Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Oysterfest

Author Hector Bolitho once wrote, "Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods.  The stay in bed all day and night.  They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them." The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum brought these words to life on August 27, 2018 at its annual OysterFest

It was a very rainy and windy day. The gray pallor of the clouds that moved overhead.  However, it did not tamper down the enthusiasm of thousands of people from all around Maryland and beyond who came to the small town of St. Michaels, Maryland to celebrate, and more importantly, eat oysters.   Amongst the thousands were myself, by beautiful Angel, our two little kiddos and my Angel's parents.   

As one entered the OysterFest, he or she could see one of the major events at the festival: the Oyster Stew Competition.  There were six competitors: (1) Sunflowers & Greens of Easton, MD (which won the competition last year); (2) Milestone Catering of Easton, MD; (3) Bistro St. Michaels of St. Michaels, MD; (4) Theo's Steaks, Sides and Spirits of St. Michaels, MD; (5) Crab N Que of St. Michaels, MD; and (6) General Store of Royal Oak, MD. I got to be one of a few hundred who would judge the oyster stews.  The competition was blind (labelled A through F); however, so judges did not know which stew was being made by which competitor. 

Here is the thing about oyster stew, at least from my experience: there are generally two types or styles.  The first style is more like a cream colored soup, with a thinner consistency that gets its off-white color (tinged by the fat used as part of the soup's base) from the use of half and half. The other style is more like a chowder, with a whiter color and thicker consistency with heavy cream. Regardless of the type, an oyster stew should have minced vegetables (celery, shallots), potatoes and, of course, oysters (either whole, which I prefer, or chopped).    

Both types of oyster stew were on display at this competition.  To be sure, all six of the contestants produced some very tasty oyster stew.  When it came to my judging of the stews, I needed something, either in terms of texture or taste, that it the stew apart from its competitors.  Right out of the gate, the Contestant A set itself apart, with a lighter oyster stew that had a very smoky taste.  That flavor is most likely due to the use of smoked bacon as the base of the stew.  As someone who loves a smoky taste (just check out the Savage Boleks BBQ posts on this site), the stew got my attention.  Admittedly, the smoky taste may be off-putting for someone who does not like barbecued or smoked meats, but I liked it.  Contestant D also had a smoky flavor, which was more subdued.  The taming of the smoky taste is most likely because, unlike Contestant A's lighter stew, Contestant D's stew had more of a light chowder consistency.  The use of heavy cream can tamp down the smokiness of the bacon.  In the end, it came down to Contestant A and D in my mind, with Contestant A winning my vote.  (As of the date of this post, I don't know who actually won the contest, but I will update the post when I find out.)

UPDATE: The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum announced the winner of the oyster stew competition: Bistro St. Michaels.  It was Contestant F.  Contestant D -- Sunflowers & Greens -- won second place and Contestant A -- The General Store -- won third place.

The other contest was the oyster slurping contest.  After having eaten one and one-half dozen oysters, I had the chance to fill out the second dozen by trying to be the fastest person to slurp six oysters.  I was part of Round 3, along with my beautiful Angel and a third person named Jack.  To make a long story short, I lost the contest, coming in last. I won't post any excuses.  If I have any other career ahead of me, it will not be as a competitive food eater.  That was made clear after about the twenty or thirty seconds of the competition.  

The biggest event at the Oysterfest was the re-lauching of the Edna E. Lockwood, the last existing nine-log bugeye.  John B. Harrison built the Edna in 1887 -- the seventh of the eighteen bugeyes built by Harrison.  The purpose of the Edna, as it was it all bugeyes, was to dredge oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.  With its shallow draft, the bugeye could reach parts of the Bay that were not as accessible to schooners and pungies because of their deeper draft.  The bugeye's lower bulwark, as well as its less complex rigs, made it easier to engage in dredging with less crewmembers.   While a typical bugeye could be expected to be in service for about 20 years, the Edna continued in service until 1967. It outlasted not only the other seventeen bugeye built by John B. Harrison, but also the many skipjacks that were built long after the last bugeye.

The Edna had been gifted to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum with the expectation that it would be restored and used to educate the public about a true Chesapeake tradition.  The latest restoration began in 2016, with volunteers working to restore the log hull. That work continued until it was completed earlier this year, and the vessel was moved to the marine launch for the OysterFest.  

This was the first launching of a vessel that I have witnessed.  There was the traditional opening remarks, along with the thanks to all of those individuals who helped to restore the Edna.  (The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum contains its own shop where the work was performed.) This was followed by the traditional breaking of a champagne bottle -- or, in this case, three champagne bottles -- on the bow of the vessel.  After the initial ceremonies, the vessel was slowly lowered into the water, a couple of feet at a time, until the vessel could float on its own.  At that point, the Edna was immediately moored and the celebrations concluded. The Edna will eventually begin a tour of the Chesapeake Bay

Not only is the the first time that I witnessed the launching or relaunching of a vessel. This was also the first time we went to the OysterFest, or, for that matter, any oyster festival.  It was a lot of fun, even with the wind and rain.  To be sure, the weather probably depressed the turnout, which made it a little easier to navigate all of the attractions, vendors and events.  At this point, I have just realized that I did not take any pictures of any oysters from the festival.   

But, I did take some pictures after the OysterFest. We went to a local restaurant where I could sample some Maryland oysters.  This time, I remembered to take a picture so that I could remember the oysters that I tried.  I tried four different oysters.  Two are farmed: (a) Wild Ass Ponies, described as having "good salt content, briny"; and (b) Fisherman's Daughter, described as having "mild salt content, sweet finish.  The remaining two are wild: (c) Deal Island, described as "medium salt, smooth, mild brine"; and (d) Wild Divers, described as "medium salt, full-bodied, buttery."  

All of the descriptions were on the spot and demonstrated the range of Maryland oysters, from salty to smooth, briny to sweet.  The oysters are even better with a local brew, such as the St. Michael's Ale from Eastern Shore Brewing Company (it is photobombing the picture of the oysters).  A red ale with a good malty backbone, the beer was a great complement to the full range of oysters that I tried. 

A great festival, great oysters, great beer and, of course, great company.  This festival has inspired me to make my own oyster stew.  Stay tuned for that.  Until next time ...


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