FRIED, SCALDED, stewed and raw. Those are the ways the 25,000 visitors to Maryland's "other" shore enjoyed the first oysters of the season earlier this month. For 13 years the crowds have grown larger and larger at St. Mary's County oyster festival. And this year, for the first time, a cooking contest offered the three judges an opportunity to eat oysters a lot of other ways, too.
St. Mary's County, site of the first Maryland settlement in 1634 and the first state capital, is at the lower end of the "other" or western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. But most people think of St. Mary's, along with Calvert and Charles counties, as southern Maryland. In 1968 one of the area's prime sources of revenue, slot machines, was outlawed and the counties scurried around looking for other income. Industrial development may have been appropriate for some but not for St. Mary's which cherishes its unspoiled beauty. Tourism was their choice, but reluctant to become another King's Dominion, they have been moving very, very slowly. So slowly in fact that lots of Marylanders have no idea where the county is, much less what it has to offer.
The few who choose a leisurely drive down Route 5 over the bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Bay Bridge, who choose scenery over closely packed rows of suntan seekers, know all about Sotterly, a working plantation on the Patuxent River built in 1717; the archeological digs in St. Mary's City, the first capital; rivers, coves, inlets, creeks and bays with 400 miles of shoreline, much of it virgin forests that come right down to the water.
They also know about the annual oyster festival, the highlight of which continues to be the oyster-shucking contest. The winner gets $500 and a trip to Galway, Ireland, for the international oyster-shucking contest: One year the local winner came in first; no Maryland winner has ever come in lower than third.
The contest is one of the few in which women compete with men and this year a woman won again, the third time in the five years since women have been eligible. If you think that all the winner had to do to claim the title was shuck the oysters faster than anyone else, you know as little about oyster-shucking contests as I did.
Speed is essential but then a crew of hard-nosed, keen-eyed judges examines the shucked oysters. Seconds are added to the score for grit in the oysters, bits of broken shell, for cut marks and for an oyster not completely free of its bottom shell. But this year's winner, Ruth Smith, is so good, and so fast, she won on all counts. These professional oyster shuckers have been doing it all their lives. Oysters are a prime crop in the county.
Interested in broadening their 13-year-old festival, the organizers decided to include an oyster-cooking contest for the first time this year. From 100 entries 12 were chosen as finalists in four categories: hors d'oeuvres, soups and stews, dressings and main dishes. Several finalists were from out of state.
The entries were not kitchen-tested so the first contest officials who got to taste them were the three judges: Anne Mackenzie, food editor of the Harford County weekly, The Aegis; Bill Taylor, owner-chef of the catering firm, the Dinner Designer; and myself. It was an experience!
One hors d'oeuvre entry consisted of spinach packages, each of which contained an oyster, a piece of artichoke heart and a mushroom, wrapped up in the raw spinach leaf and secured with a piece of pimiento and a cocktail pick. There was also a dipping sauce. It squirted all over when you ate it.
A stuffing recipe called for wild rice and green onions: It contained neither.
Several of the recipes were quite creative, but it's a funny thing about oysters: The less you do to them the better they usually taste. No sooner is that said than the rule was broken by the grand prize-winner, an oyster submarine sandwich. Somewhere between a sub and a New Orleans Po Boy, it had 17 ingredients, but none of them fought with the subtle flavor of the oysters. In addition, there were enough oysters to taste them in the loaf.
The creator, and winner of the $500 grand prize, was Fred Marshall, an 81-year-old resident of the county who cooks as a hobby and is a contributor to Southern Living Magazine. His prize-winner appeared in the magazine.
The runner-up dish proved the rule. It was a classical dressing with celery, onions, a few light seasonings and lots of plump oysters. It was entered by a life-long county resident, Belle Wathan.
Some consideration was also given to a recipe for oysters with linguine and, perhaps if fresh Parmesan cheese and fresh garlic had been used instead of garlic powder and canned grated cheese, the entry would have done better even though it won first in its category. As it was, the garlic and Parmesan left an unpleasant aftertaste.
A novel idea proved to be too novel -- pita bread filled with a mixture of cooked vegetables and oysters topped with a yogurt dressing. It tasted quite good but the oysters were overwhelmed by strong competing flavors.
After the judging was over, one contestant was overheard to say he'd simply written down a recipe as it came to him. It tasted like it. Then there was the contestant who served Boordy Vineyards white wine with his entry.Though it didn't sway the judges, the wine was very good and helped to cut the grease in which one of the recipes was swimming.
Like a lot of food professionals, the judges spent a certain amount of time discussing how some of the entries might have been improved. And even though each went away swearing never to have another oyster -- at least not for the rest of the day -- two of them sampled every oyster dish at the festival, along with the stuffed ham sandwiches, crab cakes and barbecued beef. Only the lateness of the hour prevented them from trying the home-baked goods that had been available for sale earlier in the day.
