It doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, or which side you fall on the eternal “sauce or no sauce” debate, anyone can have a great time at an oyster festival. Last weekend, I took a train down to Baltimore to partake in the 9th Annual Ryleigh’s Oysterfest. Here’s a quick recap of my shuckin’ good time.

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Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill is a popular destination for Baltimorean’s most dedicated oyster fans. For the last eight years, Ryleigh’s has celebrated the opening of the Chesapeake Bays’ prime oystering season by hosting an annual fundraising weekend for Oyster Recovery. New and seasoned Chesapeake Bay & Eastern Shore oyster farmers were out in numbers, shucking for an energetic crowd that seemed to have an endless appetite for these delicious morsels. A few “far away” oysters also made an appearance, but the main focus was definitely on Maryland and Virginia varieties.

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A few details that caught my eye at the festival:

Oyster Recovery Partnership’s fantastic “Follow That Shell” recycling flow chart. It was a simple, eye-catching way to help any layman get a better idea of exactly what goes into the process.

Shucking on the flat shell was pervasive across the oyster vendors. I had also encountered at the Old Ebbitt Oyster Riot last year. This style of presentation makes the oyster seem like a completely different animal. No longer demure and nestled in its home, the oyster is completely exposed, ready to be “slurped up” from the top.

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Raw and cooked oysters were available to be enjoyed. I sampled the chargrilled oysters topped with seasoned tomatoes and cheese, as well as a hearty oyster stew. Excellent tastes all around!

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After I had my fill of food and drink, I was put to work as one of the shucking competition judges.Ryleigh’s Oysterfest also plays host to the annual Baltimore Oyster Shucking Championship, where the winner goes on to compete at the National Championship in nearby St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival. The winner at St. Mary’s will then have the opportunity to compete in the World Shucking Championship at Galway next year.

A league of shellfish aficionados including self-proclaimed seafood marketing czar Steve Vilnit, Baltimore Magazine’s Lydia Woolever, Oyster Recovery Executive Director Stephen Abel and I were each assigned one criteria to judge. My task: to impose penalty points for every oyster that contained mud, grit, broken shell. I was either very right or very wrong to take on this job since since grit & broken shell happened to be one of my biggest pet peeves. (I did not show any mercy.)

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Competitors were tasked to shuck and present one dozen oysters as quickly and cleanly as possible. Hands had to be raised at the beginning and the the end. Oyster mascot Shelly assisted in demonstrating this rule.

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Can you tell what’s wrong with this plate?

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In between the two heats, Patrick Hudson from True Chesapeake and Steve Vilnit found a couple pea crabs in one of the plates. Mmm yum.

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After each judge submitted their scores for every plate, the winners were announced. Father and son duo, George Hastings and George Hastings Jr. placed second and first, respectively. I am now convinced that excellent shucking skills can run in the family. Dylan Salmon of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar (and also a former Ryleigh’s shucker) placed third. Congrats to everyone!

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Until next time, keep slurping Baltimore! Feeling FOMO (Fear of Missing Oysters)? Check out my October Oyster Events post. Many thanks to Scotti, Brian, and the Ryleigh’s Oyster team for your wonderful hospitality.