John Hanowell bounded off the stage at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds Saturday beaming with newfound oyster love.

"Dude, I'm such a fan of shucking right now," said the medical student, 25, who competed in an amateur contest before the National Oyster Shucking Championships.

The 38th annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival, held over two sunny days last weekend, drew 17,000 oyster fans to the fairgrounds south of Leonardtown, organizers said. The festival began as a way for the Lexington Park Rotary Club to honor the life and work of watermen and has become one of the largest seafood celebrations on the Eastern Seaboard. The event raised about $50,000 to support activities of the Rotary Club and other civic organizations.

To the sounds of blues and bluegrass music, festival-goers grazed from booth to booth, throwing back oysters raw, scalded, deep-fried and stewed.

"I love these oysters," said Xavier Jordan, a banker from the District, as he clutched his belly and laughed. "And they love me."

Beyond eating, two highlights of the festival are the shucking and cooking contests.

In the National Oyster Cook-Off, a creamy oyster jalapeno soup prepared by Tom Forman, 79, of Carrollton, Tex., captured the title. His recipe beat out entries such as zucchini oyster fritters with Asian plum sauce and pecan-crusted oysters with Asiago grits.

Scott Stiles, the owner of a direct-mail business in San Antonio, bested North Carolina nurse Cathy Miliken in the professional shuck-off. He pried open 24 bivalves in 2 minutes 48 seconds for his fourth national title and a trip to Galway, Ireland, for the international championships.

Former competitor Linda Bronsdon of Hughesville said she was amazed by the master shuckers. "God designed these things not to open," she said.

Patti Willenborg, a past president of the Lexington Park Rotary Club, rules the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival on Saturday. Below left, Dennis Howell of Baltimore gulps a raw oyster. Below right, Samuel Fisher practices shucking before the championships.