by Leanne E. Smith
At the 12th annual N.C. Blueberry Festival in Burgaw, NC on June 20, 2015, the temperature at 9 a.m. was above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a heat index of nearly ninety—but it’s worth a few hours of southeastern North Carolina humidity on the third Saturday in June for a morning stroll through the big blueberry bake sale. About thirty miles north of Wilmington, the festival centers around the Pender County Courthouse, where sections of the lawn and the surrounding streets host vendors. The courthouse block is bordered on the north by W. Wilmington Street, on the south by E. Fremont Street, on the west by S. Wright Street, and on the east by Walker Street.
That’s where the bake sale is. The sale this year, which seemed to be primarily powered by women, included ten church and community organizations selling more blueberry (and other) goodies than it’s possible to try without bringing a crowd or hauling a stash back to a cooler in the car to save for later. Blueberry bushes grow well in southeastern North Carolina’s sandy acidic soil, and the resulting berries—whether fresh or in other foods—are delicious.
Choosing from Ekklesia Church’s list would be difficult. Mary Gibbs is the primary baker for the booth, which had the largest variety of baked goods this year. When her mother-in-law, Viola Austin, died, Mary got her recipes and has “been using them ever since.” “There’s not a thing up here that’s not good,” she said, though the blueberry pies are one of her signature “not just Gibbs, but good” items.
The blueberry pie pops at the Merging in Christ Youth Camp booth were one of the most creative blueberry treats. The MICYC blueberry crunch is also popular.
Volunteers from the Matthew 25 Center sold blueberry hand pies, blueberry pepper jelly, and their bestseller, blueberry bread. The Center, located near the Pender Correctional Center, provides free lodging assistance and information services for families visiting incarcerated loved ones.
Some people stop by the Burgaw United Methodist Church’s tent for blueberry tea every year. It’s $1 per cup, the same price as when they started selling it ten years ago. They joke that it takes half a dozen Methodists to make it. They crush the blueberries themselves, but beyond that, the recipe is somewhat secret. Watching the booth long enough, though, provides clues: start with blueberry mush and add clear soda. The other bestseller at the Burgaw UMC booth is Carolyn Biberstein’s blueberry pound cake, which is also popular for fundraising sales at the church. When new members join the church, she delivers a cake to them, too.
The Burgaw Belles Extension in Community Association (formerly Extension Homemakers) usually sells out of everything the members make: blueberry muffins, blueberry nut cake, blueberry cream cheese cookies, apple sauce blueberry cake, and more. This year, they also served frozen blueberry punch made from pineapple juice and crushed blueberries, which made a green slushy. The blueberry tarts are particularly tasty and fairly light.
Led by Judy Harrell, women from Riley’s Creek Baptist Church about ten miles from Burgaw have been making blueberry cobbler to sell at the festival for years. At $3 per cup and $15 for a whole cobbler, they typically sell out by 2 p.m., with proceeds going to the Baptist Men for the Disaster Relief program.
Women from Burgaw Baptist Church meet the first week in June to make blueberry jam—this year, 480 pints. The day before the festival, they met again to bake 170 blueberry pies, all with berries donated by Ivanhoe and Shaken Creek farms. “We have a good time,” Priscilla Tyree said. Proceeds from the sales at the BBC booth are used through Operation Inasmuch for building ramps to make the homes of elderly and people with disabilities more accessible.
Recipes for the two bestsellers at the Friendly Community Baptist Church booth came from the church’s cookbook: Kim Rivenbark’s blueberry dump cake and Melanie Harrell’s blueberry zucchini bread (above).
About fifteen miles away in Wallace, members of the Way of Truth Free Gospel Church of Christ stayed up till 4 a.m. on Saturday baking for their booth. They want the items to be fresh: “We wait till the day before to do it,” Tamela West said, “If you cook it and put it in the freezer, it’s not fresh.” For about four years, they’ve been meeting at a member’s house and following shared recipes for consistency. The cobbler and muffins are the top sellers.
The blueberry goodies also extend beyond the bake sale. For people wanting to buy 12-pint flats of blueberries—$20 for conventional and $30 for organic—the pick-up area is at the tents north of the courthouse along W. Wilmington Street or from the trucks parked at the corner with Walker Street near the bake sale. This year’s farms were Ivanhoe, Cottle, Simply Fruit, Martin’s and Lewis, and they all sell hundreds of flats each during the festival. By noon, even just one, Cottle Farms, had sold half of the 1,000 flats they brought. The blueberry ice cream from the Lewis Farms booth is also a welcome cool treat.
Several of the food vendors on the western side of the courthouse are typical carnival foods, but among them are a good percentage of local vendors and a couple more blueberry treats: blueberry cider slushies and blueberry shortcake. Diana James is based in Richmond, Virginia, now, but since she grew up in Salisbury, she says, “I consider myself a Carolina girl.” She sells blueberry streusel cake and gourmet blueberry shortcake (shown above) at her Blueberry Patch booth. She starts with her scratch-made pound cake and her blueberry syrup that takes two days to make. The fresh blueberries were picked the day before the festival.
