Aw, Shucks: An Oyster Fest in Va.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

WHERE: Urbanna, Va.

WHY: A bivalve bash, fastest shuckers around and history on the half shell.

HOW FAR: About five miles from start to finish, and about 130 miles from Washington.

This weekend, find everything but the pearl at the Urbanna Oyster Festival, which draws more than 50,000 mollusk-eaters to the tiny Tidewater town of about 550. During the two-day event, mounds of oysters will be broiled, baked, steamed and served in their most natural state: raw.

Before oysters, Urbanna was a tobacco town. In 1680, Colonial authorities ordered the establishment of a tobacco and trading port on the Rappahannock River, and in 1705, the fledgling town was named Urbanna in honor of England's Queen Anne.

By the late 18th century, the tobacco trade was shifting to larger ports, and Urbanna discovered greater riches beneath the water's surface. In the early years, watermen used tongs to scrape the oysters from plentiful beds along the Rappahannock and Urbanna Creek. Eventually, oyster farming by seed and spat (i.e., baby oysters) took root, and the industry thrived until the early 1950s, when disease destroyed much of the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population. Today, the industry is smaller than in previous years, but bivalve farming is making a comeback.

Since 1957, the Urbanna Oyster Festival has been the town's annual opportunity to flaunt its filter feeders. In addition to oyster eating, activities include the crowning of the festival queen and Little Miss Spat, a parade and the state Oyster Shucking Contest. Local waterwoman Deborah Pratt is an early favorite: The 23-year competitor can shuck 24 oysters in less than two minutes. There is also a men's division and an amateur competition open to the public.

"Just bring a sharp shucking knife," Pratt advises.

-- Ben Chapman

Urbanna Oyster Festival: Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight; Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Various locations in Urbanna, Va. 804-758-0368. Free.

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