Volunteer Lynn Hyde was a walking information booth Saturday, answering any questions visitors may have. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Shell-biter: Weekend MusselFest in Coupeville a hit

They sized each other up, shook hands, mumbled “good luck” and took their seats at the red-and-white festooned table.

Both past champions in recent years, Sara Powell and Ryan Leckie wanted that coveted crown again, the one with mussel shells of gold indicating they slurped, shimmied and sucked down the blue nuggets from the sea fastest of all.

“I couldn’t compete last year because I was pregnant,” said Powell, coming in from Seattle where she lives with her husband and baby.

“I love mussels because I was born and raised in Oak Harbor.”

SATURDAY’S 2017 Penn Cove MusselFest mussel-eating contest had lots of hungry competitors — a total of 30 — the most ever.

And they hailed from near and far, including Colorado, Coupeville, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Illinois, Oak Harbor and Anacortes.

As three red plastic cups of steaming hot mussels were placed in front of each contestant, Rawle Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, that donates mountains of mussels for the eating and restaurant chowder contest, explained the rules.

Every morsel of meat from every shell had to be consumed in one way or another. After legions of shells littered the tabletop and floor, competitors stood, wildly waving arms and claiming, “I’m done, I’m done. I won, I won.”

Leckie muscled his way back to the top again after judges thoroughly checked his long, lumbering beard. Son Gideon, daughter, Kincaid, and wife, Allison quickly moved in for a group hug.

“We’ve been coming here the last eight years,” Allison Leckie said. “They love coming here and watching their dad eat so fast.

“The funny thing is, he really doesn’t move very fast in life. We say, ‘Ready, Set, Slow’ whenever we’re going somewhere.”

SUNDAY’S MUSSEL-eating contest was even more shell-biting requiring a five-way “eat-off.” After no champion could be declared from the main race, five contestants got another round of mussels.

The title of best mussel chowder went to The Captain Whidbey Inn for the second time in three years. Executive chef Ryan Houser beat out 18 other restaurants and organizations that participated in the chowder-tasting contest. Festival-goers who bought $10 tasting tickets voted for their favorite.

“Its name is ‘the winning chowder,’” Houser said jokingly of his recipe. “That’s what I was calling it all weekend as we served it. It is so flavorful, I couldn’t stop eating it. I was putting it in my coffee.”

Despite predictions of dire weekend weather, the sun came out Saturday and so did the crowds. Attendance slacked off a bit Sunday, as it usually does but there were still plenty of people to watch chef demonstrations and sample a variety of mussel concoctions. An estimated 8,000 people attended the event over the weekend, according to organizers.

MUSSELFEST, IN its 31st year, is sponsored by the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association with the goal of giving a bump to local businesses during the slow season and showing off the region’s legendary “bold briny and blue” mussels.

Visitors loaded up on shuttle buses to restaurants and sampled many mussel chowders, took $10 boat tours of Penn Cove’s mussel rafts, and crammed into beer, wine and music tents.

“It was another successful event,” said association executive director Vickie Chambers. “And we had phenomenal support from volunteers. We got the word out late that we needed help and I bet 100 volunteers from different squadrons of the Navy showed up.

“Wherever they were needed, they were there.”

SPIN CAFE, a day drop-in center that serves meals for the homeless in Oak Harbor, entered the mussel-eating contest for the first time. Its creation, called Smokey Manhattan Mussel Chowder, was a big hit.

“We ran out about 30 minutes ago,” food service coordinator Hidemi Dettman said about 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon, “we had to send someone for more.”

Back at the Coupeville Recreation Center, Powell didn’t seem too upset about losing by a mouthful to Leckie, soon to be known as the bearded Bellingham bivalve bruiser.

“Right now, I’m really hungry,” she said after the competition.

And with that, husband Ian and baby Leila were off with Powell to witness just how many more mussels mom could eat.

The seafood dishes from Paella House of Port Townsend were a crowd favorite. Below, champion of the Saturday mussel-eating contest, Ryan Leckie of Bellingham, celebrates his win. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

The seafood dishes from Paella House of Port Townsend were a crowd favorite. Below, champion of the Saturday mussel-eating contest, Ryan Leckie of Bellingham, celebrates his win. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

More in News

Man accused of raping his stepdaughter

An Oak Harbor man is accused of raping his stepdaughter over a… Continue reading

Car thief threatens judge

A car thief who threatened a judge in court was recently sent… Continue reading

New year, sheriff, off to busy start

With a murder and plane crash within the first two weeks of… Continue reading

Boy, 12, brings BB gun, knives to school

A 12-year-old boy could face a criminal charge for bringing a BB… Continue reading

Commissioners may revisit new events regulations

Island County commissioners are considering changes to recently adopted rural event regulations… Continue reading

Carlyle hits the gas on renewable energy bill

By Emma Scher WNPA Olympia News Bureau A bill to transition Washington… Continue reading

Taxation with representation: Senate holds hearing on capital gains tax

By Sean Harding WNPA Olympia News Bureau People representing small business owners… Continue reading

‘Bring Back Our $30 Car Tabs’ initiative could be on November ballot

By Emma Epperly WNPA Olympia News Bureau “Bring Back Our $30 Car… Continue reading

Most Read