There was very little that didn’t go right Saturday at the fourth annual Oyster Cook-off.
The crowd was huge, food tasted good, fun prevailed and weather stayed perfect, helping more money than last year roll in to fill the needs of the Apalachicola Volunteer Fire Department.
The volunteering went well beyond the Apalachicola firefighters who pranced around in a conga line after choreography by Pam Nobles dancers, and for Marisa Getter, who chairs the organizing committee, that volunteer effort made all the difference.
“It’s the most organized so far,” she said. “We keep getting more organized but it keeps growing so we never seem to be both ready and organized.”
This year’s growth was noticeable several blocks away, where latecomers later than the noon start were forced to park. The more than a few minutes wait in the lines for peel-and-eat and fried shrimp, oyster stew, and fried, raw and steamed oysters attested to what was even greater than the 25 percent attendance increase Getter’s crew had forecast.
Based just on Friday night’s art preview, and Saturday’s cash and credit cards, nothing else, the event took in $36,000, about one-third more than the $27,000 last year.
Friday night’s silent auction and preview at the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts, which committee member Meghan Davis “kind of took over this year,” brought in $5,000, about three times last year’s total, Getter said.
The attendance was good, and the items and art kept coming in even on Saturday to be auctioned off, she said.
Assisting Getter and Davis with organizing duties were treasurer Shelly Shepard, secretary Carrie Jones, Joe Taylor and Betty Webb.
The dozen competitive teams each received their dozen oysters, or a pint for stew, at the noon start of the cook-off.
Past winners Jeff Ilardi, with his Pearls of the Bay spruced-up on the half-shell, and the Eastpoint Volunteer Fire Department, with their “Lazy Lester,” deep dish baked oyster dish, both modified their past winning recipes to take aim at victory this year.
John Solomon’s Florida Seafood festival team, known for their barbecue wins but not yet for oysters, complicated the challenge both geographically and gastronomically, with their “Oysters of the World” dish.
Solomon used recipes from Japan, Australia and Ireland to create three distinct variations, the Japanese with rice wine, soy, ginger and salmon roe; the Irish deviled with egg, cayenne, breaded and baked; and the Australian with bacon and bread crumbs, also baked.
The small dishes each had s specially ordered flag from their respective countries, and a map on the plate, but the clues didn’t resonate with judge Michael Allen, owner of Oyster Radio.
“I was not told I had to know the flags of the countries,” he said, between satisfied bites.
With few exceptions, the presentations of the dozen dishes were well-done. The Weems team, Led by Jody Fortunas, served up two rows of Mirabella oysters, marinated in garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, topped with black caviar, each atop a ceramic spoon, accompanied by seasoned crackers.
Bobbi Walker, from Orange Beach, Alabama, prepared fried oysters flavored with blue cheese and potpourri sauce, in a silver serving dish. She had help from Cheryl Childress and husband Ron, from Daphne, Ala., and Sheryl Watts, from Meridian, Mississippi, all down here staying on Cape San Blas.
“We just decided we wanted to do something fun,” Walker said.
Former undersheriff Joel Norred, and his wife Susan, did “Naked Oysters Under Glass,” each grilled with bacon, spinach, and anise, and served with a “firecracker” to add crunch.
Earl Solomon did Oysters Rockefeller, and that earned him third place with Allen and the other two judges - Ron Sewell, a self-described “little fat Ford dealer from Odessa Texas” back for his second year, and St. George Island’s Jerry Thompson, who was at least 15 minutes late due to parking hassles, which delayed the scheduled start of judging.
“I think some dishes would have been better if they had started eating them 15 to 20 minutes before, like they were supposed to, instead of letting them get cold,” said Getter. “I told them this one should have been warm, so keep that in mind. This is cold now but don’t take it against them.”
The three judge panel eventually selected the Eastpoint Volunteer Fire Department’s dish for the top prize, the second year in a row, and Ilardi’s half-shell delights for second, repeating top finishes they each earned in previous years.
Getter said she believes it may be time to bring in some fresh palates to the task. “You live and learn,” she said. “Maybe it should be like that, but it doesn’t make sense to have the same judges.”
Many of the attendees brought their dogs to the event, and Getter said boosted turnout as well. “Everybody had their dog on the leash, which is nice too,” she said. “My goal always was to have a nice, old town, kind of festival oriented for families.”