooks a gala private dinner that has more oyster dishes than Imelda Marcos has shoes. The dinner is one of the nine galas that Taylor puts on throughout the year at Sotterley Mansion, a historic Southern Maryland plantation.
On Saturday he serves as one of the judges in the National Oyster Cook-Off, held at the St. Mary's Middle School, across Route 5 from the fairgrounds. The oyster-cooking contest was started 15 years ago by the late Arthur "Buck" Briscoe, then head of the county's economic development program. Since then, Maryland's Seafood Marketing Program and the Rotary Club have joined the county in putting on the event.
In kitchens normally used by local middle school students, cooks from around the nation whip up oyster dishes for four contest ZTC categories: hors d'oeuvres, soups and stews, main dishes, and outdoor cookery and salads. Once the judging has been completed, the contestants walk over to the fairgrounds where, in between heats of the oyster-shucking contest, cooking prizes are presented. Last year Marie Rizzio, of Traverse City, Mich., won the top cooking prize, $1,000, for her oyster cakes with caper-cayenne mayonnaise.
In the past I have been one of the cooking-contest judges. This year I wasn't able to make it to Leonardtown. But I have asked King Oyster to put a few of his plumper subjects on ice for me.