30th annual Oyster Festival draws legions of fans

The Oyster Bay Oyster Festival draws huge crowds Saturday to watch the oyster shucking and eating contests, as well as to enjoy a day of fun and food. Videojournalist: Chris Ware (Oct. 19, 2013)

Oyster Bay is known for being the home of President Theodore Roosevelt and its most valuable commodity, the oyster. Every year post-Columbus Day, the mollusk is celebrated with its own festival, held, fittingly, in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park.

On Saturday, more than 200 plates of oysters on the half shell stood in front of Oyster Bay Rotarian Donna Lee, who has run the festival's raw bar for the past 11 years.

"These will be gone in 15 minutes," she said. "There's always a line, and it doesn't end until we close."

By the end of the festival, in its 30th year, 22 shuckers will plow through 40,000 oysters. Last year, the delicacies sold out midway through the second day.

"They are sweet and delicious. If you taste one you tend to come back for more," Lee said. "Maybe it's the brackish water. Anything that grows in fresh salt water intrigues people."

Bill Kogler, 70, of Carle Place, brought his wife, Margie, 73, whom he describes as a "true oyster person."

"I like oysters fried, on half shell or in a stew," she said. "My father was a fisherman so I grew up on them. They are the same every year and they are always good."

Joe McCormick, 30, of Floral Park, was working on a dozen with his aunt Diane Asquino, 51, of Bethpage, during their annual trek to the fest.

"Oysters are different everywhere you go," McCormick said. "The Oyster Bay oysters have their own flavor. I enjoy a variety of oysters and this is one of them."

The Oyster Festival, which continues Sunday from 11 a.m. through 6 p.m., began in 1984 as a way to draw visitors to the historic hamlet. It has evolved from a local street fair to a nationally known event drawing more than 150,000 people.

"The number of people who come through here in a weekend is amazing," said Dave McLaughlin as he ladled cups of oyster stew for the Oyster Bay Lions Club. "It used to be a very quaint event, but it got large in a hurry, which makes it more challenging. But it's a whole lot of fun."

The festival serves as a giant fundraiser for local nonprofits that run the food booths.

"For many organizations, it's their main financial support for the entire year," said Bev Zembko, who coordinates the sprawling food court.

"If the weather is good, everybody comes out," said Kenny Warren, who works the fried oyster booth for the Mill River Rod and Gun Club. "More and more people come down every year."

Warren and his crew prepared 180 gallons of oysters -- 225 per gallon -- to fry up using their secret ingredients. "It's like the Coca-Cola syrup recipe," he declared. "It's under lock and key."

Ralph Alarcon, 37, of Lynbrook, won the oyster-shucking contest, opening 38 in four minutes. Meanwhile, John Guiliano, 64, of Syosset, and Nathaniel Cocca-Bates, 31, of Harlem, each ate 108 oysters in 2 minutes, 40 seconds during the oyster-eating contest, causing a one-minute oyster eat-off, which Guiliano won handily, 71 to 36.

"I love 'em," said Guiliano, wiping oyster juice from his chin. "They are simply delicious!"

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