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Oyster Festival kicks off in Oyster Bay

The 36th annual Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay drew thousands over the weekend. The largest waterfront festival in the country, all proceeds from food concessions go to local charities. (Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost)

Shellfish was the breakfast of champions for Kortiza Hasim and Michael Fenner of Holbrook, who arrived early Saturday at the 36th annual Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay to get some morning mollusks. 

“I love the taste of oysters,” said Hasim, 50, who decorated them with lemon, hot sauce, horseradish and cocktail sauce. “They have that seawater flavor I enjoy.”

Fenner, 56, was draped in Yankees gear celebrating his team’s win from the night before as he slurped juice from an oyster shell.

“I give these oysters a 10 out of 10,” he said. “These are the freshest I’ve ever had.”

Hasim and Fenner were among more than 150,000 people expected to attend this year's Oyster Festival, which runs until Sunday and draws visitors from Nassau, Suffolk and beyond to the historic hamlet of Oyster Bay. The event, which is co-sponsored by Newsday, is held in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park.

On Saturday morning, Jim Lester was running the Oyster Bay Rotary’s oyster booth, where the lines were long and 32 shuckers were expected to open 60,000 oysters as fast as they could this weekend.

“The oysters from Oyster Bay Harbor are very sweet,” Lester said. “You are not going to get an oyster like this anywhere else.”

Sustainability is a focus at the festival this year, as an effort to collect all the shells is being made by the Community Oyster Restoration Effort in Garden City for recycling purposes.

“Shell material in the past would have gone into a landfill. But it’s actually a very valuable restoration tool,” said Aaren Freeman, C.O.R.E. executive director. “Putting the shells back in the bay provides habitat for the next generation of oysters.”

The big business came from the new Blue Point Beer Garden, which was a fenced-in patrolled area overlooking the harbor for those 21 and older with proper ID. This marked the first time the Oyster Festival has a designated area for alcohol.

“It’s nice to have this set up down at the beach,” said Liz McGee, 29, of Oyster Bay, who grew up going to the festival. “They like to keep it historic and holistic around here, I guess. But it’s the appropriate kind of setting and there’s plenty of security.”

Oyster Festival first-timers Bob and Grace Travis of East Meadow, who were enjoying cups of The IPA and Mother Pumpkin Ale respectively, agreed.

“The beer garden is well set up and cornered off so underage people can’t sneak in,” said Bob, 61. “It’s well done.”

Grace added, “It’s easy to get around in here and the best part is the view of the stage where there’s a nice variety of music.”

Defending oyster-shucking champion Kristopher Ocker, 37, of Mattituck retained his title and beat his own record by shucking 43 oysters in 4 minutes, besting his win of 33 last year.

“The key is to keep a good steady pace and not waste one oyster,” says Ocker, who works at Southold Fish Market and Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market in Greenport. “You have to line them up so you don’t have to go shuffling. Plus, the shells were nice and hard, therefore you can get a lot more done.”

In terms of the oyster eating contest, age won over youth as John A. Guiliano, 70, of Syosset took the top prize, gobbling down 90 oysters in 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

“The oysters were a bit bigger this year but rather easy to eat. My technique is simple — chew and swallow,” said Guiliano, who won first place back in 2013. “In fact, I’m still hungry. I’m going to get some fried oysters and eat these leftovers too.”

Over at the dock, people boarded the tall ship Nao Santa Maria from Seville, Spain, which is as a replica of navigator Christopher Columbus’ historic vessel. The three-masted, 92-foot-long ship was a huge draw as guests got to climb aboard the four different levels: the poop deck, upper deck, main deck and hull.

“Stepping on the ship is like going back to the past or being in an epic movie,” said project manager Angel Rosa. In fact, the ship will be part of a Hollywood project set to start shooting in February in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tours are self-guided ($10 adults, $5 kids) with panel information boards to read, and there’s an audio guide that can be scanned into your phone. Plus, the 17 crew members are available to answer any questions.

“The big question everyone asks is, ‘Where’s your steering wheel?’” Rosa said. “But steering wheels weren’t invented at the time the original Santa Maria was built in the mid-1400s and we do our best to be a faithful replica. Instead, we have a whipstaff, which is a vertical connection to the tiller and that allows us to steer the ship.”

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