If you had only come to the 58th annual Florida Seafood Festival on Friday, you would have likely concluded it was a total washout, as a cold rain and blustery winds spelled doom.
But if you had woke up Saturday morning and then attended all day, you would have enjoyed a brisk and sunny day, culminating in an evening of vintage country.
While it’s too early to say what the attendance was, there is no doubt that based on the steady queue of cars that creeped across the Gorrie Bridge all day, and based on the large number of people milling about Battery Park, and based on the sell-out numbers that several of the local food vendors boasted of, the festival bounced back in fine fashion after being cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The parade was a large one, with an absence of politicians, as this was an off-year for electioneering. Serving as honorary grand marshal was Pam Nobles, the county’s longtime dance instructor and an annual presence leading her young dancers in the parade. Nobles passed away peacefully at her Eastpoint home on Sunday, after a courageous bout with cancer.
The oyster shucking and oyster eating contests, once again under the direction of Dan Garlick and Michael Shuler, began right on time, with King Retsyo Ottice Amison feeding Miss Florida Seafood Jadyn Luberto a raw oyster.
The royal duo aboard the shrimp boat Owen and Devin had lead a small line of boats on Friday afternoon at the Blessing of the Fleet, held at Riverfront Park. Several members of the clergy throughout the county offered blessings as the line of at most 10 boats passed in front of the dock.
The two would later open the festival together with Mayor Brenda Ash, but a much smaller crowd was present due to the weather. The attendance for the Christian music headliner Dante Bowe was enthusiastic despite the cold and drizzling night.
Under sunny skies Saturday afternoon, the 2019 oyster shucking champ, Honor Allen, defended his title ably, as he took just 106 seconds to shuck his tray of oysters, 19 seconds ahead of Dwayne Hutchinson, from Hunt’s Oyster Bar in Panama City.
Finishing in third place was Max Dawson, Hutchinson’s co-worker at Hunt’s, who finished in 127 seconds.
Allen, who now works in aquaculture for the Fiddlers Point Oyster Company in Panacea, was able to secure the win after he received a 10-second deduction in his time because his tray had the best presentation.
Allen, who also won in 2015, 2016, and 2018, now has earned a berth in the Oct. 2022 national championships in St. Marys, Maryland, where he will defend the title he won three weeks ago at the U.S. Oyster Festival. Because of that recent national title win, he is headed to Ireland in Sept. 2022 for the international championship.
Among those who took part in the oyster shucking event was Jonathan Bryant, from Panama City, whose grandfather, Jack Bryant, was from Apalachicola.
The biggest surprise of the afternoon came in the men’s oyster shucking contest, when a local man defied recent history to keep the title in the county. Eastpoint’s Brad Shiver, who had finished second a half-dozen years ago, downed 13 dozen and 11 oysters in 15 minutes for the victory.
This was about a dozen more than Panama City’s Marvin Walters did, with 12 dozen and 11, and Tom Gibson from Perry, a perennial top finisher, did with nine dozen and seven, to finish third.
“Now he’s ready to go enjoy a dozen,” joked his wife Teri, after she had urged him on throughout the competition.
Brad had sought guidance on whether he should take on that fifth cup, and his wife coached him through it. “I was watching the other gentleman and he (Brad) was shoveling a lot quicker,” said Teri. “I told him he could slow down.
“I was like his third base coach, telling him to run or stop,” she said.
“They were Texas oysters and they were huge,” said Brad. “The farm-raised ones are like peanuts.”
In the female contest, it was a case of Tom Gibson’s daughter Keria, a Kindergarten teacher in Taylor County who used to work at Deal’s Famous Oyster House in Perry, besting her younger sister Valerie, who had just turned 18 and was competing for the first time.
Keria downed nine dozen and three, two more than she had done last year, to easily outdistance her sister for the win. Valerie ate six dozen and 11, and Teresa White six dozen and three for third place.
With local favorite Ashley Morgan performing at 5 p.m., followed by Kylie Morgan and then headliner Drew Parker, the weather and the spirit stayed clear and warm on into the evening, marking a robust comeback for the annual festival.
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