Monday, April 14, 2008

Third Annual Baltimore Oyster Bash

Pictured above are Tommy Chagouris of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood at Baltimore's Cross Street Market and his wife Theresa. From the way they're smiling and the way they're dressed, if you know them, you can tell it's a special occasion, namely Baltimore's third Annual Oyster Bash. For this event, Tommy has restrained his nearly legendary workaholic tendencies enough to delegate many of the day's responsibilites to others from Baltimore's veritable "who's who" of oyster lore.

In the picture at left, the four oysters surrounding the top curve of the lemon are Quonset Points from Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. The two beneath the lemon are known as Whale Rocks, produced through aquaculture near Mystic Connecticut. Gaze down on the meat, and the two genre look pretty much alike. However, the exterior of the Whalerock shells are quite green, the Quonset Points a lot whiter. Both are clean, smooth, and saltier than the Chesapeake oysters and Louisiana oysters which Baltimoreans are more familiar. The latter were being shucked and consumed as well, along with some great barbecued oysters, wonderful small fried oysters, and oyster stew.

The crowd on hand had as much to do as the oysters themselves with making this event so special. Baltimore's Annual Oyster Bash is quite different from your typical oyster roast: smaller, more intimate, and without all the tables and chairs. At Nick's, space is limited to its several bars and the aisles between them. Despite an apparent sell-out and because of good planing, sufficient room remained for mingling.

Baltimore's most colorful oyster aficionados were everywhere. Among the more prominent were some local shuckers around whom almost a kind of cult following has developed in recent years. Such a shucker is Paul Bartlett, who's pictured at right. Formerly executive chef at Phillip's, Bartlett has assisted Morris Martick with Martick's as kind of as a lark for more than a decade and owns a culinary consulting business. He's best known, however, as one of Baltimore's great oyster shuckers.

Oyster shucking competition for speed as well a presentation reigns supreme in the identities of George Hastings(left) and Vernon Johnson (right) in the image at left. The two grew up near each other in Southwest Baltimore, both sons of shuckers. Every October they both compete in the United States National Oyster Shucking Contest here in Maryland at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds. In 1999 and 2003 Hastings was the U.S. champion. Each victory earned him passage the following year to Galway, Ireland, for the International Oyster Shucking Contest. In 2000, Hastings distinguished himself as the number two shucker on the planet. Though Johnson never won a National Championship, he defeated Hastings ---and other contestants including Paul Bartlett---in the Rotary Club of Baltimore's Baltimore Oyster Shucking Contest, of which yours truly was---and continues to be---the emcee.

Another big player in the crowd from the local oyster scene was
Dale German, whose friendship with members of Baltimore's shucking fraternity led to the Wye Oak Commemorative Oyster Knife Project. These three "oyskateers" conceived, designed, crafted and marketed 1000 very special oyster knives made with wood salvaged from Maryland's felled Wye Oak. The knives sold for $200 each. As a user and maker of tools in the course of his furniture business, German took on the wooden handles. All the knives were sold. Proceeds went to oyster recovery and Chesapeake Bay restoration.

It's unlikely that Baltimore will have any further oyster events this significant for another five months or so. Where in the past, fresh oysters were only sold during months with the letter "r" in their names, the emergence of aquaculture and a propensity for shipping oysters in from afar has led to year round availability. They never taste anywhere near so good, though, as between September and April.