Hours: Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 17 and 18, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Prices: From 50-cent hot dog to $6 oyster dinner. $1 adult admission.
Credit cards: None. Cash only -- no checks.
Special facilities: Unlimited free parking. Gravel walkways outdoors are difficult for wheelchairs or pushcarts. By RAYMOND M. LANE Special to The Washington Post
This weekend, our family once again will make a pilgrimage to the finest oyster-eating in the world: the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival in rural Leonardtown.
The festival is at the county fairgrounds two miles south of Leonardtown proper. Signs point the way; it's impossible to miss it if you stay on Rte. 5. Parking is free, both in the big grassy field beside the main gate and across the street in one of the huge parking lots serving three regional schools. Adults pay $1 to enter, but the kids get in free.
Believe it or not, we'll be hoping for foul weather -- one of those cold damp weekends when bursts of sunshine peek through a numbing autumnal rain. Our reasoning is purely selfish, for if the weather's too fine, the crowds converging on the Oyster Festival overtax the facilities.
Last year, good weather brought about 25,000 hungry souls to Leonardtown -- and the lines at the oyster stalls sometimes meant an hour's wait. As each stall usually sells only one kind of dish, the oyster lover had to wait at each of seven stalls to sample all that was available. Although none of the stalls ran out of food, it's an exasperating way to spend an afternoon. Far more pleasant was 1979, when a nasty downpour kept the two-day festival attendance to around 15,000.
The first order of business on entering the Oyster Festival grounds is to locate the many restrooms, then decide what you want to try and how much you think you can eat. We've overestimated our capacity at all seven of the festivals we've attended in the past 15 years. Experience proves, then, that a family or group of four should consider eating communally at each stalls. You can always go back for more.
Children, who universally hate oysters, can satisfy themselves with hot dogs (50 cents), hamburgers (80 cents), french fries (50 cents) and soft drinks (50 cents).
If they are old enough, children can have a lot of fun on their own. The festival has clowns, movies and pony rides, a farm museum that'll pique their curiosity, plus performing square dancers, county musicians and jazz players strolling the grounds.
Oyster eating, however, is why we've come, and our usual procedure is to find a stall with the smallest line. This year the Optimists Club is running a large stand selling something called oyster cups: 10-ounce paper cones filled with fresh-from-the-stove fried oysters ($1.75).
A hearty fried oyster dinner for $6 includes about 10 deep-fried breaded oysters on a paper plate with green beans, apple sauce and french fries. There is also a crispy chicken dinner for $6. A decent oyster stew costs $1.50. Hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, potato salad (50 cents) and cole slaw (50 cents) are available.
The Optimists Wives run a stall selling one of the delights of the festival: a 10-ounce cup of oyster chowder you'll have to taste to believe. Known locally as Miss Vera's, the recipe is a closely guarded secret no one has been able to pry from creator Vera Kessler, and is by far the most innovative and tasty use of oysters in St. Mary's.
Crabcake sandwiches ($2.50) are served by the Junior Women's Club. Jo's Daughters offer funnel cakes ($1), a Pennsylvania Dutch creation, made of pancake batter and cooked in a deep skillet, resembling a squiggly golden brown pancake. Topped with powdered sugar, this dish quickly satisfies any craving for starch and sugar.
The local Chamber of Commerce sells stuffed ham sandwiches ($2), one of the specialties of St. Mary's County. The ham is boned, stuffed with kale, cabbage, onions, garlic and pepper, wrapped in cheesecloth and boiled for hours. The resulting taste and texture take a bit of getting used to, but are a must on any culinary exploration of this part of Maryland.
Our favorite stop is the oyster scald and raw bar area. A dozen oysters are washed and dipped into boiling water, where they quickly open their shells, then pulled out and served. The scald makes it easy to open the shells; the oysters are cooked gently but retain their freshness. After shucking these oysters, you dip them into a cup containing vinegar, flecks of black pepper, and finely chopped raw onion. This St. Mary's treat is perfectly complemented by a cold beer (75 cents).
The Jolly Gents Sportsmen's Club sells homemade barbecued chicken and beef, complete with their own secret sauce. Boned chicken sandwiches fetch $1.25, while a half chicken goes for $2 and a hefty beef sandwich costs $2.
After gorging yourself, it might be wise to wander over to the oyster-cooking contest or the oyster-shucking contest. The top shucker this year wins $500 and a free trip to Galway, Ireland, for the International Oyster Shucking Contest held there.
Then again, if the crowds are getting you down, perhaps a drive to some of the nearby sites will get your mind off food. Local curiosities include the only Union monument constructed to honor Confederate soldiers, the oldest English-built Catholic church in the New World (1661), an Indian archaeological dig, an Amish market, and several fine colonial mansions.