Carnival’s reigning oyster mixer calling it a career

Sylvia “Marva” Goslee.

They say all good things must come to an end, and for Sylvia “Marva” Goslee, 84, the end of an era came in the closing days of the annual Sharptown Carnival sponsored by the Sharptown Volunteer Fire Department.

For almost 50 years, Goslee has been in the kitchen every August helping other cooks turn out legendary saucer-size oyster fritters by the thousands.

The thick, gooey batter, with gray oysters, is the makings of a fritter fit for Eastern Shore royalty.

The carnival’s famed calling card is a hot, man-size fritter dripping with flavor, with its crispy, crunchy, deep carmel-brown fried batter delivered between two slices of white sandwich bread.

The batter is so delicious, Goslee said, that some customers order just a batter fritter, without oysters, that still weighs in at $8, the same price as a fritter peppered with succulent oysters.

A Sharptown Carnival oyster fritter is tradition and heritage on white bread, a decadent royal dish, high in fat, high in carbs and high in deliciousness, straight from the oyster bars of the maritime gods.

The gold standard for the perfect oyster fritter is a Sharptown Carnival oysters fritter, the culinary pearl of the succulent bivalve.

Goslee has been mixing and frying oysters for 50 years.

Six evenings a week for a month, she stirs with a syncopated measure, the broad, metal spoon moving cups of batter around and around the slides and center of the stainless bowl. The bowl is so large its all she can do to steady it on the table top as she applies plenty of elbow grease. She mastered this man-size job decades ago.

Hour after hour, night after night, Goslee measures and mixes batter. There are nights when she can hardly make the batter fast enough for the half dozen waiting cooks.

She said the considered calling it quits last year, but didn’t. But this time, she said, it just felt it was time to lay the spoon down and leave the kitchen. “It was time to give it up,” she said.

 Her husband, Rhuel, encouraged her to stay, after all, it was more than a job, it was continuing a family tradition. His aunt, Grace Goslee, was 93 when she retired after decades of mixing fritters almost 20 years ago

Since then, Marva has been the mixing queen.

Though her first name is Sylvia, most call her by her middle name, Marva.  She was named Marva in honor of the wife of famed boxer Joe Lewis, she said.

Raised in the community of San Domingo, a community rich in black history not far from Sharptown, Goslee still calls the place home.

For 26 years she worked as a nutritionist’s aide for the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension Service in Wicomico County, showing folks how to cook in addition to providing other services. Today she’s past the 21 years of service mark as a home school liaison/administrator assistant with the Wicomico County Board of Education.

 Just how she came to be in the carnival’s kitchen is a story that reaches into the integration turmoil of the mid-1960s. 

“There were about five young black boys from here that wanted to go to the carnival, but the men in charge of the carnival grounds wouldn’t let them come in,” she said. “My mother, Pauline Hill and Martha Goslee, my mother-in-law, and the other ladies working here at the time walked out when the boys were turned away.

“My mother and mother-in-law never went back to cook,” she explained, but I got a job here the following year. I don’t know how long those two had worked at the carnival, but I know it was years and years.”

The issue was resolved, she said, when the youngsters were admitted to the carnival. “Those boys didn’t want to cause trouble, they just wanted to go to the carnival, like other kids.”

“I don’t know how it came to be that black women did all the oyster fryin’. I don’t know whether it was because white people thought they were better cooks or because the white women didn’t want to do it. But it has always been black women doing the oysters,” she said.

Black cooks were held in high esteem by rural white families for generations, said the late Peg Rider of near Sharptown, who recently died at 101, and whose farmland is near the carnival grounds.  

“My mom gave me the recipe, but I don’t know where it came from. And no, we don’t use sugar in our recipes and we don’t use eggs, either,” Goslee said.

The recipe they have always used remains unchanged. The ingredients are surprisingly simple; seven cups flour, with pepper, salt, milk, baking powder and, of course, a gallon of oysters. 

The batter is fried in oil or shortening. In the old days, each was fried perfection created in bubbling lard. It was lard that old-timers claim made the best ever fritter.

