Candy is for Halloween, turkey is for Thanksgiving and on the North Shore of Long Island the weekend after Columbus Day is reserved for oysters.
The 34th annual Oyster Festival on Saturday drew more than 75,000 people to Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park, where shellfish was on everybody’s mind.
“I wouldn’t miss these fried oysters for the world,” said Ellen Hochman, 55, of Jericho, who was enjoying them with her husband. “I’ll be eating my way around all the seafood booths today. When you come here you have to do it!”
For the Danays of Wantagh, a trip to the festival is a family tradition. Stephen, 62 and Vickie, 59, meet their daughter Alexandra, 28, who comes in from Manhattan.
“This is like a high holy weekend for us,” Vickie Danay said. “We eat as many oysters as we can finish.”
At the Oyster Bay Rotary’s oyster booth, piles of the shellfish get shucked and instantly plated for consumption then garnished with cocktail sauce and lemon.
“We ordered 60,000 oysters this year,” said W. Michael Smith, committee chair of the booth. “I’ve seen people buy as many as 20 plates at a time. They move fast.”
Although the weather was overcast, that didn’t stop the crowds from coming. Some booths were actually thrilled to not get such a sunny day.
“This is perfect weather for us,” said Judy Palumbo, executive director of the Life Enrichment Center at Oyster Bay. The center’s booth sells both New England and Manhattan clam chowder. “We want to keep it just like this — no sunshine. We like it cold!”
New in the food court this year was blackened alligator, compliments of Big Daddy’s of Massapequa, who partnered with the Oyster Bay Chamber of Commerce on a booth.
“The taste is unique,” said Big Daddy’s executive chef Craig Bedell. “It’s lean, white meat, kind of like chicken. There’s a little chew to it but we tenderize it in marinade.”
The Oyster Shucking Contest had a big comeback story this year. Dave Mahnken, a 10-title winner, returned to see if he could do it one more time.
Mahnken, 60, of Poughkeepsie, won by shucking 37 oysters in four minutes, besting Kris Ocker, 35, of Mattituck, who opened 34.
“I dropped off a little bit. It’s been five years since my last first-place title,” Mahnken said afterward. “It was a real tight race, but I’m glad to win again.”
The Oyster Eating Contest was another close competition but Shawn Leonard, 58, of Cold Spring Harbor, notched his fifth title, downing 108 oysters in two minutes and 40 seconds. Runner-up Julius Donat, 48, of Woodside, swallowed 99.
“It was a little scary there. About halfway through I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it,” said Leonard, who trains by drinking gallons of water to expand his stomach three days before. “But the fear of losing adrenalized me and I caught a second wind.”
The festival resumes Sunday at 11 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.