Here are the top two recipes along with two which did quite well in the judging. FRED MARSHALL'S OYSTER SUBMARINE SANDWICH (6 to 8 servings) 1 long slender loaf Vienna bread 1/2 pound sweet butter plus 1 teaspoon garlic salt, mixed to soft paste 2 tomatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water 1 cup dry bread crumbs 8 slices bacon, fried crisp, drippings saved 2 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons melted butter 1 pint select oysters, sauteed until edges curl, drain and save liquor Seasonings: mace, salt and ground fresh peppercorns, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce and 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt 1 medium onion, finely sliced 1 green pepper, finely sliced 1/4 cup mayonnaise plus 1/2 teaspoon horseradish mustard, mixed 1 lemon, cut in 8 wedges
Cut loaf of Vienna bread horizontally, leaving a hinge on the long side. Scoop out all the dough to the crust. Cut pieces of aluminum foil large enough to wrap around loaf of Vienna bread. Place loaf on foil.
To assemble spread garlic butter mix over entire cavity of loaf of Vienna bread and toast under broiler to a light brown. Dip each tomato slice in the egg mix, then into dry bread crumb mix. Permit the breaded tomato slices to dry on a rack for about 1/2 hour. Fry breaded tomato slices in bacon drippings, turning to brown other side. Drain on absorbent paper. Make a thick roax sauce by blending flour with 2 tablespoons melted butter and oyster liquor, cook until thick, stirring constantly.Add cooked oysters, seasonings and heat. Pour oyster mix into cavity of Vienna bread. Top with breaded tomato slices, thinly sliced onions, fine strips of green peppers and slices of fried bacon. Adjust seasoning to taste. Close top of Vienna bread over mixture, brush with melted butter, wrap in aluminum foil and bake in pre-heated moderate 400 degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes.
To serve cut off each end and slice into 6 to 8 pieces. Brush mayonnaise mix over each slice and serve hot with lemon wedge. BELLE WATKIN'S OYSTER DRESSING (Makes about 4 cups) 2 large stalks celery 1 medium onion 1/2 cup butter or margarine 1/2 teaspoon lemon and pepper seasoning 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon chopped dried parsley 1/8 teaspoon tarragon 1/8 teaspoon poultry seasoning 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice 1 pint oysters with liquor 8 slices day-old bread, cubed
Finely chop celery and onions. Saute in butter or margarine until tender. Mix in seasonings. Add oysters with liquor and simmer until edges begin just to curl. Remove from heat and gently mix in bread cubes. Adjust the moistness with water as desired. Allow about 1/2 cup per pound for fish; 1 cup per pound for poultry. MRS. LEONARD BRIDGETTS OYSTER WHITLEY (1 serving) 1/4 cup olive oil 1/2 cup parmesan cheese 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon chopped chives 1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley 1/4 pound linguine -- cooked and drained 6 fresh oysters
Mix olive oil, parmesan cheese, garlic powder, chives and parsley together. Toss into cooked linquine. Put in a heat proof dish, put oysters on top, run under broiler at 450 degrees for 3 to 4 minutes until edges of oyster curl. SHIRLEY DE SANTIS' POCKET FULL OF OYSTERS (8 servings) 5 slices bacon, dried 2 green peppers, seeded, diced 1 Spanish onion, diced 1 small zucchini, scrubbed, diced (about 1 1/2 cups) 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 4 to 6 drops hot pepper sauce 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 1/2 pints to 1 quart shucked Maryland oysters and liquor 8 to 12 cherry tomatoes, halved 4 pita "pocket" breads, heated
In electric skillet cook bacon until crisp; remove to absorbant paper and reserve. Pour off and discard all but about 1 teaspoon bacon drippings. Add green pepper and onion to skillet, saute, stirring often over medium-low heat about 5 minutes. Add zucchini and garlic; continue sauteeing about 5 minutes longer -- until vegetables are tender crisp. Stir in lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, hot pepper sauce and black pepper; mix well. Drain oysters, reserving liquor. Add drained oysters and a scant 1/4 cup of the oyster liquor to skillet. Simmer slowly until edges of oysters just begin to curl. If necessary, add a few more tablespoons of the oyster liquor to skillet -- mixture should not be soupy. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Stir in tomatoes and bacon, heat through. Cut pita in half to form "pockets".Spoon in oyster vegetable mixture. Top with sauce, if desired. Sauce: In small bowl combine and mix well: 1 cup plain yogurt clove garlic, minced 1/2 peeled and seeded cucumber, grated 1/4 teaspoon onion salt 1/8 teaspoon dill weed
Cover and refrigerate. Makes about 1 cup.