“Thirty-five and continuing to thrive” could be the Oyster Festival slogan this year as the annual event, which began in 1984, kicked off at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay on Saturday.
Despite the brisk weather, there was no shortage of seafood fans lined up to get their hands on some fresh shellfish, including James and Peggy Lin of Manhattan, who took an early train out to the historic hamlet to begin their day with some raw oysters.
“Last year we started with some fried stuff but that was the wrong approach,” said James Lin, 55. “This year we headed straight to the oysters on the half shell. They are really fresh here and worth the train ride out.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Cartwright, 23, of Oyster Bay, was having a momentous occasion, as he was about to taste his first oyster.
“I figured it was about time,” he said. “I grew up coming here but as a kid I was all about the rides. Now that I’m older I focus on the food.”
After his first slurp, Cartwright noted, “Wow...I didn’t know what I was missing.”
Eric Schatzel, 35, of Islip, likes his oysters fully cooked and preferably fried with cocktail sauce.
“The raw ones are too slimy for me,” he said. “These are tasty but still have that oceanic flavor.”
Even Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino was getting in on the action, warming up with a comforting cup of New England clam chowder.
“This is the most heavily attended event of all Long Island," Saladino said of the festival, which is co-sponsored by Newsday. "People from Manhattan to Montauk love the bounty of the bay. It’s a love fest for seafood lovers.”
The oyster eating and shucking contests had quite a shake-up this year, as both defending champs were dramatically taken down.
Kristopher Ocker, 35, of Mattituck, took first place by shucking 33 oysters in four minutes, defeating defending champ Dave Mahnken, 61, of Poughkeepsie, who shucked 32.
“They had a nice firm shell this year,” said Ocker, who grew up in Oyster Bay. “Last year they were a bit spongy.”
However, Mahnken then had to face off against Brad Launer, 40, of Oyster Bay in a 1-minute, 30-second shuck-off for second place. Launer edged out Mahnken, shucking 15 oysters over Mahnken’s 14.
“You struggle with one or two and that’s it,” said Mahnken, who has 11 first-place wins. “I’ll be back.”
All-time oyster-eating champion David Leonard, who set the record in 1998 by eating 470 oysters in 2 minutes and 40 seconds, returned to challenge his first cousin and current oyster-eating champ Shawn Leonard, 59, of Cold Spring Harbor.
“He was getting a little too cocky,” said David, 60, who now lives in Decatur, Texas. “I’m here to set him straight.”
David Leonard won by downing 156 oysters, while Shawn took second place with 132.
Wiping oyster juice off his chin, David admitted, “After the tray and tenth cup, I started to feel the possibility of regurgitation. I burped and prayed that it was a burp. The trick is to gulp, don’t chew.”
Regardless of the heated rivalry, the Leonards’ competition is a friendly one.
“We are going to get some fried oysters together to show our unity,” David said, with his arm around his cousin. “This was just an appetizer.”
The festival continues Sunday at 11 a.m.