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.