The Oyster Festival is like a holiday on the North Shore of Long Island. People mark it on their calendars, travel far distances to get there and eat like it's their last meal.
With a biting breeze coming off Oyster Bay Harbor and the sun shining down on Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay, Saturday's start of the 32nd annual Oyster Festival began under prime conditions. It continues Sunday.
"This is the perfect weather," said Kenny Warren of the Mill River Rod & Gun Club, who was serving fried oysters.
"You don't want anything above 60 degrees because when people are too warm they don't feel like eating," he said.
Karen Kulsziski, 53, of East Northport, returned to the Oyster Festival after a 20 year absence. She started with a boat of fried oysters.
"Oh my God -- AMAZING!" she said after taking her first oyster, bathed in tartar sauce. "When you come early you get the freshest oysters. We are planning on eating ourselves into oblivion.More than 150,000 people were expected to come through the historic hamlet of Oyster Bay this weekend seeking all kinds of seafood specialties.
Gus Sommer, 78, of Bethpage wasted no time as he got in line for a stack of oysters on the half-shell despite the time -- 11 a.m.
"This is the breakfast of champions!" he said, swallowing his last one. "I'm going to have oyster stew, fried oysters -- everything oyster. That's why they call it Oyster Bay!"
Phyllis Cerullo, 60, of Glen Cove tried her first oyster at the festival.
"It was different than I expected," she said. "I didn't realize how salty they are, but still good."
Don McAree, 35, of Glen Head, grew up coming to the festival each year. He said he returns because of the quality.
"The food is always good, from the lobster to the tacos," he said while dining on a full lobster dinner from the North Baymen's Association.
Three past champions returned in this year's oyster-shucking contest.
"This is like the World Series of oyster shucking!" said announcer Jim Kerr, morning DJ from Q104.3 FM.
David Mahnken, 58, of Deer Park, who has 10 titles under his belt, returned after a two-year absence. His presence shook up Ralph Alarcon, 38, of Lynbrook, who sought to regain his crown after losing to Louis Tuccillo, 29, of Syosset last year.
"Dave scares me," Alarcon said. "He's got the forearms of Popeye!" Alarcon won by shucking 37 oysters, seven more than he did last year.
Mahnken tied for second place with Brad Launer, 37, of Bayville, both men shucking 34 oysters in the allotted 4 minutes.
"I knew it was going to be a push," Mahnken said. "The pool is getting tighter and tighter."
The oyster-eating contest was a battle of the Bates brothers.
Nathaniel Cocca-Bates, 33, of Harlem, showed up to defend the title he won last year, but it was his little brother David Bates, 31, of Worcester, Massachusetts, who was his greatest challenge. "I came down to show him that he's not the best Bates," David Bates said. "It's the main reason I'm here."
David Bates beat his brother by gobbling down 85 oysters for the win, leaving Cocca-Bates, who ate 73 for second place, in the dust. They had 2 minutes, 40 seconds to down the mollusks.
With a face full of cocktail sauce, Cocca-Bates accepted his defeat, saying, "It's going to be an interesting Thanksgiving."