By Glenda C. Booth
September 4, 2018
Oh, the lowly oyster. It’s a nondescript, hard, bumpy, grayish bivalve with two irregularly-shaped, hinged shells and a fleshy, gray blob of meat inside. To most people, it’s one of nature’s most unattractive, uncharismatic creatures and when it’s on a dinner plate, people love it or loathe it.
Every year, in early November, the little Virginia town of Urbanna, population 476, celebrates all that is oyster. Urbannans bake it, roast it, fry it, fritter it, boil it, bread it, can it and Rockefeller it. Some slap it on a sandwich or slide it into casseroles, grits or stews. Some gourmands top it with a bit of ham, herb butter, a lemon squirt, cocktail sauce or a shot of mysterious spirits.
But the real deal, for true oyster aficionados, is to eat oysters “naked” — the oyster, not you. You slurp it, slippery, wet and raw off the shell.
Oyster Festival-goers munch, chew, pig out and slurp for two days while meandering through an arts and craft supermarket of oyster jewelry, key rings, boxes, sculpture, lampshades, ornaments, home décor, you name it. On the waterfront, seasoned oystermen and women explain how to oyster. Captain J.C. Hudgins, of nearby Mathews County, says that from October to February he “oysters” and from April to August, he “crabpots.”
In these parts, the word ‘’oyster” is a noun, verb, gerund, a way of life and topic A in Urbanna, a port town that reveres and celebrates this hapless mollusk.
T-shirts proclaim, it’s “A Little Historic Town with an Oyster Problem.” At the festival, people get thoroughly “oystered.”
Locals extol their oysters’ virtues. Dick Goyne, an Urbanna car salesman, said, “We’ve got everything here. Oysters from the Rappahannock are the number one tasting in the world. They have a buttery, salty taste.” A festival official snipped, “West coast oysters taste like nothing.”
Alexandrian Susan Koscis is ready to go again to what she calls “an oyster extravaganza.” “You can have oysters your favorite way at the Urbanna Oyster Festival while learning about the resurgence of oyster communities in the Chesapeake,” she touts.
Promoters say that Urbanna “has more boats than folks.” It’s a port town on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, a stretch of land between the Rappahannock and the York Rivers, reaching to the Chesapeake Bay. Urbanna means the “City of Anne,” named in honor of England’s Queen Anne. It’s on the Virginia Oyster Trail, a tourism route launched in 2016 by then Governor Terry McAuliffe because of the Virginia oysters’ comeback after many years of commercial decline. McAuliffe also declared Virginia as the “Oyster Capital of the East Coast.”
The Urbanna area has produced world champion oyster shuckers. Every year, around 20 nimble-fingered, amateur and professional contestants lay out 24 oysters per person on a wooden table and split the shells at lightning speed, seeking points for the shortest time, the split, clean separation, no dirt or shell fragments, undamaged meat and presentation. Judges can penalize shuckers for a broken shell, grit, blood or poor presentation. Winners of the men’s and women’s contests have a “shuck off.” The winner becomes the state champion and moves on to compete in the National Oyster Shucking Contest every year in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, in October. Prizes: the top professional shucker wins $300; first place prize in each of the men’s and women’s divisions, $100; second, $50; and third, $25.
Two locals, sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Malcolm Boyd can whip through two dozen oysters in a little over two minutes. Whizbang-shucker Deborah can shuck an oyster in less than five seconds, two dozen in two minutes and she can fill a gallon bucket in 35 minutes or less. Deborah learned in 1975 on the porch of their home in Jamaica, Virginia, from Clementine, who learned from their mother.
Deborah has won many national titles and as the U.S. champion, competed in Galway, Ireland, in the world championship several times. Her accomplishments won her an invitation to march in Virginia Governor-elect, now Governor Ralph Northam’s January 2018 inaugural parade in Richmond.
Queens and Spats
Another festival staple is the crowning of the Oyster Queen and Little Miss Spat. In oyster world, a spat is not a dispute. It’s a baby oyster or larvae. Aspiring beauty queens and nervous little girls with equally nervous moms close by compete for crowns. Queen contestants are judged on their participating, community service projects and academic achievements and can win a college scholarship. Little Miss Spat entrants are judged separately on participating, attending an ice cream social and tea party and an interview. Generations of former oyster festival “royalty” return to Urbanna to cheer contestants.
This year, the schooner Lynx, a Nantucket tall ship, will be at the dock for tours. Every year, two parades wind through town featuring local bands with twirling majorettes, floats, scout troops, local businesses and Shriners in three-wheelers, go carts and mini-trucks. The 80-unit Firemen’s Parade showcases firefighting equipment and historic fire vehicles. At the James Mills Scottish Factor Store, a museum, exhibits explore oystering of the past and today. Other exhibits relate Urbanna as a colonial port from which tobacco hogsheads were loaded onto ships destined for Europe.
Those who tire of oyster eating can try chowder, clams, crabcakes, shrimp, corn dogs, burgers, turkey legs, funnel cakes, kettle corn and more tasty offerings. There are wine and oyster pairing events, a Virginia craft beer tasting, bake sales and an antique car show.
Oysters, Fightin’ Words
Virginia’s native people left behind many oyster middens and no doubt introduced early explorers to this natural bounty. One visitor to the Virginia colony sang the bivalve’s praises. Said the Swiss nobleman Francis Louis Michel, after a visit in 1701, “The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them so that the ships must avoid them. They surpass those in England by far in size, indeed they are four times as large.”
In the 1800s, Virginia and Maryland waged violent disputes over oysters, battles that actually got a name, the Oyster Wars. Maryland’s skirmishes with oystermen became so intense that the state formed the Oyster Police Force.
Today, in Urbanna, spats are pretty little girls and the only fighting is over who can eat the most or shuck the fastest.