Opinions simmer about cook-off

The Baltimore Sun

Seafood aficionados who expect to fill their cravings the first week in September are in luck: Though the Maryland Seafood Festival at Sandy Point State Park has been canceled this year, an Annapolis civic association is organizing a new crab soup cook-off for the same weekend.

The Admiral Heights Improvement Association is putting together the event at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in hopes of drawing the same clientele to the city, generating tourism and revenue.

"We wanted to do something to go celebrate the great seafood in the area," said Sean O'Neill, association president. "We knew that people would miss some sort of seafood celebration."

The association has rounded up 30 entries for a variety of crab soups that people can try Sept. 4 for an entrance fee of $10. A panel of judges will pronounce its winner, and the crowd will vote for the fan favorite. Both will receive trophies.

Some, however, were less than delighted to hear about this event. The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, which has been running the seafood festival for several decades, was unhappy to be left out of the loop.

"We were disappointed to find out that this group decided to take this project without at least first giving us a call or consulting us," said chamber president Bob Burdon.

The seafood festival had boasted its own crab soup cook-off that was sponsored by Capital-Gazette Newspapers, which publishes The Capital newspaper in Annapolis. It declined to be a judge at this new event, O'Neill said.

"We've had the contest for a great number of years, but we voluntarily decided not to do it this year because we were cutting costs," said editor and publisher Tom Marquardt. "The other reason: I didn't want to confuse the public with our contest and their contest by being a judge."

The company intends to return to the festival next year with its soup cook-off, he said.

The seafood festival was canceled in April because of concerns about an ailing economy, which was expected to lead to fewer visitors, Burdon said. Roadwork on Route 50 near Sandy Point Park, where the event is usually held, compounded those worries.

Attendance, usually around 15,000, stagnated for the past couple of years, a blow for an event that depends on ticket sales for funds. Last year, the chamber had to spend $2,000 of its own money to cover shortfalls, and officials there anticipated at least a 20 percent decrease in attendance this year, had the event gone ahead.

"We never considered scaling back the event," Burdon said. "The event's been around for 42 years, and it was set in place of a set of expectations that people came to depend on year in and year out. We did not want to see those expectations diminished."

With this gap year, the chamber will have the chance to make the festival even better in the future, he said. The site has already been booked for Sept. 11-13, 2009.

O'Neill said he intends to continue his cook-off in the future, whether or not the seafood festival returns. Having the cook-off on the same weekend as the seafood festival was initially expected to be held this year was due to Naval Academy scheduling, he said, and not intentional.

Burdon called O'Neill's plan "a shame."

"For 18 years, the crab soup cook-off ... supported the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and its initiative to promote a clean Chesapeake Bay," he said. "If they choose to compete ... they may be creating a financial hardship for a very worthy cause."

The new cook-off will benefit the Weems Creek Conservancy and the Light House shelter in Annapolis, O'Neill said. He expects profits to be about $10,000, to be distributed to the two causes.

The event will cost about $10,000, he estimated. Major sponsors include the Naval Academy Athletic Association, Buck Distributing and radio station 103-WRNR.

Though this cook-off is on a larger scale than the one held at the seafood festival, some of the same restaurants from the region are participating, including Buddy's Crabs and Ribs in Annapolis.

"We enjoy that we get out, we interact with the public" said Scott Cook of Buddy's. The restaurant's crab soup has won six times at recent festivals.

"I have trophies all over the place, so we wanted to do something like that this year," he said. "They canceled [the festival], and all of a sudden [the cook-off] came along and we entered."

If there are two cook-offs next year, he would try to enter both, he said.


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