On the North Shore of Long Island, this month is known as “Oystober.” The Oyster Festival tends to dominate everyone’s social calendar.
The 33rd annual event, held this weekend at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay, typically draws more than 150,000 people — especially when the midday weather is 62 degrees and sunny, with a fall bite in the air.
“Weather is a major topic of prayer around here,” Bev Zembko, who’s in charge of the festival’s massive food court, said Saturday. “Last year, we were killed by the cold. Our sales were way off. But today is just perfect.”
Kenny Warren of East Norwich was busy frying oysters for his popular food booth run by the Mill River Rod & Gun Club from Bayville.
“We had people lined up at 10:30 a.m. and the festival doesn’t open until 11,” he said. “I’m sure we will be selling out early.”
Warren ordered 180 gallons of oysters (225 per gallon) and had six electric grills going at the same time, cooking 40 oysters each.
“These oysters are strained, tossed in our secret flour mix, put on the grill for 10 minutes, then they are instantly served,” he said. “They are that fresh.”
The main sport at the Oyster Fest is eating as visitors hit the 38 food booths with sheer gusto.
Scott Maiman, 60, of Dix Hills, was doing a whole seafood tour, starting with a bowl of New England clam chowder, a cup of lobster mac and cheese — and now fried oysters.
“Mmmm,” he said after his first bite of the oysters. “They got a bit of a kick. I like that.”
But the real star of the show is the mollusk in its rawest form — oysters on the half shell.
“I can’t get enough of them,” said Scott Poole, 53, of Massapequa Park. “The oysters you get here are better than ones you would get in a restaurant.”
Oyster Bay Rotary President Walter Imperatore was in the trenches of the oyster booth, plating the freshly shucked oysters at a rapid pace.
“We are selling them as fast as I can plate them,” he said. “They come right out of the bay, which is super clean. You can’t get oysters like this anywhere else.”
Not only is this celebrated shellfish used to consume but also to compete. A highlight of the day is the oyster shucking and eating contests.
The shucking competition was stiff, with 2015 champ Ralph Alarcon, 39, of Wading River and 2014 winner Louis Tuccillo, 30, of Seaford each preparing 38 oysters in four minutes. After a one-minute “shuck-off,” Tuccillo edged Alarcon by one oyster, 10 to 9.
His secret? Tuccillo opens the oysters in his hand, not on the table.
“When you open the oyster on the table, you still have to pick it up to cut the muscle,” he said.
Three-time oyster-eating champion Shawn Leonard, 57, of Cold Spring Harbor, returned after a three-year absence. He won his fourth festival title, handily gobbling down 94 oysters in 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Julius Donat, 47, of Woodside, was second with 69.
Leonard, who is the first cousin of all-time oyster-eating champ David Leonard, said his technique is simple.
“First, I don’t eat a thing all day,” he explained. “Then you just tilt your head back and let the oysters slide down like you were drinking a beer.”