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By Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke resident Rita Hahn was shocked when her and her husband, Don’s, fig cakes won top traditional cake honors Saturday in the Fig Cake Bake-off during the Fifth Annual Ocracoke Fig Festival.
Don’s cake won first prize and Rita’s was runner-up, but only Rita was there for the winner announcement.
“I’m amazed,” she said as she smiled and laughed for the many camera phones trained on her in the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) yard where the festival was held Friday and Saturday. “This is unreal.”
Probably because the couple’s cakes bested the entries by the previous traditional winners, Della Gaskill, Annie Lou Gaskins and Ruth Toth, all of whom submitted cakes.
Traditional fig cake
Traditional Ocracoke fig cakes submitted to the contest must be made only with figs or fig preserves, flour, sugar, eggs and shortening. In the Innovative category, anything goes as long as the entries include figs.
Rita said she used a pint of preserves she made with brown turkey figs from an island tree, and while she loves to bake, Don is the cook in the family.
“It was the first fig cake I ever made,” Don said in a phone interview. “I don’t bake a lot, but I just thought I’d try it.”
The three judges for the traditional category were impressed, said islander John Ivey Wells.
“All three of us picked those two cakes,” he said.
“The clear favorite was No. 8 (Don’s cake),” said Betty Helen Chamberlin, one of the three judges.
A major perk for attending is, once the awards are made, the spectators get to sample all of the 24 cakes submitted—eight in three categories of traditional, innovative and under-16–winners posed for photos.
Michael Curran, a visitor from Milan, New York, won the innovative category with his “spiced hazelnut espresso, fig cake with salty caramel drizzle.”
“I decided to come to Ocracoke for the fig festival,” he said as attendees dug into his loaf-style, beautifully decorated cake.
Maribeth Ocock of Newport News, Virginia, captured runner-up with her rum-infused cake.
“I usually make a bourbon fig cake, but this time I used rum,” she said. “It’s a pirate thing.”
“There were a lot of good flavors,” said Eduardo Chavez, owner of Eduardo’s Taco Stand and one of the three innovative judges.
Sundae Horn, festival organizer, said this year the contest added an under-16 category, and those youthful chefs sat at the table at their cakes anxiously awaiting the judges’ decision.
Top winner in that category was islander Chloe O’Neal and Ella McAndrew of Durham with their fig cake brownies.
“They are absolutely out of this world,” said Quin Hodges of Elizabeth City, who with her friend Kathy Arrent of Charleston, South Carolina, came to Ocracoke especially for the fig festival.
The youthful runner-up was a cake made by Petros Burleson and Sebastian Sanchez.
Leslie Cole, Ocracoke School principal and one of the judges in the youth category said the decision was difficult.
“All were delicious,” she told the crowd.
Rahnier Lyons, 12, of Chicago, who spent the summer on Ocracoke with his grandparents, Charlie and Deborah Ralston, made a vegan fig cake.
“I’m a vegetarian and I just like making things,” he said as he awaited the judges’ verdict.
The festival was born after Hurricane Arthur on July 4, 2014, scotched holiday festivities mounted by the Ocracoke Civic & Business Assn. (OCBA), which had included the Fig Cake Bake-off on July 4 since 2011.
But after the hurricane, the OCBA launched an end-of-summer celebration in August to make up for the lost July 4 celebration.
This year, the OPS took over the festival and benefits from the proceeds of the event.
“The fig tradition fits with the OPS,” Horn said.
The Fig Preserve contest held Friday evening received a dozen entries of preserves by islanders and visitors. For this contest, the preserves are numbered and set out for a blind tasting and a people’s choice award for anyone who wants to taste them.
Islander Judy Groff captured the best preserves with her entry made with Italian honey figs from a tree in her yard in Jackson Circle.
“I picked them early—in July—before all the rain came,” she said.
The festival included vendors selling figgy wares, and fig tamales were hot sellers.
Island fig expert Chester Lynn gave two talks about the history of figs on the island and sold his newly published book, “Figments of Ocracoke,” on sale at the OPS shop along with Fig Festival T-shirts and totes, and local fig preserves.
Molasses Creek provided music for a porch concert, a square dance, and festivities concluded Saturday night in the Berkley Barn with a dance with the Ocracoke Rockers.
Island restaurants included special fig items on their menus.
Sunny, breezy weather favored the two-day event.
“It’s been really wonderful,” Horn said.
Andrea Powers, OPS executive director, said the event was a huge success.
“There were lots of people, and we’ve gotten a lot of good reviews,” she said.