Another year, another million mussels steamed, seasoned, slurped, mashed and mangled.
This past weekend, Coupeville’s streets filled with a record crowd of mussel feeders and mussel eaters for the annual Penn Cove Musselfest.
A line snaked through the center of town Saturday morning as visitors waited to participate in the popular mussel chowder tasting contest. Some 600 tickets were sold out by noon.
“We absolutely love it,” said Amy Sharp of Bonney Lake. “It’s our beautiful, wonderful tradition. It’s a nice, friendly town.”
In its 32nd year, the festival is sponsored by the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association. It helps local businesses during the shoulder season and shows off the region’s legendary “bold briny and blue” mussels, said Vickie Chambers, executive director.
In all, 16 restaurants competed for the coveted “best chowder” title as thousands milled around tasting 2-ounce samples in little blue MusselFest cups.
Greg Davidson of north Seattle declared his favorite to be from Captain Whidbey Inn.
“It’s the smoked salmon in it that puts it over the top,” he said.
However, Christopher’s took the title, Captain Whidbey Inn came in second while Tyee took third place, Chambers announced Monday.
Penn Cove Shellfish, the company that put Coupeville on the culinary map, gave popular tours of its mussel rafts explaining how the mighty mollusks are harvested.
Chef demonstrations in the Coupeville Rec Hall provided both cooking lessons and tidbit tastings. Wafting down the streets were smells from the many vendors — barbecue, hot dogs, seafood paella and more.
An estimated 9,000 people attended the two-day event, Chambers said, who declared it “a record crowd and phenomenal two days.”
The homegrown, small-town feel festival is apparently gaining a global reputation.
“I spoke with people today from Russia, Germany and Finland,” volunteer Vicky Reyes said Sunday. “They all said they read on the internet that this was something you got to do this weekend.”
Taking center stage both days — the frantic frenzied spectacle of the mussel-eating contest.
Each afternoon, 30 competitors gobbled down their gullets three heaping cups of steamed mussels.
They shoveled and slurped the bi-valves in less than two minutes, splitting and spitting shells like a horde of screeching sea gulls.
Saturday, two men and one woman were declared finalists. Next, they endured another round and another cup of the blue nuggets from the sea.
Rawl Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish and mussel contest official, declared Ryan Leckie of Bellingham Saturday’s winner.
“Doesn’t look like he hid any in his beard,” Jefferds said after an inspection.
This is the second year in a row Leckie won the coveted cape and crown.
Leckie beat out “Captain Brad” of Coupeville by a bite.
“One second. That’s how much he beat me by,” lamented the second-place finisher.
Sachin Pai, a friend of Leckie, said he came to the MusselFest for the first time to cheer on his pal.
He summed up the mass of mussel mess in one word: “Amazing.”
Sunday, Jenna Valach from Seattle won the contest, also after a three-person “eat-off” that included Captain Brad, back for a second try.
“Concentration” is how she summed up her winning strategy.
Both winners received a $200 dining gift certificate for El Gaucho in Seattle.
At Penn Cove Shellfish’s hospitality tent, 1,000 pounds of steaming mussels were sold out by Saturday afternoon. How much beer washed down those steamers couldn’t be calculated.
Boys & Girls Club of Coupeville and the Coupeville High School Math & Science Scholarship both benefit from the company’s food and alcohol sales.
Jefferds said his workers were out early Sunday morning on boats harvesting 300 to 400 pounds of additional mussels to supply the festival’s second day.
“Happens every year,” he said. Penn Cove Shellfish has been part of MusselFest since 1986 when it took place at Captain Whidbey Inn, Jefferds said.
“It’s a blast. I love this thing but I’m glad it’s over.”