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By Connie Leinbach
Charles and Sanna Wetherill came all the way from Finland to attend the annual Ocracoke Oyster Roast on Saturday.
The couple, along with their young son, Samuel, discovered the food event—and Ocracoke—on the internet as they planned their Outer Banks vacation this week.
“This was just completely, kind of random,” Charles said as the family visited the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s exhibit in Community Square after feasting on oysters at the Ocracoke Seafood Co., (aka, The Fish House).
While Charles is a native of Annapolis, Md., the family lives in Helsinki where Charles and Sanna met.
They stayed one night on the island and will finish the rest of their vacation in Avon, but they make a visit to the pony pen beach and saw a pod of dolphins cavorting offshore and dozens of pelicans.
“It was magical,” Sanna said.
A Chesapeake Bay area native, Charles grew up eating raw oysters, but only tried his first steamed oyster at Saturday’s roast.
The family was among the hundreds who lined up for this 12th annual event put on by the Watermen—as a fundraiser and to thank the community.
Along with the 41 bushels of steamed oysters from Frog Island continuously dumped on the tables during the three-hour eat-a-thon, Pattie Johnson Plyler, Fish House manager, said there were 300 pounds of shrimp, “hundreds of pounds” of fried black drum—in a last-minute change of menu from fish stew—and Pony Island Restaurant hush puppies.
New on the menu this year were 1,000 raw oysters from the Woccocon Oyster Co., an oyster farm in Devil Shoals owned by Stevie Wilson.
Wetherill was among the many that gobbled down Wilson’s oysters as fast as Wilson and partners Dylan Bennink and Albert O’Neal could shuck them.
The oysters won first place in November in the Shuck, Rattle and Roll oyster competition at Carteret Community College in Wilmington.
“First place, first try,” Wilson said. “You can’t beat that.”
Nor can oyster farmers elsewhere beat the Ocracoke waters.
“Being 23 miles off the coast, we have a heavy influx of ocean water,” he said. Combine that with the Pamlico Sound and you get high salinity, high quality water in which oysters can flourish.
“Those oysters are incredible,” said Matt Lindner of Rockhill, S.C., about the raw oysters while he was busy at a steam table with three other pals.
Mark Reisinger and Will Steger, both of Maryland, agreed. Steger noted that the live oysters he gets from the Chesapeake Bay are brackish. Before eating them, he puts the oysters in a basket and floats them in coastal waters for two tides to increase their salinity.
Woccocon harvests year round, Wilson said, and, for now, only supplies local outlets.
“You gotta come to Ocracoke for these,” Bennink said.
Charles and Susan Peele, formerly of Ocracoke and now of Asheville, were vacationing in Frisco and drove to Ocracoke for the day especially for the oyster roast.
“It’s a tradition,” Susan said.
The oyster roast tradition continued for Cathi and Dan Dunnagan of Raleigh, who’ve visited the island for the holidays for the last 12 years.
“We’re here rain or the cold,” Cathi said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Cathi’s loyalty was rewarded Saturday when she found two tiny pearls in her oysters.