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How a Winner Does It

Behind the scenes at the National Oyster Cook-Off
Marty Hyson: 
Smoked Chardonnay Oysters
First Prize Hors D’Oeuvres; Best Presentation; 
People’s Choice
       A two-time past grand-prize winner of the National Oyster Cook-Off, at this year’s 52nd Annual U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, Marty Hyson entertained from the moment he fired up his grill outside the auditorium. If Hyson, 55, of Millersville, wasn’t yukking it up with passers-by while smoking chunky bivalves on the half-shell, he was mugging for cameras or hugging his daughter and grandson. Good thing Hyson, area manager for a furniture company, did his preparations outside because a kitchen might not contain his personality.
      Hyson’s smoked Chardonnay oysters is an original recipe evolved from an appetizer of brie, garlic and black pepper he’d whipped up for friends, who loved it. 
      For this year’s Cook-Off, he said, “why not add a thin slice of brie to oysters? I usually do something on the grill, and the smoky flavor sounded like a great combination. I added Chardonnay.” Pistachios served a dual purpose: crunch to spread lightly over the top, then serving, by the hundreds, as the bed for his finished delight.
 
Susan Bickta: 
Creamy Oyster Florentine Chowder
First Prize Soups and Stews 
      Susan Bickta’s presentation of creamy chowder evolved from a family tradition that has played out over decades in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley: Christmas Eve chowder. Her father, Kenneth Weller, made the dish each year until his death in 1974. Then Bickta took over the holiday rite.
      “I love the rich foods of the Pennsylvania Dutch,” Bickta said. The retired office manager turned to cooking and recipe contests after brain surgery to keep herself sharp.
     The familial love of oysters runs even deeper. Her mother’s grandfather, H.S. Grosh, sold oysters from his eponymous Pennsylvania store well over a century ago. Bickta’s presentation included a photograph of that store, which gave judges a further sense of culinary history.
       The H.S. Grosh store also sold ice cream along with oysters, though it’s doubtful that Bickta will try to combine the two next year.
 
Debbie Reynolds: 
Crisp Fried Oysters Louisiana Poutine Style
First Prize Main Dish and Grand Prize
       Debbie Reynolds is riding high. First, her fried oysters won first prize in the main dish category. Next she topped that with grand prize. 
        Reynolds, of Waldorf, was looking for ways to liven up her oysters, and she’s fond of spices.
      “I kept seeing a lot of poutine,” she said, recalling her thinking as the dish came together. She varied that Québécois custom of topping fried food with cheese curds by substituting fried oysters for the usual French-fried potato.
      For the requisite gravy, she headed south, creating a Louisiana Cajun-style etouffee to pour over her grand-prize-winning oyster dish.