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Festival reunions

by Tom Chillemi

The Urbanna Oyster Festival is a feast of food, entertainment, and excitement that is hard to match.

It’s also a “homecoming” for many who have roots in Middlesex County. At the 54th Urbanna Oyster Festival you never know who or when you’ll run into someone you haven’t seen in years.

From the crowd on Saturday came Becca Downs, who is a senior at Bridgewater College. Just four years ago she was an Oyster Festival Queen contestant.

She stopped to tell Southside Sentinel reporter and photographer Tom Chillemi that she had taken his advice and remembered something he told her while she was at Middlesex High School. Downs had planned to go into graphic design, and Chillemi commented at that time that being a photographer could take her anywhere in the world.

When the chance came at college, she transferred into photography as a major. Downs already has plans to start her own photography business in Raleigh.

“Knowing that I had indirectly helped someone make a career choice, made my day,” said Chillemi.

You can’t buy that feeling… but it happened at the Oyster Festival.

Shannon Brooks, 28, has been to 27 Oyster Festivals. Brooks, who is recovering from a torn tendon in her ankle, rented a special scooter so she could make it to this year’s Oyster Festival.

She wheeled around Festival Village with one knee on the scooter, walking with her good leg and wheeling her injured leg. “I was not going to miss a year,” said Brooks of Glen Allen. “This is like a family reunion.”

Brooks’ mother, Cheryl, pushed a stroller with her dog Tessa, who was attending its first Oyster Festival. “We wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Mrs. Brooks.

Friday’s cloudy, cool and damp weather prompted the Halligan Bar and Grill to post a sign by their seating area. “Sandwich and a dry seat combo $5.”

On Saturday morning the cool wind that blew across the Urbanna Creek Bridge was blocked by buildings and trees in town. The bright sun made it toasty in places.

First oyster
At the Middlesex Kiwanis tent, Matt Hoger of Northern Virginia, ate his first oyster—raw with a few drops of lemon juice. “Interesting,” he commented, giving a thumbs up. Hoger’s friends said that as he was about to eat the oyster, he commented, “Oh, God.”

Hoger said he would be back later for more.

Both Hoger and Carami Montoro were at their first Urbanna Oyster Festival. They arrived Friday in time to see and hear the wailing sirens of the Fireman’s Parade. “It was intense,” said Montoro, who filmed the parade to show her brother, “so he could see it the same as me.”

That would be hard to do, said one person in the group. “You’d have to turn the volume up all the way.”

“You have to feel it in your heart,” commented Montoro’s mother Mindi, of Richmond, who had opened her Urbanna house to seven visitors who were in town for the festival.

Mindi Montoro said the fireman’s parade is “very moving,” and she is touched by how the children of firefighters often get to ride in the fire trucks in the parade. “My heart beats faster to the sounds of the sirens. I cry through it every year. I’m so proud of them (the firefighters).”

The parade is a “patriotic symbol,” said Mindi. “It reminds me we are all part of the community and it’s a great way to honor them.”

Four states were represented by another group of three sisters and a brother and spouses, who were ordering oysters at the Kiwanis tent. “It’s a family homecoming,” said Steve Tusing of Richmond.

Dave Eichelberger said the oysters he eats in his home state of Massachusetts don’t compare with Rappahannock River oysters. “These are the best!”

By lunch time long lines extended across Virginia Street at the Middlesex Lions Club concession—home of the famous oyster fritter. One of the cooks said they had started with 276 gallons of oysters and had cooked about half of them on Friday. 

Andy and Kelly Bendheim of Winston-Salem, N.C., drove 4.5 hours to the Oyster Festival. Around noon on Saturday he was back for his second oyster fritter of the day. “I most definitely will come back for a third, fourth and fifth,” he said.

His wife didn’t share his enthusiasm for the battered and fried fritters, saying she just “nibbled” at them.

Seen all around town was the video camera of James Overton and Alpha Vision Films. He was shooting video for a PBS special titled, “The Truth on the Table.” It will feature the people, cuisine, agriculture and special events in Virginia, he explained. The producers will notify the Oyster Festival Foundation when the production is to air.

At the Virginia State Oyster Shucking Competition, amateur shuckers Davila Redmond of Middlesex and Betsy Toist of Charlottesville discussed shucking techniques. 

Redmond gets lessons from his mother, Deborah Pratt, a multiple state and national oyster shucking champion. A few of Pratt’s tips included: don’t have the blade too sharp; keep it short so it won’t cut too deep; and put just the tip of the blade in the oyster and it will pop right open.

posted 11.09.2011

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