While the U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County will not be held as a major event this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual demonstrations and a smaller, more controlled event will take its place.
Rather than having large public gatherings at the county fairgrounds on the usual third weekend in October when the annual oyster cook-off and national shucking contest normally take place, an oyster cooking demonstration and mini-event is planned on Saturday, Oct. 17, at No Thyme to Cook in Solomons, along with a virtual oyster shucking demonstration.
Karen Stone, administrator of the U.S. Oyster Festival, told Southern Maryland News the free cooking demonstration will be hosted by Gwyn Novak, a former judge of the oyster cook-off and founder of No Thyme to Cook, a cooking school in Solomons. One submitted recipe will be chosen to recreate and will also be available to purchase throughout the day. A small number of in-person tickets are available at nothymetocook.com, while others may tune in virtually.
“There’s no winner this year,” Stone mentioned. “All of the recipes that were submitted will go into the cookbook.”
Along with the cooking demonstration, a small public event will be held Oct. 17 in the No Thyme to Cook parking lot which will require a ticket to attend. The event will include live music and several food trucks serving oyster dishes, ice cream and other dishes.
Novak said this week this would be her fourth year involved with the festival and judging the cook-off is her “favorite thing to do all year long.” Although she is disappointed the festival could not occur at its full capacity, she’s glad a smaller gathering is still possible this year.
To control crowd size during the pandemic, guests are encouraged to reserve their tickets for the mini-event in advance and select their entry window from one of three different 2½-hour time slots, available from 11 a.m to 1:30 p.m., 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Guests will be asked to follow social distancing protocols and masks will be required when not eating or drinking.
At 3 p.m., a virtual shucking event will take place, where participants will “all sign in from wherever they are in the world,” Stone said, and shuck 24 oysters as quickly as they can. Since the last national shucking champion, Honor Allen of Panama City, Fla., did not get to travel to Ireland because of the coronavirus, he will continue to stand as champion and competitors will only be competing for bragging rights. This event will be live streamed at https://usoysterfest.com/.
Stone said she was excited for the upcoming demonstrations but will miss the opportunity to see everyone, as the “shuckers are like family.” With social distancing guidelines in place, it’d be impossible to have the usual amount of people who attend, between 12,000 and 15,000, gather safely.
Many organizations will also miss the chance to use the annual festival as a fundraiser, as several do to collect funds, which in turn are given back to the community.
According to the U.S. Oyster Festival’s website, the Rotary Club of Lexington Park has sponsored the festival for 54 years and in 2019, the club offered scholarships to high school graduates, outfitted and launched a food bank in the county, refurbished a home for a single mother and supported former servicemembers recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, among other deeds, based upon community participation in the festival and other events.
Stone said she looks forward to next year’s festival, which hopefully can be bigger and better after this year.