Lowcountry Oyster Festival is ‘bigger and better’ as it hits 30 years

By Rob Young  Special to The Post and Courier – Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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File/Marie Rodriguez There will be 80,000 pounds of oysters shipped in for Sunday’s event.

Boone Hall Plantation

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  • Some shuckers break out their heavy-duty gear for the festival.
    ( Provided )
    Some shuckers break out their heavy-duty gear for the festival.

  • About 11,000 people are expected to attend.
    ( Provided )
    About 11,000 people are expected to attend.

  • A batch of oysters is steamed as the setting sun filters through the Spanish moss at a previous Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation.
    ( File/staff )
    A batch of oysters is steamed as the setting sun filters through the Spanish moss at a previous Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation.

  • Thousands come out of their shells each year at the annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.
    ( file/staff )
    Thousands come out of their shells each year at the annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.

  • A crowd gathers as they get ready to watch the oyster eating contest during a past Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation.
    ( File/staff )
    A crowd gathers as they get ready to watch the oyster eating contest during a past Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation.

  • Cocktail sauce and crackers are great with a bucket of oysters.
    ( File/staff )
    Cocktail sauce and crackers are great with a bucket of oysters.

  • Geoffry Flanigan, left, and Jennifer Westendorff-Mallard pile steaming hot oysters into buckets during a past Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation as Jennifer yells “Hot Oysters.” Standing at right is Richard McRae.
    ( File/staff )
    Geoffry Flanigan, left, and Jennifer Westendorff-Mallard pile steaming hot oysters into buckets during a past Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation as Jennifer yells “Hot Oysters.” Standing at right is Richard McRae.

  • Attendees dig in.
    ( Provided )
    Attendees dig in.

  • The women take the stage for the shucking competition.
    ( Provided )
    The women take the stage for the shucking competition.

  • ( Provided )

  • Someone reaches for their bucket of oysters.
    ( Provided )
    Someone reaches for their bucket of oysters.

  • Oysters are dished out by the bucket.
    ( Provided )
    Oysters are dished out by the bucket.

  • There are designated shell recycling spots.
    ( Provided )
    There are designated shell recycling spots.

11,000

Expected to attend the Oyster Festival.



80,000

Pounds of oysters to be delivered.



43

Oysters shucked by Annie Bonifacio, the 2012 women’s winner in the oyster shucking contest.



51

Oysters shucked by Rick Sizemore, the 2012 men’s winner in the oyster shucking contest.



48

Ounces of oysters devoured by Marcy Jones, the 2012 women’s winner in the oyster eating contest.



100.8

Ounces of oysters devoured by John Carson, the 2012 men’s winner in the oyster eating contest.



552

The number of oysters eaten by Sonya Thomas, the Major League Eating recordholder.



$1 million-plus

Amount the Charleston Restaurant Association has raised in charitable contributions through the festival.

By the numbers

11,000



Expected to attend the Oyster Festival.











80,000



Pounds of oysters to be delivered.





43

Oysters shucked by Annie Bonifacio, the 2012 women’s winner in the oyster shucking contest.





51

Oysters shucked by Rick Sizemore, the 2012 men’s winner in the oyster shucking contest.





48

Ounces of oysters devoured by Marcy Jones, the 2012 women’s winner in the oyster eating contest.



100.8

Ounces of oysters devoured by John Carson, the 2012 men’s winner in the oyster eating contest.





552

The number of oysters eaten by Sonya Thomas, the Major League Eating recordholder.





$1 million-plus

Amount the Charleston Restaurant Association has raised in charitable contributions through the festival.

The key to the Lowcountry Oyster Festival’s longevity is simple: a love for oysters.

A whole lotta love.

Sunday marks the 30th annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival, hosted each year by the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association.

The event, at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, also seems to function as a harbinger of the Charleston festival season, concluding January with an enormous, ocean-size feast before making way for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (Feb. 15-17), BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival (Feb. 28-March 3), Spoleto (May 24-June 9) and all points in between and beyond.

Organizers of the oyster festival expect about 11,000 people to attend.

“It’s really gotten bigger and better each year,” restaurant association Executive Director Kathy Britzius said.

Britzius isn’t being biased, either. According to the association, the Southeastern Tourism Society has hailed the oyster festival, billed as “the world’s largest oyster roast,” as one of the “Top 20 events in the Southeast” for the past 25 years.

“It brings a number of people from out of town just to relax and enjoy the oyster festival,” Britzius said.

Oysters, and then some

The event also brings in a ton of oysters — about 40, actually, or 80,000 pounds.

