Laura and Rawl Jefferds of Penn Cove Shellfish help fill cups for the mussel-eating contest at the Coupeville Rec Hall. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Laura and Rawl Jefferds of Penn Cove Shellfish help fill cups for the mussel-eating contest at the Coupeville Rec Hall. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Coupeville shows its mussel might

Musselfest attracts record visitors

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.”

Maya Hayse, 17, of Seattle, looked small but ate big. She grabbed and gobbled down 48 ounces of Penn Cove mussels in some 90 seconds but got beat by a bite.

Maya Hayse, 17, of Seattle, looked small but ate big. She grabbed and gobbled down 48 ounces of Penn Cove mussels in some 90 seconds but got beat by a bite.

In the Coupeville Rec Hall Saturday, feisty competitors chow down three cups of steamed mussels in pursuit of the coveted Mussel Eating Champ title.

In the Coupeville Rec Hall Saturday, feisty competitors chow down three cups of steamed mussels in pursuit of the coveted Mussel Eating Champ title.

Deb Fanning (right) and Skip Dickinson (center) serve up heaping bowls of steamed mussels inside the company tent of Penn Cove Shellfish. It went through 1,000 pounds of the bold, briny blues in six hours.

Deb Fanning (right) and Skip Dickinson (center) serve up heaping bowls of steamed mussels inside the company tent of Penn Cove Shellfish. It went through 1,000 pounds of the bold, briny blues in six hours.

Ryan Leckie of Bellingham wears the cape and crown of Mussel Eating Champ for the second year in a row as he poses with his children, Kincaid and Gideon (right).

Ryan Leckie of Bellingham wears the cape and crown of Mussel Eating Champ for the second year in a row as he poses with his children, Kincaid and Gideon (right).

More in News

Naval search and rescue team rescues two people from Cascade Mountains

A Search and Rescue (SAR) team from Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey… Continue reading

Expert: Chief followed protocol

David Marks’ arrest of suspect ‘exactly what we teach’

Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times.
                                Donovan McCulley cheers at the end of the commencement ceremony Saturday.
Oak Harbor grads show ‘inspirational ambition’

Oak Harbor High School’s class of 2018 reached graduation through four years… Continue reading

Power outage planned for Thursday in Coupeville

About 900 Puget Sound Energy customers in Coupeville will be left in… Continue reading

Marc Gallaway
Oak Harbor grad earns state Principal of the Year honor

Marc Gallaway, a 1988 graduate of Oak Harbor High School and currently… Continue reading

Survey shows mostly positive impression of rural events

Though public hearings on the issue have often been contentious on both… Continue reading

Port executive director gets raise

The Port of Coupeville Executive Director is receiving a pay raise. Chris… Continue reading

Planning halts for Freeland sewer

A decades-long effort to bring a sewer system to Freeland has halted… Continue reading

Mucking about looking for squirts in the sand is part of the fun of digging for clams. This summer, Sound Water Stewards teaches six Digging for Dinner classes. Photo provided
Mucking about in clamming class

‘Digging for Dinner’ a popular Sound Water activity

Most Read