Written by Dagmar Fors Karppi Friday, 23 October 2009 00:00This year’s Oyster Festival was a true challenge. The weather has always hung in the balance, and usually the festival runs in spite of it. This year, however, was exceptionally challenged. Usually there is only one bad day. While the festival ran, the weather ruled.
With all the weather reports saying the weekend was going to be wet, cold and windy, people were contacting Cindy Smith, ImageQuest Communications, Inc. who handles public relations for the festival, “Over Thursday night we got a 100 emails from people asking if the Oyster Festival was still on. The festival is on. We put up information on our website with Q’s and A’s letting people know what is going on,” she said.
People were saying it was going to be a “water” festival, but she said, “It’s still going to be a food festival. We went through this a couple of years ago and it all turned our fine. This happens all the time – when there is an unhappy weather forecast.
“We can’t move it to next week. There are vendors coming from all over the tri-state area. There are all the volunteers and the permits are there, and the entertainers are coming. It’s a rain or shine event. There is a great food court and a lot of hot food there – [that actually sells best in cold weather]. And there is a huge Arts & Crafts tent, and the petting zoo has tents, so people can come on down [and enjoy the rain or hide from the rain in the tents]. And the tall ships will be here.
“The Oyster Festival Regatta has changed its date. It will be held next week, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We are not changing the October date of the festival. It comes up all the time and the answer is no. The kids go back to school in September and there are the Jewish holidays where the dates change from year to year. So it is challenging.
“It takes a huge amount of manpower and logistics and permitting from the town, state, DEC, the Oyster Bay Water District and the NC Board of Health. It’s an extraordinary effort to get them all in concert at the same time. It’s well beyond a street fair and the festival grounds measure about one-mile long at this point.
“We’ve talked about moving the date incessantly. I wish we could make the rain move but there is not that much we can do. And, people have come down in the rain before. The food is great and at least part of Saturday will not have rain. [Rain was predicted for the late afternoon but they lucked out – there was no rain on Saturday, it just looked rainy.] Everything right now is a go. Apparently the nonprofits have been through this before – this is number 26. So pray for us.”
Ms. Smith said no one was dropping out. “They have paid all the fees, and have their board of health approvals, so it makes no sense to pull out now. Including that it is usually the main fundraiser of the groups. One group has gone from two locations to one: Wild Bill’s Soda will have one tent instead of two. He’s pouring something cold, so he doesn’t need two locations.
“It is what it is. We are monitoring it. Radio stations have been calling and we are twittering everyone that the fair is still on. It’s an interesting form of communication. We are doing everything to let everyone know we are still here to support the nonprofits.”
Tom Kuehhas, Oyster Bay Historical Society director, remembers a rainy Oyster Festival. “It was at the 13th festival. I was out there, and there was a torrential downpour and someone took a picture of me and I looked like a drowned rat. Barbara Hadel was the festival chair and she had T-shirts made saying ‘I survived the 13th Oyster Festival’. It was around ’95 or ’96.
“I was running the Children’s Area. It was right by the Bonanza stand and extended down Shore Avenue. But there were no rides at that time. The carnival rides came later,” he said.
In 1992, when the nor’easter hit, the festival closed down on Saturday, after bravely opening. Doubleday Babcock Senior Center and the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association kept selling their wares. DBSC was selling clam chowder that warmed everyone up.
On Saturday, Oct. 17, the Locust Valley Railroad station had about 10 percent of its usual crowd of festival-goers. The train was on time – another anomaly. Usually the train is held over at each station as the crowds pour on board for the festival. With bad weather predicted, people were taking the warnings to heart. In spite of that, when arriving at the festival grounds there were people out having fun in the carnival area, and there were lines in the food court.
You could see that the soft-shell crabs were a great item by the long patient line, in spite of the fact that other booths were empty.
Cindy Smith, said on Saturday, about 50,000 to 60,000 people were there. “There was no rain and so they came off the train in droves. It was great. Sunday was a challenge, and still many people came from the city by train. The LIRR has been a key to the growth of the festival. They see it as a destination location festival. You can literally spend the day at the festival,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, after the oyster contests, she said, “The water flooded the parking lot up to the parking lot level, where the food court was located. But it isn’t raining. I’m so glad, I’m thrilled. The festival gods smiled on us.”
In a phone call on Sunday, Ms. Smith said gamely, “We are open.” At around 3:30 p.m. the tents were empty and the cleanup crew was putting the finishing touches on their work. On Saturday people were all talking about the high tide that flooded the food court, as shown in the pictures. On Sunday, the North Oyster Baymen’s Association put out wooden pallets to give customers a chance to get to their booth. As photographer Gregory Druhak said, “The North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association was the only group in the flooded area who showed determination and resourcefulness. They, being used to the water, simply laid out a clever walkway of discarded wooden pallets and continued serving [and making money) to those tourists who showed up when no one else was open.”
Gail Speranza, Doubleday Babcock Senior Center executive director said, “We did the best we could on Sunday. On Sunday, we came prepared and brought boots. We had sold about half our product on Saturday. After the storm Saturday night, on Sunday, at 9 a.m. everything inside the tent was drenched. The wind was ripping around. We spoke to a couple of other vendors and decided we weren’t going to put the staff and volunteers through that.
“We will be having a soup fundraiser in the future to make up for the festival. It is in the planning and will be late fall, early winter and guarantees to be fantastic,” she said.
Ms. Smith kept a positive outlook at the weather disaster saying, “I don’t have something to compare it to.” She said, “In the last four or five years I don’t remember it being like this. But, it’s the last festival of the season. It’s a fall festival and it’s cool. We sell hot soups and we discourage the selling of ice cream.”