For anyone with blueberry overload after the first couple of hours, there are more options, notably seafood and barbeque (there’s also a BBQ cookoff as part of the festival). Carolina’s Peanuts sells roasted, shelled, boiled, fried, or seasoned peanuts by the bag. The Pender County High School Athletic Boosters sell barbeque. The Miracle Tabernacle Front Line Ministries group typically sells out of everything they have in the four full cookers they haul to the festival from about 85 miles away, just across the state line in Lake View, South Carolina.
Mawmaw’s Crabcakes and Sherri’s Crabcakes booths are two sources for some seafood. But with Burgaw being so close to the coast and about 75 miles from Calabash, the Holden Beach-based RB’s Seafood and Grill food truck is a tasty source for fried shrimp and scallops.
Southeast of the courthouse, the sponsors area near the entertainment stage and beer and wine tents had free toothbrushes from a local dentist, brochures about solar power, bathroom renovation samples, newspapers, and more—but the most useful giveaway on such a hot day was the paper fan from Four-County Electric Membership Cooperative. The nonprofit information booths also gave a community snapshot: East Coast Migrant Head Start Project Long Creek Center, King Solomon Lodge, Shriners, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans, Disabled American Veterans, and even a raffle for a Bayliner boat with a Mercury 4-stroke engine from the Southport Lions Club. In addition to getting a percentage of the boat raffle funds, to help people with vision impairments, the Burgaw Lions Club also sold four kinds of brooms, first aid kits, Lions pins, and cookbooks from their 2014 annual convention. They had sold out of umbrellas, perhaps for people to use as “sunbrellas.” It’s a good idea, as is walking through the nonprofit and church booths again to get free cold water.
The arts and craft vendors have a variety of handmade items like pottery, painted gourd bird houses, rainbow metal pinwheels and flower spinners, bags, painted fish, marshmallow shooters, fused glass jewelry, nylon macramé belts, billowing ribbon wreaths, and wooden porch swings and deck chairs. A few of them are continuing crafting traditions from their families or friends.
Bill Moloney of Waxhaw was 11 when his father taught him how to carve birds with thin, fanned wings and tails from a single piece of white cedar. When he was 13, his father died, but Bill has continued the carving technique ever since, and he also sells sun catchers and cut-bottle candleholders.
Margaret Raby, pine needle basket weaver, was born in Olivia and is now based in Leland. She lived in North Carolina all her life until her husband retired, and they moved to Galax, Virginia, for a time. While they were living there, Margaret met a 91-year-old woman named Atoile Berry who knew how to make pine needle baskets. Atoile told her to bring some North Carolina pine needles, and then even though she couldn’t weave any longer, she was able to verbally teach Margaret how to work with them. Collect them when the needles fall in August, cut off the sheath ends, and soak the needles in hot water to make them flexible enough to weave. That preparation sounds easy enough, but weaving the kinds of pieces Margaret makes definitely takes creative vision and dexterity.
Artist Eddie Hayes, shown above holding one of his favorite pieces, is based in Atkinson, about fifteen miles west of Burgaw via Highway 53. When he was in grammar school, his teacher would ask the students to describe what they did over the weekend. Eddie started drawing pictures of his grandparents working on the farm and around the house, and he used those to tell the stories to his classmates about what he did on the weekends. Since then, he has continued to create scenes out of watercolor, ink, and pencil from what he sees around him and in his memory. Having never taken an art class, he works from personal skill and perhaps to some degree family talent since he is a distant cousin of award-winning Pender County native artist Ivey Hayes. While some of his work features elements of nature like flowers, birds, and butterflies, Eddie’s signature subjects are primarily rural work and home scenes.
For brief escapes from the heat, several downtown stores are open and have air conditioning, as does the model train display at the old depot. The antique sale on the depot deck is shaded, as are parts of the courthouse grounds, which helps some. But mostly, it’s sunny and hot, so for a day out at the festival, it’s good to have sunscreen and a hat, maybe a chair, some water, and a cooler for blueberry goodies. The most difficult decision is which ones to try.
Since it’s nearly a year till the next Blueberry Festival in Burgaw, here’s a recipe to enjoy with this summer’s blueberries. The result is similar to the tarts from the Extension in Community Association, and it can work either for a full pie or to be split into tart shells. This recipe is from Jean Andrews Herring, my 90-year-old great-aunt in Mount Olive. She got the recipe from her longtime friend Eleanor Brubeck (1916-2014), who got it from another one of their contemporaries, Edna Wilson.
Blueberry Glaze Pie
1 crumb (or baked pastry) crust
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 cup sugar (scant)
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter
Put 2 cups of blueberries in the crust.
Cook the remaining 2 cups of blueberries with the sugar, water, cornstarch, lemon juice, and butter. Pour cooked mixture over the fresh blueberries in the crust. Chill and serve.
Variations: Cover the pie with Cool Whip, or serve slices with whipped cream. My mom also uses the mixture as a cheesecake topping.
Leanne E. Smith, a Teaching Assistant Professor in the English Department at East Carolina University, is also active in the Folk Arts Society of Greenville and is a member of the Green Grass Cloggers. A freelance writer, editor, and photographer, she occasionally plays fiddle with Elderberry Jam, the Possum Hoppers, and Red Pen Ramblers. She is working on a book length manuscript about the Green Grass Cloggers’ 40-year history. She currently serves on the board of the North Carolina Folklore Society, and after two years as Assistant Editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal, she was named editor in summer 2014.