Oysters Six Ways
story and photos by Sandra Olivetti Martin
At the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival there’s lots of love, lots of oysters and, perhaps, a ray of hope for everybody’s favorite bivalve
You can knock an oyster down, but you can’t call him out.
Even as Chesapeake’s native oyster is staggering at the nine count, his followers are chanting his name and fame.
Among 17,000 oyster lovers who thronged this year’s St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival, Linda Balach of Bowie enjoyed roasted native Bay oysters. The annual event sponsored for 38 years by county Rotarians raises more than $30,000 each year for charitable projects.
Thousands of oysters are shucked, steamed, roasted, fried, slurped and savored at the two-day event. Here too, reputations are won and champions crowned at the National Oyster Cookoff and the National Oyster Shucking Championship.
Maryland’s Bay, backbays and ocean waters used to teem with native Virginica oysters. No more. So hard have Bay oysters been hit that an all-time low was harvested last year: a mere 26,495 bushels.
“Very seldom do we shuck Bay oysters,” said championship contender Samuel Fisher, speaking of his day job in Crisfield, at Metompkin Bay Oyster Company, a rare surviving shucking house.
Now the future of Chesapeake Bay’s beleaguered bivalve may rest on Balach’s plate.
That roasted, garlic-enriched half dozen grew up at Circle-C Oyster Ranch, in St. Mary’s County, where Richard Pelz has trademarked a style of float-farming that lets oysters grow fat and fast before disease — the latest plague to ravage Chesapeake oysters — can wither them. All the while, they’re working their amazing filtering feats, cleaning the creeks and inlets in which they’re planted.
Over hot coals, Frank Taylor is roasting and popping open oysters as happily as if he’d won a grand prize. The prize on which he keeps his eye is a viable native oyster supporting a new oyster economy.
“We’re doing real well,” Taylor says. “We’re making a living off native Maryland oysters.”
||Linda Balach enjoying the bounty of the Oyster Festival, left.
Samuel Fisher and Robert Hastings, far left, shuck oysters in preparation for the championship.
Farmer-cook Frank Taylor shucks Circle C farm-raised native oysters, top left, before roasting them on the grill, above.
Oyster cook-off champion Tom Forman with Rotary King Oyster Patti Willenborg (photo by Noreen Eberly).