Updated: Oct 19, 2022
LEONARDTOWN, Md. — Their names inspire poetry. Billionaire Oyster Puffs. Creamy Tuscan Style Oysters. Crispy Fried Oysters and Cornbread Waffles with Maple Bourbon Gravy.
Each dish was a finalist in the 43d National Oyster Cook-Off at the US Oyster Festival, Oct.15-16, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
In the end, amid entries from chefs and home cooks from the Mid-Atlantic and beyond, the grand prize went to a retired grocery clerk who'd been seeking the top rung for a long while, but thought she might have bungled the recipe for her Coconut Oyster and Zesty Marmalade Crostini.
“Each piece of it was different idea. I like coconut shrimp, but would it work with oysters? said Ronna Farley, of Rockville, Md., the grand prize winner, exulting above alongside judge John Shields.
And would her somewhat peculiar combination of tastes appeal to a discerning panel of judges sampling all manner of bivalve concoctions? On top of that, Farley had barely returned from a cruise to Canada and wasn't feeling on top of her game.
Nonetheless, on the day before the competition, she packed up her spice stash and culinary accoutrements (oysters are provided) and hit the road for southern Maryland, what she always does about the third weekend in October.
As she put the dish together (out of sight of the judges), all didn't seem by plan and on time. When advised her time was up, Farley slapped that zesty marmalade on those coconutty oysters with plastic spoon, and dispatched them to meet their fate.
“I was rushing, trying to get it right. I liked my recipe, but I didn’t feel like I had total control,” she said.
In winning in both the hors d’oeuvres and the grand prize categories, Farley displayed the rewards of persistence: She'd entered the St. Mary’s County competition 13 times over the last 15 years, but never had she had a day like this.
“It was a thrill. I was ecstatic,” she said.
The festival, which also features a shucking contest with international implications, is sponsored by Rotary Club of Lexington Park, to raise funds for scholarships, food banks and other charities.
Judges (right) included New Bay Books publisher Sandra Olivetti Martin, of Fairhaven, Md., (center) who grew up above a fine Midwestern restaurant and covered all-things-oysters for a quarter-century.as co-founder and editor of Bay Weekly.
Also tasked with sampling: Gwyn Novak, a graduate of the Baltimore International Culinary College and founder/owner of No Thyme to Cook, in Solomons, southern Maryland’s premier cooking studio; and Shields, activist chef, author, television performer and owner of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Judges approached their task with rigor.
“Oysters not fully cooked. Look at their edges."
It seemed no dish was perfect, though some came close.
If a tip for future entrants could be gleaned from judges’ remarks, it might be one word: simplify.
“People want to make these dishes at home,” one judge remarked while surveying one of the layered, daunting entries. "There’s just too much going on here.”
Indeed, the panel awarded the both the top prize in the Soups & Stews category and Best Presentation award to a fairly straightforward stew — Creamy Oyster Potato-Leek with Bacon and Chives — presented sans adornment in blue-rimmed white bowls.
Champ Farley has enjoyed success in the past — though just not in St. Mary’s County. She won at a a National Cornbread Cook-Off in Tennessee in 2016, the national Festival of Bread in Kansas in 2017 and a year late at the Legendary Lentil Cook-Off in Washington state.
Farley's on a circuit, along with "my buddies," some of whom gathered with her on a strikingly beautiful Chesapeake Country weekend. She'll ride momentum of winning the National Oyster Cook-Off to Texas month having qualified for the World Food Championship, in Dallas.
People can relive the National Oyster Cook-Off Nov. 9 in a free, livestreamed program, Oysters, Oysters Everywhere: 56th Annual U.S. Oyster Festival, presented by the Harford County Public Library, in partnership with Our Common Table. The Baltimore-based nonprofit, founded and led by John Shields, promotes conservation for Chesapeake Bay and its bounty.
The program is part of the Chesapeake Farm & Bay to Table series, which shines a light on the regions' food artisans, farmers and seafood producers.
Library CEO Mary Hastler, who traveled to southern Maryland for the event, and Shields will co-host the program, featuring Gwyn Novak, filmed at No Thyme For Cooking. Register here.
Hors d'Oeuvres — Coconut Oyster and Zesty Marmalade Crostini. Ronna Farley.
Soups & Stews — Creamy Maryland Oyster-Potato-Leek with Bacon and Chives. Lisa Keys.
Main Dish — Crispy Fried Maryland Oysters and Cornbread Waffles with Maple Bourbon Gravy. Deborah Reynolds.
Grand Champion — Coconut Oyster and Zesty Marmalade Crostini. Ronna Farley.
Best Presentation — Creamy Maryland Oyster-Potato-Leek with Bacon and Chives. Lisa Keys.
People's Choice — Hushpuppy Battered Oysters on Mexican Street Corn Grits. Marty Hyson.