With all that taken under advisement, the fun of the festival that will remain with people are the great oyster contests sponsored by the Frank M. Flower & Sons, Inc. shellfish company.
The Oyster Eating and Shucking contests brought in their usual crowds. The difference there was as the final winners were announced they dissipated like a cloud on the horizon as the bows were being taken. Poof! They were off to other venues.
The contest this year was worth braving the weather for. In the Oyster Shucking contest, the winner – again – Dave Manhken won by one oyster. When people say every vote counts in this case they might add, every oyster counts.
In the Oyster Eating contest, longtime winner Michael Chodkowski had his title snatched from his hands for the second time by Shawn Leonard, in an eat-off after they tied at 216 oysters each.
“There are only 10 contestants,” said Jim Kerr, Q104’s Morning Man, new to the job of emcee for the Oyster contests.
He got the rules wrong and led a new contestant, Kazuhari Obachi of Japanese TV, to waste time taking the oysters out of the shell instead of just severing them from the shell. The problem was solved when David Relyea noted the error and alerted everyone to continue shucking.
Mr. Kerr did a good job of re-capping the oyster contest saying the contestants were given four minutes to open the oysters. He told of Rodney Dow of Mill Neck who set the bar in shucking oysters – at 57 in 1985. He won after a tie with Andy Schuller – that had Rodney shuck 22 more in two minutes.
Since 2001, David Mahnken has been winning the shucking contest, said Mr. Kerr. Every single year, the question is, will someone come from behind and beat Dave? This year again, Dave won and again, Ralph Alarcon of Bayville came in second!
“And there are big prizes,” said Mr. Kerr. “The big winner gets $50 and a plaque. The second-place winner gets the plaque and $25.”
After the Shucking Contest, the members of Team FMF swept the remaining unopened oysters off the tables and switched to blue tablecloths (from the orange for the first contest). The crowd was chanting “eat, eat, eat.” The contestants were lined up with aluminum plates with 36 oysters each. Tall blue plastic cups held 12 each.
Jeremy Relyea provided the contestants with Frank M. Flower T-shirts. Some dutifully put them on over their own duds. Two new contestants tossed them to friends watching. Jeremy gave out new khaki Frank M. Flower caps. Some put them on; the tossers pocketed them. Mike Chodkowski kept his “lucky” cap on and pocketed his.
Mr. Kerr told the audience that there was a tight compeition going on again this year. “A decade ago, in 1998, David Leonard of Central Islip set the oyster eating record at 480 oysters eaten. [It should be noted the oysters were very small that year.] Last year, Shawn Leonard, another family member, came back to get the title for the Leonard family.”
The title was held by Michael Chodkowski of Hicksville in 1999 – 252; 2000 - 191; 2001 – 120 2002- 132; 2003 – 168; 2004- 54; 2005-156; 2006-144; 2007-111. Mr. Leonard of Cold Spring Harbor won in 2008 with 180 eaten.
As they began eating, Shawn Leonard was just finishing his plate when Mike was already on his cups. He ate ambidextrously changing from one hand to the next.
Mike was still slurping when Judge Relyea called out “Time.” “They ran out of cups at this end,” he said.
He said Kazuhari Obachi of Hiroshima, who was there doing a video for a Japanese TV show, “ate with cultured table manners.”
April Somboun of Manhattan via Seattle and Laos said she almost finished hers. She was credited with eating 8 oysters.
Word on the stage was that there might be an eat off.
“I was just getting rolling said Jeremy Kutch who looked a bit like Jeremy Previn. “I wish,” said Kutch, who was very animated, a good talker.
As Judge Relyea checked the trays and the cups he was counting, tally keeper Maryann Bentley looked up in awe and said, “Oh my God you tied,” as Judge Dave Relyea finished the count on Shawn Leonard.
“Could we come back tomorrow?” suggested Mike Chodkowski.
Both men had eaten 216 oysters.
The men were presented with cups and two more minutes to chug. Shawn ate 50 more oysters, and Mike ate 48. “You couldn’t be much closer than that,” said Judge Relyea.
“I’m a little disappointed but what can you do,” said Mr. Chodkowski.
“Eat off! It looked like a ‘sudden death’ to me,” said Supervisor John Venditto referring to the tie nomenclature of football.
Both eaters vowed to be back again next year.
On Sunday evening at around 4 p.m., the Western Waterfront was deserted. Walking toward the Cornell tug boat, built at the Jakobson Shipyard someone said, “The Cornell just closed for tours.” That was all right, the owner was still there closing things up. Aboard the Cornell was the new owner, 28-year-old Matt Perricone. He said Saturday was great, and added, “I hope they invite us back next year!”
That bodes well for 2010.
Signed up to shuck and their numbers are:
1. Dave Mahnken of Melville – 38.
2. Tyler Hand of Kings Park – 10.
3. Hank Tiska of Syosset – 21.
4. Mike Causarano of Brooklyn – 24.
5. Ralph Alarcon of Bayville – 37.
6. Lewis Tuccillo of Syosset – 27.
7. April Somboun of Manhattan via Seattle and Laos.
8. Kazuhari Obachi of Hiroshima, of a Japanese TV show.
The oyster eaters, and the number of oysters eaten are:
1. Shawn Leonard of Cold Spring Harbor – 216.
2. Phi Tran of Brooklyn – 67.
3. John Guiliano of Syosset – 132.
4. Jeremy Kutch of North Bablylon – 94.
5. George Corley of Centereach – 96.
6. Hector Rosardo of Staten Sialdn – 38.
7. Kazuhari Obachi Hiroshima, Japan – 46.
8. Frank Thomson Oceanside – 44.
9. Amy Bocciferro of Queens – 21.
10. Mike Chadowski of NC – 216.