The earlier fritters were much smaller than those served today, Goslee explained. The fritters of her youth were just a tad larger than today’s hamburgers. Now they hang well over the edges of the bread. 

It takes a lot of batter to produce a whopper of a fritter.

“Ma Grace used to mix and fry, and when she left, she was in her 93, I was suddenly in charge of mixing oysters. It is hard work. I don’t know how she did it at that age hours at a time.” And gallons at a time — “Ma Grace” was stirring batter for almost 70 gallons of oysters on good nights.

Hard work, indeed, said long-time volunteer Janice Wright, 82, who has worked in the kitchen, still referred to as the “carnival tent.” for decades with Marva.

“I used to mix, too, and it’s hard on the arm and shoulder. And you have to stand there for hours, mixing and mixing. One of my jobs has always been to go through the 30 to 50 gallons of oysters we use each night now and pick out pieces of shell, working alongside Marva,” Wright said. “Just recently she said to me, ‘I don’t think all the years we have worked together we ever had ‘words,’ and I told her, ‘and I hope we never do.’ She’s a good person.”

Marva has missed very few days working in the kitchen in her half a century of service. One thing that almost kept her home was the time the carnival faced not having oysters.

Getting oysters for the master mixer has sometimes been tough. “One year we were so desperate for oysters,” said Wright, “that my husband and another man drove to Newport News to get frozen pints of canned oysters. That’s how really desperate we were to have oysters at our carnival.”

Now there seems to be plenty of oysters, but the demand may be waning.

For so many years the crispy, plump fritter has been a must-have for carnival goers. Yet something is changing. Oyster fritters does not seem the carnival delicacy of choice among younger consumers, and over the years there has been a noticeable drop in the number of gallons of oysters used each August.

“I remember the lines when I first started, seemed like hundreds of people waiting for oyster fritters. But now the lines aren’t that long and we don’t cook as long at night as we use to do,” Goslee said.

Come August and “carnival time,” when the humidity and heat of summer is at its worst, dozens of men and women volunteers come together, and are joined by the paid cooks, to host the event that is the main fundraiser for the Sharptown Fire Department.

Carnival time is a tradition on this part of the Shore, a social event that has become the summer highlight for young and old. It just wouldn’t be summer without school kids, the parents and grandparents, the Ferris Wheel, oyster fritters, bingo and raffles. The fire company crew has honed carnival time to perfection, when all runs as smooth as a well oiled piece of vintage fire-fighting machinery. Small enough to be intimate, large enough to be exciting. 

Once so dependent on the fritter to draw crowds, the carnival is like so many other civic functions that are now changing. The carnival, too, may be facing tough times. 

“I don’t think there will ever again be anyone mixing oysters at the carnival for 35, 40 or 50 years,” Wright said. “I don’t know what the future holds, it is so hard for us to get help I don’t know if there will even be a carnival in 50 years.

For the past few years Goslee has hinted that her time in the kitchen was drawing to a close, but the following year she’d be back, mixing. This year though, on her last day, Marva told her friends that she was leaving.

Longtime volunteer Mary Jane Marine of Sharptown said she’s always admired Goslee for her stamina. “Can you imagine stirring and stirring for hours, night after night? It’s not like she’s stirring water — that’s stiff heavy batter. I don’t know how she’s done it, especially at 84,” Marine said.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with her. I’ve known her and her family outside of the kitchen for years. Marva is an exceptional, outstanding, dependable person,” Marine added. “She’s done so much work in her San Domingo community, especially with children. We will never have another person like Marva Goslee.”

Each year Goslee works every day of the carnival except one — the last Saturday of the season. The last Saturday has alway been set aside to attend the annual Goslee family reunion.

Remarkably, in the 50 or so years she has been associated with the carnival she has never, not even once, strolled the grounds during “carnival time.” 

“I was always in the kitchen. We were cooking before it opened, and it was just about closed when we finished. Never seen the carnival like others have seen it,” she said.

Maybe next year, after half a century of waiting, she just might be able to see it.

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