A Shucking Great Competition
Shawn Taylor | Contributor
While American oyster enthusiasts might debate the qualities of the East Coast vs. West Coast, or the appeal of Appalachicola Bay, Florida against the coast of Maine, the real oyster contest is found across the Atlantic, in Galway Ireland.
The Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival is the world’s longest running oyster festival. Every September since 1954, locals and visitors alike have gathered to consume huge quantities of the local delicacy while cheering on competitors in The World Oyster Opening Championship.
The festival itself kicks off on the first night with a beauty pageant. That pageant crowns the new Oyster Pearl, the festival queen, who feeds the official first oyster to the Mayor of Galway to open the festivities. Once the party is underway, with ongoing cooking demonstrations, seafood tastings, live music, and gallons of Guinness, the competition gets ready to begin.
Just to qualify for the championship, entrants must be able to open 18 oysters in just two minutes. For the actual contest, each competitor gets a case of 30 regulation oysters which must be opened and presented. Speed is the main factor, but the final score also includes bonus points awarded or taken away for presentation. Each competitor rings a bell to show they are done, then steps away from their tray. Judges then confirm all 30 oysters are opened while checking for penalties such as bits of shell or grit on the oyster flesh (4 point penalty), an oyster not severed from its shell (4 point penalty) or even an oyster with the contestant’s blood on it (30 point penalty!).
Shucking oysters is indeed difficult and often dangerous work, since it involves using sharp tools at high speed on slippery surfaces. Even with heavy gloves, constant minor injuries go with the territory. In spite of the risks, the title of World Champion is a coveted one. While there are always some who will claim to pursue art for its own sake, the Oyster Championship is a ticket to instant, if temporary, culinary fame, guaranteeing at least a year full of guest appearances and sponsorships, not to mention cash and other prizes awarded on the spot.
The competition itself is a ticketed event with musical guests and lavish food and drink, but the celebration covers the entire town, with companion events like celebrity chef cook-offs, a parade, and a masquerade ball. Of course, local seafood is the unifying element. Because they don’t want anyone going home disappointed, the festival publishes the Seafood Trail, a guide to local restaurants offering the signature Galway oysters, which are stockpiled in the days ahead to make sure that all the listed venues have oysters available for the entire four day festival.
The Galway Seafood Festival is held annually on the last weekend of September. For details, visit them at http://galwayoysterfestival.com
Cover photo credit : Elizabeth K. Joseph