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Faces of the Oyster Festival: October 15, 2010

Keeping Order in the (Food) Court

Last in a series on the people who make the Oyster Festival happen.

Beverly Zembko has overseen the Oyster Festival Food Court since 2000, in its current location at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park, when she took it over from Michael Corssen. She had been working in the food court since the second Oyster Festival, (now its the 27th) fundraising for Oyster Bay Cooperative Preschool. Over those years she has gained a great deal of expertise on how to make it all work.

“We started out with chili and then decided to make elephant ears and had two girls, Maureen Chalos and Ann Marie Kovacevic cooking them,” said Ms. Zembko. “There was a food item from Rhode Island, like the funnel cakes we now make, except it was fried dough that looked like an elephant ear.

“They did a fabulous job but it was a tremendous amount of work, a big undertaking. We tried to do it on our own but then we hooked up with people who knew how to make the funnel cakes and we kind of adopted them and we’ve been doing that since about 1986.”

She has been the go-to person for information on the food court over those 25 years. “We got to know the vendors and could help others. I am so fortunate in knowing so many people in the community,” said the former school board member. “I took a personal interest in every group, so I tried to help by pairing them up with volunteers and vendors.

Sometimes they need a little assitance in finding the right person, be that a restaurant or a vendor.”

Organization Is the Key

She said, “Michael was very kind in sharing with me his organizational material: the schedule as to when to have the first meeting with the group in May or June. I decided to have the Nassau County Department of Health at that first meeting. They come and tell the groups how to apply for the permits and it has helped the process go a lot smoother.

“Then I usually get on email to remind people to do each thing. People do need the constant reminders nowadays. And, I’ve got a great dialog going with the DOH, and they call me and tell me who hasn’t applied. I don’t think some people know how hard it is to coordinate the event, but the people I’ve met and gotten to know in the county, have been outstanding to work with. And really, they don’t hesitate to work with me, especially Melanie Solis. She is with the NC DOH and will tell me who she needs to hear from. She oversees all the applications - of which there are many,” said Ms. Zembko.

Over the years she has accumulated some great memories of past festivals.

Great Memories of Camaraderie

Ms. Zembko remembers the Nor’easter whipping through the Audrey Avenue fairgrounds in 1995, making a shambles of the Festival that Saturday. Through the downpour Ms. Zembko visited each tent, inspiring soggy volunteers to maintain their spirits.

“What I remember most is the camaraderie,” the Food Court chairperson said. “We ducked into our tents and waited for the rain to pass. We shared rain gear, laughs and delicious food.”

 Sunday, “We awoke to a glorious day of bright sun, warm temperatures,” she remembered. “We all made some money.”

The weekend revealed the combination of culinary pizzazz, community spirit and fundraising energy that defines what many consider the heart of the Oyster Festival.

The Food Court tradition was well established by 2000, the year Ms. Zembko took the reins from longtime chair Michael Corssen. Then as now, two basic rules apply: vendors must be nonprofit organizations based in Oyster Bay – East Norwich area, or partner with them; and they must sell dishes not duplicated anywhere in the court.
 The formula has produced a seafood-flavored bonanza that has helped fund local nonprofit services, activities and events for nearly three decades. It has also helped make Oyster Bay an al fresco foodie haven one weekend a year.

The offerings, ranging from mussels au vin blanc to turkey legs, reflect local recipes and family traditions as well as entrepreneurial drive. In addition, some professional chefs and food-service teams offer their fare in partnership with community groups. Maritime flavors predominate. The Doubleday Babcock Senior Center offers clam fritters and clam chowder. The fire department purveys crab cakes. The Railroad Museum crew provides seafood gumbo. Partnering with Mill Creek Tavern, the Rotary offers those wine-braised mussels as well as lobster bisque.

Scouts sell popcorn and hot chocolate. The Hispanic Center provides popusas and tostados. More than two dozen local nonprofit organizations participate.

Revenues “help fund nonprofit activities year ‘round,” Ms. Zembko pointed out. “That’s probably the one fact I want everyone to know about the Food Court - the dollars you spend there go directly to the organizations. There is no intermediary.”

Like an orchestra conductor, Ms. Zembko keeps the rhythm going and reminds participants where each one comes in. “Bev brings a feeling of security to the Food Court operation, in that she knows exactly what needs to be done,” said Gail Speranza, for several years her co-chair. (This year Ms. Speranza is busy coordinating Rotary activities with the Chamber on Audrey Avenue.) “Bev is incredibly organized, so much so she could probably run this with her eyes closed.”

According to Cindy Smith, longtime Festival spokesperson, Ms. Zembko “has mastered the art” of motivating volunteers while keeping operations running smoothly.

“The Oyster Festival goes way beyond most fairs and festivals in terms of offering unusual and distinctive menus,” said Ms. Smith. “You really don’t find choices like mussels au vin blanc or seafood gumbo at a typical carnival.”

She added, “Imaginative, creative cooking and fresh local ingredients are a big part of the Oyster Festival brand.”

Meet Beverly Zembko

A teacher and director at the Oyster Bay Cooperative Preschool, Ms. Zembko is active in many community activities, besides Rotary. The list includes PTA, serving on the Oyster Bay-East Norwich board of education, Youth & Family Counseling Agency of Oyster Bay-East Norwich, St. Dominic, and First Presbyterian Church. Her roots in the community go deep. After marrying her husband Walter – like her, a Locust Valley resident – in 1971, the couple moved down to Greenbelt, MD, returning to Long Island a few years later, moving into Hicksville.

After 10 years in Hicksville, “Walter and I found a home in a great neighborhood in East Norwich in 1983,” Ms. Zembko said. “Here we have made lifelong friends and raised our daughter Lauren, who graduated from Oyster Bay High School in 1995.” She continued, “When I left the school board after 8 years of service to the community, Tom Reardon and Judy Wasilchuk invited me to become a Rotarian where I could continue my interest in community service activities. I have been a Rotarian for 6 years.”

She continued, “I suppose the biggest change in the Festival during my time has been its relocation to the waterfront, to Theodore Roosevelt Park. The move,” she said, “improved the Festival by giving us more space to operate safely and allow more nonprofit organizations to participate. Over the last 10 years, the Food Court has more than doubled in size.”

This year’s Tom Reardon Memorial Food Court will have seafood, international specialities, and all American desserts provided by the following non-profit organizations.

Seafood

– Oyster Bay Rotary Club

– Oyster Bay Rotary/Mill Creek Tavern

– Oyster Bay Rotary – Crossroads Café

– Oyster Bay Railroad Museum

– Oyster Bay Lions Club

– Doubleday Babcock Senior Center

– Mill River Rod & Gun Club

– Youth & Family Counseling Agency of Oyster Bay-East Norwich

– North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association

– VFW Post 8033

– Oyster Bay Fire Co. #1

– American Legion Quentin Roosevelt Post No. 4

International Foods

– Hispanic Cultural Center of Oyster Bay

– Italian-American Citizens Club

– Italian-American Ladies Auxiliary

– St. Dominic HS Parents Club

– St. Dominic CYO

– HPS Network

– Oyster Bay Chamber of Commerce - new for 2010

– Sagamore Rowing Association

All-American Fabulous Desserts

– Oyster Bay High School Interact Club (Junior Rotary)

– Oyster Bay Cooperative Preschool

– OB-EN Soccer Club

– Boy Scout Troop 253

(The above was submitted by ImageQuest Communications, Oyster Festival promoter.)