by Elena Rosemond-Hoerr
A few months ago I was standing in line for a Britt’s Donut in Carolina Beach with my cousin Mary. For those that have indulged in a Britt’s you’ll know two things- they are insanely delicious and the line is out of control. As the minutes inched by and we moved closer and closer to heaven I found myself engrossed in the shirt of the man in front of me. Tour de Pickle, I read, as my brain tried to decipher that combination of words. The North Carolina Pickle Festival. A festival, you say? Dedicated to one of my favorite categories of food, the pickle? A quick Google search later and it was decided- I would absolutely be driving to Mt. Olive the last weekend of April for the North Carolina Pickle Festival. After all, it was one of the top ten attractions in North Carolina (according to its website).
Before the festival I confirmed with people that had actually been that this was a holistic pickle festival. A festival celebrating all things pickled from okra (my true love) to peppers to meats to, of course, the cucumber spear. Yes! They said. It’s wonderful! So load up in the car we did, making the hour and a half drive from Wilmington to Mt. Olive. We parked, schlepped our heavy DSLRs from Mt Olive College to downtown Mt. Olive, got out money from the ATM (for all the pickles we’d be sampling, obviously), and were immediately disappointed. It is an understatement to say that you don’t actually have to like pickles to enjoy the North Carolina Pickle Festival. In fact, you could probably attend the festival and never even realize that the purpose was to celebrate the pickle. The fact that you were in Mt. Olive might give it away, but other than a small section of the festival dedicated to that particular pickle processing company, there was no emphasis on pickles. Polish sausage? Yes! Funnel cake? Of course! Pickled okra? NOT TODAY MA’AM.
I probably should have started this post by saying that I am a food festival enthusiast. As the co-founder of a (successful and very heavily themed) pie festival I have standards for what a food festival should be and as a great lover of food AND celebrations I am willing to travel for a good festival. Unfortunately, the Mt. Olive Pickle Company and I have different opinions when it comes to what qualifies as a “good food festival.” I mean, yes this festival had rides and fried foods and giant lemonades and goats and a camel you could sit on and even a bounce house. It had live music and as far as we could tell more than one Pickle Princess and interpretive dance and a car show. It had gentleman from the local lodges selling fundraiser barbecue and dogs wearing sunglasses and even a stand selling boiled peanuts. It was, by all standards of a small community festival, exceptional. If I had driven an hour and a half for the Mt. Olive Spring Fair I would have left feeling completely satisfied. A little sunburnt, a little tired, sure, but happy to have experienced a good fair. It’s just that thiswasn’t the Mt. Olive Spring Fair. This was the NORTH CAROLINA PICKLE FESTIVAL. The streets of Mt. Olive should have been lousy with pickles. Pickled everything, cucumber plants galore, brine tastings, and competitions and demonstrations and sure, camels, but maybe camels that have been spray painted green. Just kidding about that last part, I would never spray paint an animal. But I would maybe put a festive pickle hat on one.
So consider this my plea, food festival organizers of North Carolina. As an enthusiastic citizen who has every intention of traveling to as many food festivals as physically possible, CELEBRATE THE FOOD! Don’t get bogged down in all the things a fair “needs” and don’t feel pressure to accept those same old Polish Sausage vendors who are at every street celebration. Stand up to the drudgery of American festivals! Jump on top of your high horse and proclaim WE ARE HERE FOR THE GLORIFICATION OF SPECIFIC AND UNIQUE FOODS!
One of my favorite recipes for Pickled Okra
4 pounds of fresh okra
6 pint size canning jars with lids and bands
3 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
3 1/2 cups water
6 tbsp red pepper flakes
12 cloves garlic
2 tbsp salt
6 tsps whole mustard seeds
6 tsps whole cumin seeds
1 jalapeño, sliced
Begin by sterilizing your jars. About an hour before you want to can fill two large pots with water. I recommend that you have some canning equipment, at the very least a large pot with a rack and a pair of tongs. You’ll need a separate pot for sterilizing your jars and lids. Bring both pots of water to a boil. In one pot (the one without a lid) place your jars and the lids (not the screw bands). Allow them to boil for at least 10 minutes, but keep them in the pot until right before you fill them.
In a non reactive sauce pan heat vinegar, water, and salt.
Clean the okra and cut off the stems. In each sterilized jar, place two cloves of garlic, one slice of jalapeño, 1 tbsp red pepper flakes, 1 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, and as much okra as you can pack in tightly. Ladle vinegar mixture into each jar, leaving about 1/4″ headspace. Wipe the rim down, place a clean lid on each jar, and screw band on tightly. Process in your large pot (with rack) for 10 minutes. Remove from water, give the band another squeeze, and allow to sit. Once the jars have sealed (you’ll know if you can’t pop the lid up and down), set them in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks. They will stay for up to a year.
**As with any preservation process, there are risks. If you notice anything abnormal, discard the pickles immediately. Botulism is no fun.**
Elena Rosemond-Hoerr is a Southern food writer, photographer and lover of pie from Durham, NC. Her blog, Biscuits and Such, explores tradtional and contemporary Southern food culture, with an emphasis on scratch cooking and baking and whole foods. Elena lives in Wilmington, NC with her husband and dog.