There were carnival rides, deep fried Oreos, and of course the oyster shucking and eating contest. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Oyster Bay became whole again Saturday as the historic hamlet opened its first Oyster Festival in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park since 2019.

The annual two-day festival, which was first held in 1984 and typically draws over 150,000 people, was mostly virtual in 2020 and canceled in 2021 because of the pandemic. It returned with 66-degree sunny weather and massive attendance. As the 26th president of the United States from Cove Neck would say, it was a “Bully!” day.

“It feels good to put it back together again and see all these smiling faces happy to be here,” said Bev Zembko, Oyster Bay Rotary co-president who also serves as the food court chair. “People have missed it and they are ready for this. We're due for a comeback.”

SEAFOOD FEAST

The star of the show was the Oyster Bay Rotary’s oysters on the half shell booth where more than 60,000 oysters are shucked in the moment and served immediately.

“We have 35 shuckers opening oysters at 15 per minute,” said Fredy Yanes of Oyster Bay, who has manned the booth for 17 years. “People go crazy for them. They buy 10 plates at a time.”

At a table in front of the oyster booth, a father-daughter oyster contest was happening. Harry Burstein, 73, of Great Neck was going head-to-head with his 20-year-old daughter, Carly, to see who could munch on the most mollusks. They started with 20 plates and were going for more.

“I’m focused and determined. Age has nothing to do with it,” said Harry. “We are going to eat until one of us gives up.”

Carly added: “I’ve been looking forward to this the whole year. We are both very competitive people so this is going to be interesting.”

One of the oldest and most popular booths at the festival is the Mill River Rod & Gun Club’s famous fried oysters. 

“The oysters are strained to make sure all the juice is out, then we toss them in flour with all our special seasonings. From there, they go on an electric grill,” said Kenny Warren, booth chairman of the  club and its past president. “We always have people who come right off the train from out of town making our booth their first stop.”

Manny Santiago traveled from Ramsey, New Jersey, with his 8-year-old daughter Adriana to visit his family in East Meadow and stopped by for some fried oysters.

“I usually go with the raw oysters, but I wanted to try something new,” said Santiago, 38. “These are really good and chewy.”

Adriana ate five fried oysters with a proud smile.

“We came here because of her,” said Santiago. “She loves oysters.”

The North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association served up full lobster dinners, cooking 2,500 pounds of lobster plus clams on the half shell, steamed clams, mussels and steamers.

“We are looking for people to come with empty stomachs and leave with full bellies,” said bayman Bill Fetzer, a member of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association. “The goal is to satisfy everybody’s needs when they come to our booth.”

Odette Lozada, 62, of Glen Cove was happily wrestling her lobster in the center of the food court.

“I skipped breakfast just to make sure I had room for lobster,” she said. “This is very fresh and tender. I’m a big seafood fan.”

OYSTER SHUCKING & EATING CONTESTS

The oyster shucking contest was a small but mighty crew this year. Although there were only three men competing — Ralph Alarcon of Wading River, Dave Mahnken of Long Beach and Brad Launer of Oyster Bay — they were all past champions and the competition was fierce.

“This is like a sudden death match,” declared Mahnken, 65, who won 11 titles over the past 20 years.

Alarcon, 45, took the top prize shucking 36 oysters in four minutes with Launer, 43, coming in second place with 32 shucked.

The oyster eating contest was altered this year due to a lack of product. The eight contestants had only one tray of 36 oysters to eat in 2 minutes and 40 seconds (usually it’s who can eat the most in the allotted time). The first to finish would be declared the winner.

John A. Guiliano, 73, of Syosset won the contest finishing with 10 seconds to spare. This is his third victory; he's competed every year since 1984.

“My method is simple, I use lemon to add some taste and I just swallow,” said Guiliano. “Now I’m going to get some fried oysters.”

Second place went to Yolanda Caliguri of Oceanside who finished seconds behind Guiliano.

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