APALACHICOLA - If the size of the oyster eaters’ appetites are an accurate gauge, Saturday’s crowd at the 50th annual Florida Seafood Festival was a bellyful for the record books.
A late thunderstorm Friday night, followed by an overcast morning, gave way to crisp, sunny weather, ideal for taking in a podium full of competitors guzzling mollusks.
For Gerald “G” Goodman, of Southport, it came very close to eschewing chewing, and swallowing them whole, and he quickly pulled into the obvious lead in the 15-minute contest.
His shaven head even drew cheers and heckles, some taunting “Kojak” that he wouldn’t keep them all down by the time County Attorney Michael Shuler blew the whistle.
But Goodman’s constitution remained calm, and 27 dozen oysters later, his consuming style had brought him to only about 72 oysters short of the record.
“The rules say you have to use a fork to get them out the cup. If he wants to swallow ‘em, he can swallow ‘em. That’s up to him,” said Shuler, who has volunteered for the festival for 20 years.
Goodman, 41, said it was his first time ever in an eating contest, but that he’s no stranger to savoring oysters. “I usually get a bag like every Friday, and eat a bag,” he said.
Among females, Apalachicola’s Dana Taylor, pulled a stunning upset of five-time champion Angie Harnage, who downed only seven dozen and six oysters, about half of her personal best. Taylor consumed an impressive 18 dozen.
“This is it. I’m retiring. Turning 50 neat year, It’s just time,” said Harnage, who started oyster eating about 10 years ago on a dare from friends. “We just made it a tradition.”
Tradition rebounded far off from just the oyster eating contest.
The Blessing of the Fleet Friday afternoon featured several clergymen, Father Roger Latosynski, of St. Patrick Catholic Church; Rev. Themo Patriotis, pastor of the UMC Cooperative Parish; Rev. Martha Harris, vicar of Trinity Episcopal: Rev. Scott Lolley, pastor of Living Waters Assembly of God; Rev. Barry Hand, pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist; Sister Jeanne Drea, a Sinsinawa Dominican nun; and Dr. John Sink, a retired Navy captain and Methodist minister. Chris Clark played the bagpipes, Micah Patriotis carried the crucifer, ABC School fourth grader Nico Valenzuela tossed in the memorial wreath.
After Florida Seafood Festival Queen Morgan Martin, and King Retsyo Vance Millender arrived by shrimp boat, State Sen. Bill Montford and Apalachicola mayor Van Johnson welcomed the guests. John Solomon, president of the board of directors, presented a plaque to Billy Spikes, who directed the first festival in 1963.
Now in the real estate business in Orlando, Spikes back then was a young marketing manager for Florida Power, and worked closely with city business interest to create an attraction for visitors in the off-season. Ted Mosteller, also retired from Florida Power, is stepping down this year after more than four decades on the volunteer board.
Solomon said despite a rainstorm that shaved the last couple hours off Friday’s events, this weekend’s crowd was in excess of 31,000, fueled by a combination of it being the golden anniversary, the appearance of county music and Dancing with the Stars champion Kellie Pickler Saturday night, and the weather.
He said gate receipts were at least $57,000, with a record number of t-shirt sales. “We ordered 1,000 more t-shirts than we had in the past and sold out at 12:30 p.m.,” Solomon said. “Last year we had shirts left.”
He and fellow board member Danny Gay plan to order more shirts. “We’re talking now about how we can get people what they want and the size they need and get a two-color order,” he said. “We’d like to make sure everybody’s happy.”
Food sales were more than robust, with Solomon estimating that Franklin County Schools’ fourth grade booth went through 1,500 pounds of fried shrimp, with the senior class frying up at least 26 gallons of oysters at its booth.
The Carrabelle Church of God shucked more than 70 bags of oysters on the half-shell, while the food service workers’ booth sold out of boiled shrimp, as did the softball traveling team of its scallops and the senior class of crab claws.
After an enormous morning parade down U.S. 98, Florida Seafood Festival Queen Morgan Martin, and King Retsyo Vance Millender, a Carrabelle seafood dealer, got the oyster eating underway about 1 p.m. by serving each other one.
After that it was time for another tradition, this time a win in the oyster shucking contest by Scotty O’Lear, an 11-time state champion and a five-time national champion.
The general manager of Dusty’s Oyster Bar in Panama City for the past 20 years, O’Lear was pleased to have once again taken the state title, this time by edging co-worker and returning champion Rick McCurley.
“It feels good to in,” he said. “I haven’t won here in four years. It’s been a while.”
O’Lear finished with a time of 2:31, helped out by getting a deduction for “the perfect tray,” a symmetrical presentation of six rows of four. Only nine of his 24 oysters were not fully cut from the shell, so he had 27 seconds added for that.
Still, it was good enough to edge McCurley, and third place Robert Daffin, also a former state champion.
“I had a good run on oysters,” said O’Lear. “Pop, cut, place. Pop, cut, place. Every oyster seems to rock for you. When you got one oyster that hangs you up, the competition is really tough.”
The crowd continued to build all afternoon, anticipating the arrival of Pickler for the night’s featured entertainment.
Pickler came on stage in heels, but after her opening number, “Little House,” she sat down on the edge of the stage and took them off, and went barefoot the rest of the evening.
She delighted the crowd with such songs as “Beautiful,” “Makin Me Fall,” “Tough,” “Stop Cheatin’,” “Where’s Tammy,” and “”Things,” before launching into her current hit, “Someone Somewhere.”
She rounded off her evening with “Ring For Sale,” “White Lightning,” “My Angel,” “Wanna Be Married,” “Gypsy,” “Didn’t You Know,” “Unlock That Honky Tonk,” “I Wonder” and “Best Days.” For her encore she came out in red high heels and sang the song of the same name.
Following the concert, she and her entourage left on the bus back to Nashville, to swing her house and prepare for the Nov. 6 County Music Association awards.