Two tractor-trailers arrive the day prior to the festival, the rigs filled with single select oysters plucked from Texas waters.

“Everybody always asks why we don’t do local oysters,” Britzius said. “Well, we just don’t have that amount available.”

And should steamed oysters not pique your appetite, festivalgoers also can enjoy fried oysters, various kinds of seafood, soup, hamburgers, gyros and desserts from a number of vendors.

“Folks should understand that we’ll have more food out here, not just oysters,” Britzius said.

A food court will be set up and will include a number of restaurants, three food trucks and sweet offerings.

Options include Red’s Ice House, Zeus Grill and Seafood, Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant, The Windjammer, Jim ‘N Nicks Bar-B-Q, Wild Wing Cafe, AW Shuck’s, Hyman’s Seafood, Dukes Barbecue, BlackJack Barbecue, Hubee D’s Tenders and Wings, Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe, Charleston Cookie Company and S&D Coffee.

The entertainment

The local rock/groove cover band Not So Serious will perform beginning at 11:30 a.m., with breaks during the oyster eating and oyster shucking contests.

Those two events, as any veteran festivalgoer will concur, are crowd pleasers.

During the oyster shucking, participants must remove as many oysters from their shells as possible in three minutes, placing the briny parcels in 16-ounce plastic cups.

And this contest isn’t for the amateur shucker. Rick Sizemore led the men with 51 oysters last year, while Chad Tran finished second with 43 oysters. Annie Bonifacio triumphed in the women’s division with 43 oysters, outpacing Lisa Bellamy’s 37-oyster finish.

“You don’t want to stand in front of the stage when they’re doing that,” said Britzius, rather understatedly. “I ended up once with a few on my head.”

Of course, those plastic cups brimming with raw oysters are principal to the second competition: the oyster eating contest.

Here, contestants must wolf down as many of the 16-ounce oyster-filled cups as possible.

Repeat champ John Carson easily won the men’s title last year, finishing 6.3 cups, slightly more than 100 ounces. His closest competitor, Michael Willis, managed to eat — or would it be drink? — 4.3 cups, or about 68 ounces. Marcy Jones outpaced the women with 3 cups, barely defeating Tab Sturkie’s 2.75 cups.

New features

The festival features a few additions this year. Here’s the lineup:

Budweiser’s Build-A-Bar: Put on by Southern Eagle Distributing, it’s a portable trailer/marketing vehicle that transforms into a bar with plasma screen televisions. “I can’t wait to see that,” Britzius said. “It’s basically a pop-up bar set up near the permanent stage where we put the band. So it’s sort of a natural place to be.”

The Pluff Mudd Circus: Billed as a festival within a festival, the circus offers daylong activities and entertainment for kids and families. Circus acrobats, fire jugglers, clowns and a pirate balloon artist (hint: expect your share of swords) head the docket. A workshop dedicated to the circus arts also will be given, showing kids how to juggle, make balloon dogs and hula hoop. Other diversions include a family egg toss and a bubble station with buckets of bubbles at the ready. “It’s going to be so cute and so great for the children,” Britzius said. “It’s got tons of different games for the kids to play.”

JetBlue giveaway: Every hour, on the hour, JetBlue will give away free flights. Registrants must be 18 or older and at the festival to win. Tickets are valid Feb. 28-Feb. 28, 2014, and winners just have to pay the taxes.

Beyond the oysters

Like last year, the event will use an additional entrance off U.S. Highway 17 to help ease traffic and congestion woes. Long Point Road formerly offered the only entry point, but now visitors can access the festival by turning near Boone Hall Farm’s Pumpkin Patch.

The entrance will remain open until 2 p.m., at which point, the route reverses to accommodate outgoing traffic.

The festival also will provide a free park-and-ride trolley service from the Highway 17 entrance, depositing visitors at the rear gate of Boone Hall.

As in past years, a portion of the proceeds from the festival goes toward charities such as the Charleston County Schools Science Materials Resource Center, Hollings Cancer Center, Hospitality Heroes, the Ronald McDonald House and Shriners Hospitals for Children.

To date, the Charleston Restaurant Association has raised more than $1 million in charitable contributions.

Standard festival rules also apply: No coolers. No pets. No tailgating.

Visitors may bring their own oyster knives and gloves or buy them on-site.

It’s also a rain-or-shine event, with the early forecast (cross your fingers) showing a low chance of rain and temperatures close to 50 degrees.

“People don’t eat too many oysters when it’s that warm,” Britzius said. “This cool weather just might be perfect for the festival.”