This year, Oyster House is bringing Shuckfest to the water.
After a three-year hiatus, the oyster-shelling competition returns tomorrow in a big way, taking place in Philadelphia’s largest outdoor restaurant Liberty Point, on the Delaware River waterfront. It’s the first time the event has been held outside of Oyster House.
“We’ve outgrown our space,” said Oyster House owner Sam Mink, explaining to Billy Penn that plans for an expansion had been set for 2020 before being shut down for obvious reasons. “I wanted to do it on the water, and Liberty Point seemed like the perfect setting.”
Now back on track, the change of location will see festival-favorite activities unfold on a “grander, bigger scale” than before, said Mink.
Tasting tables will be hosted by twelve regional oyster farmers, including Cape May Salt Oyster Farms, Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm, Betsy Cape Shore Salts, Brigantine Oyster Company, Barnegat Oyster Collective, and Blue Island Oysters. Also returning is Oyster House’s Shuck Like A Pro station, where visitors can experience one-on-one private lessons with the restaurant’s master shucker Gary McCready before enjoying the fruits of their labor.
It all culminates in the competition, where professional oyster shuckers are judged on speed and accuracy. This year brings the largest and most diverse lineup in the half-decade the festival has been held, with two woman-owned oyster farms competing for the $500 grand cash prize.
There’ll also be a craft station for children to make oyster-shell knick-knacks, live music from Gypsy Wisdom, and beer and cocktails provided by Liberty Point.
It’s a far cry, Mink said, from the festival’s more chaotic start.
Making a festival out of it
This year’s Shuckfest falls on one of Oyster House’s “many different birthdays,” as Mink puts it. In 2008 he took over the restaurant from his father, who opened it in 1976, and spent a year gutting and remodeling the space before reopening in June 2009. The idea of a competition came shortly afterwards, with the initial version of the event held during business hours.
The restaurant would close after lunch for a two-hour competition, with the staff rushing to clean afterwards and reopen for dinner at 5 p.m., all on a Saturday, “which was absolutely crazy,” said Mink.
The insanity continued for four or five years before the decision was made to push the event to Sunday, when the restaurant was closed, and “make more of a festival out of it.”
Over six editions, Shuckfest has grown in scale and popularity — the restaurant only had enough space for just over half of this year’s 12 competitors.
While the competition may be the main draw for many, the festival brings a great opportunity, Mink said, for attendees to try oysters grown in close proximity and compare the differences in flavors
A taste of territory
The flavor of an oyster is determined by factors like the temperature, salinity, and minerality of the water in which it’s grown. It’s a characteristic known as terroir in wine-making — a flavor profile set by the environment in which the grape is grown — and “merroir” in oyster farming, Mink explained.
Shuckfest attendees will be able to experience firsthand the difference in flavors between, for example, Sweet Amalia’s oysters, grown in the Delaware Bay which has a heavy flow of fresh water coming in from the Delaware River, with the brinier Barnegat Bay oysters, grown closer to the ocean.
Tasting tables at the festival will be equipped with cocktail sauces, mignonettes, and lemon slices, but Mink suggests visitors first try their oysters naked in order to really taste the essence of the oyster. “You don’t want to compete with any other flavors.”
Besides Delaware and Barnegat Bays, this year’s lineup will include oysters from Brigantine, Ludlum Bay behind Sea Isle City, and even Long Island.
“There’s a vibrant local oyster industry,” said Mink. “And I’m happy to promote it and be a part of it and showcase it to the people of Philadelphia.”
211 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd, 12 to 6 p.m. Sunday, June 4 | Tickets: $75 (includes tickets to redeem for oysters from each tasting table); children under 10 free. Additional food and drink are pay as you go.