Last fall, we visited friends in Virginia—Ginger, a high school classmate and her husband Miller (see Oysters) Miller spent many years as an inspector for the state’s department of health, specifically checking the conditions of oyster beds and the collecting, storage and packaging of fresh oysters. We were invited for the annual November Urbana Oyster Festival—not just to attend the festival, but to volunteer in their church’s fried oyster tent during the festival.
The festival is open Friday and Saturday. Preparation began Wednesday when crews and church members came in to set up the tents, tables, fryers, and all of the other necessary equipment.
There were two tents. The main tent is where most of the work takes place—here oysters, clams and soft shelled crabs are deep fried and served up in boats or on biscuits by volunteers. A smaller tent in the back is where the clams, oysters, and crabs are breaded, and a vats of clam chowder were prepared.
Thursday, the oyster truck arrived, provided by the same people whose oyster house Miller and I had visited. For the festival, the refrigerated truck loaded with more than thirty gallons of freshly shucked oysters, was parked behind the tents. Each gallon contains 280 to 300 oysters, and Miller explained that if the weather was good, they could expect to sell out of all oysters by mid Saturday afternoon. The refrigerated truck stayed for the entire festival, and they used it for all of their refrigeration needs.
The breading station for fried oysters, clam strips, was set up in the smaller of the two tents.
Friday, the festival opened to good crowds. The weather forecast suggested Friday was going to be the better of the two days, with chances of rain on Saturday. Soon oyster and clam frying were proceeding at a brisk pace and customers began to line up at the front counter.
One of the favorite menu items is the ham-oyster-biscuit or HOB. Several oysters are layered on top of a slice of country cured (we call it “old”) ham inside a biscuit. The church prepared nearly 2000 ham biscuits ahead of time and about 1500 of them were upgraded to HOBs. Of course I had to taste-test one (or two) and they alone were worth the trip to Virginia.
Money earned by the church during the festival is used for several charitable programs in the community including to support their church-sponsored Boy Scouts of America troop. Many scouts work in the concession. While they are not paid directly, each working scout earns money that goes into his scouting account to buy uniforms and expenses for camping trips. Miller explained that through programs like the oyster festival booth, scouts can participate in most scouting activities with little or no direct cost to them or their families.
The church has done this for many years, and the operation runs like a well-oiled machine.