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Record crowd helps devour tasty mollusk

The streets of Coupeville were flooded this weekend with mussel enthusiasts seeking the big flavors the endearing town has to offer.

Visitors traveled from near and far this weekend to shop in town, eat chowder and Penn Cove’s famed mussels.

People wandered the town going from business to business, tasting 16 different chowders made by local participants.

Vickie Chambers, executive director of the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association, said an estimated 6,000 people came through Coupeville for the event.

Chowder ticket sales surpassed last year’s 1,900 sold with more than 2,600 tasting passes purchased.

“It was what we had hoped for,” Chambers said. Tickets sold out by 1 p.m. Saturday and there were still some left on Sunday.

After all the chowders were tasted, people voted on their favorite entry.

Businesses prepared weeks in advance for the competition, trying out recipes and making changes to existing ones.

Lavender Wind Farm participated for the first time this year.

Owner Sarah Richards said she did several trial runs and brought in outside tasters before settling on a recipe.

It’s all about fun and bragging rights, she said.

Knead and Feed participated again this year, offering a mussel chowder featuring hand-shucked Penn Cove mussels, pancetta, bacon, potatoes, onion, celery, sherry and spices.

Amanda Bergstrom, who works at the restaurant and was handing out samples Sunday said the spices are a secret family recipe.

The business has been participating in the chowder contest for years and uses a modified version of its clam chowder recipe.

Owner Marcia Johnson said the mussel chowder is a recipe her aunt created years ago. One change this year was adding the pancetta.

Knead and Feed sells clam chowder on its regular menu, but may switch to selling mussel chowder for a while.

“We have a lot of mussels leftover,” Johnson said.

In the end, Captain Whidbey Inn won with its mussel chowder featuring mussels in the whole shell.

Though, Chambers said second and third place winners were close behind.

People packed the Rec Hall both afternoons to witness the coveted mussel-eating contest.

Chelsy Certain’s first taste of the Penn Cove Mussel Festival was a satisfying one.

She participated in her first mussel eating contest, pulling up a chair alongside mollusk eaters far bigger, older and more seasoned.

But inside a crowded Coupeville Recreation Hall, the 20-year-old college student didn’t bite off more than she could chew, gulping down three cups of mussels faster than anyone else to claim the first crown of the two-day competition over the weekend.

“I was really nervous just like before a big game,” said the 5-foot-5 Certain, who is a third baseman on the Skagit Valley College fastpitch team. “I sat down and there were two burly guys next to me. One of the guys mentioned to me, ‘Don’t look up. Just keep eating.’

“I just went for it.”

Tom Wade, 71, also was attending his first Mussel Festival.

The festival was the sort of event that lured Wade to his new home in Coupeville. He also participated in the mussel eating contest.

“I just moved in September from Maryland,” said Wade, a retired auditor with the federal government.

“I happened to see an article on where to retire. That’s why I picked Whidbey Island.”

“It talked specifically about Coupeville.”

Each day the contest was limited to 30 contestants with a $5 buy-in. Some contestants showed up an hour early to make sure they got to participate.

Event organizers said they were prepared for and are happy about the large turnout.

More than 250 children participated in activities on Front Street, including “fishing” for a prize off the pier.

People waited out on the wharf to take tours of Penn Cove Mussels while eagerly chowing down on fresh mussels.

The Boys and Girls Club parked 400 cars near the library and 278 passports were turned in.

For every $5 spent in town at participating businesses, visitors got a stamp.

Once a card had $50 in stamps, they were able to turn them in.

The waterfront association will draw $600 in prizes from those submissions.

Organizers said the event is really about bringing people in and showcasing what Coupeville has to offer.

Businesses were happy with the traffic they got this weekend, Chambers said. Some even said sales were up from in previous mussel festival years.

Overall, Chambers said she was happy with the event.

“It was well balanced,” she said. “There was something for everyone.”

For Chambers, she said her favorite part were cooking demonstrations.

“It’s so cool when these professional chefs come from off island and do cooking demos,” she said. “And I can’t help but love the mussel-eating contest.”

 

 

n Reporter Ron Newberry contributed to this article.

 

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