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By Richard Taylor
See slide show at the end.
The charm of PBS celebrity chef Vivian Howard, participation by numerous fig-themed vendors, record entries in the 8th annual Fig Cake Bakeoff plus performances by local musicians combined to make the 2021 Get Figgy With It Ocracoke Fig Festival the most successful to date.
Last year’s festival was held virtually due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
To read about the last Fig Festival in 2019, click here: Numerous firsts at Ocracoke Fig Festival
Produced by the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) with support from an Ocracoke Occupancy Tax grant, the festival garnered lots of attendance in and around the Berkley Barn Aug. 5 to 7 despite soggy weather.
A sold-out “Savory Side of Figs” fund-raising dinner for the OPS kicked off activities Thursday evening in Berkley Barn.
For that meal, Howard heavily modified a cornbread recipe, rolled the crust thin and topped it with local figs as one part of a multi-course meal.
On Friday, she signed copies of “Deep Run Roots” (2016) and “This Will Make It Taste Good” (2020) at the OPS, as more than 60 fans waited in line for a brief chat with the vivacious foodie.
During that three-hour marathon, Howard inscribed the title page for each guest with her presidential-like, squiggly “VH” signature, a process she has repeated hundreds of times over the last five years.
“We call Vivian ‘The Show Pony’ because she can turn it on when she needs to,” quipped Baxter Miller, Howard’s “This Will Make It TasteGood” photographer. “She’s really able to get to the heart of the conversation quite quickly. Fans are immediately comfortable with her. They identify with her stories. She’s really a good conversationalist.”
Howard — a native of Deep Run in Lenoir County and co-owner with husband Ben Knight of Kinston’s iconic Chef and the Farmer and three other food venues in Wilmington and Charleston, S.C. — took time to listen to each fan’s anecdotes and praises, before throwing in a yarn or two of her own.
After graduating from NC State University in 2001 and The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City in 2004, Howard briefly considered a career in journalism before meeting Ben at the restaurant, Voyage, in New York City where both worked. The couple has 9-year-old twins, Theo and Flo Knight.
Back at Berkley Barn Saturday morning, Howard sat on stage for a question-and-answer session moderated by fellow chef Daphne Bennink, owner of the Back Porch Restaurant.
Howard related how she started the “A Chef’s Life” TV series years ago as a 10-minute pilot project with lifelong friend Cynthia Hill.
When UNC-TV, The Food Network and others balked at backing the project, Hill took it to South Carolina ETV, which instantly loved the idea of featuring farmers who grew food and the successes and failures of a high-end Kinston destination restaurant featuring Howard’s Southern-themed creations.
The program won two Daytime Emmys, two James Beard Awards and a Peabody during its five-season run on PBS. “Somewhere South,” a six-episode hour-long cooking series followed last spring.
Howard raised thousands of dollars to help restaurants, small farms and fisheries across 13 eastern N.C. counties hit hard by Hurricane Florence in September 2018, by selling hundreds of “The Country is Cornbread” T-shirts through an online campaign.
“When we saw what was happening to the restaurant community on Ocracoke when Dorian happened, with y’all in the middle of the ocean, we decided to do another T-shirt fundraiser,” she told her avid audience.
Howard initially hoped to raise $15,000 to help Eduardo Chavez purchase a new food truck (after Hurricane Dorian Sept. 6, 2019, destroyed his taco stand next to the Variety Store), with her “One Island Under Tacos” T-shirt sale.
“I didn’t think it would be as successful because this island is so small, but we sold even more T-shirts than before, because people from all over the county have vacationed here,” Howard said. “Our little fundraiser sold more than 2,500 T-shirts.”
Eduardo received $15,000 from the $41,754 collected and a few other island restaurants split the remaining $26,754 raised through Howard’s partnership with non-profit The Sunday Supper’s hurricane relief grant program.
“It was so needed because the restaurant community here was hit so hard,” Bennink said. “That was really just heartfelt and typical Vivian.”
“I was just trying to help with something I could do from home,” Vivian replied.
In the audience and holding her own beloved copy of “Deep Run Roots,” Hyde County Manager Kris Noble said that Howard’s cookbook helped her to get through Dorian when no restaurants were open.
“I wanted to thank you for the help you gave Ocracoke after Dorian,” Noble said, almost in tears as the audience applauded. “We needed you, and you came through for us after Dorian. I also wanted to thank you for helping to keep eastern North Carolina traditions alive.”
Noble presented Howard with a copy of the Hyde County Cookbook.
A record 38 bakers entered this year’s Fig Cake Bakeoff — eight Traditional, seven Kids and 23 in the eclectic Innovative category. Judging was based on three criteria — Presentation, Innovative Flavors and “Figginess.”
Howard, her daughter, publicist Andrea Weigl with her daughter Josephine judged the Innovative category. Other islanders judged the Traditional and Kids’ categories.
Linda Groff led a five-family, nine-person team, mostly from Ohio, to take top prize in Innovative with a creative, culinary rendition of the Ocracoke Lighthouse — complete with green-dyed coconut grass, an edible fence and walkway, white icing, an upside-down mini-jar for the light on top. Glued black wire and toothpicks made up the top railing.
“It was definitely a team effort,” Groff beamed following the victory. “We love the lighthouse. One family had the fig cake recipe. We filled the inside with sprinkles, which didn’t show until they cut the cake. I did the decorative part and iced it.”
Linda’s sister-in-law, Judy, lives here and provided the figs from her tree for the windows. Judy has won the fig preserves contest in the past.
Trudy Austin and John Simpson topped the contenders in the Traditional Fig Cake category and Walker Raeburn, age 8, of Morehead City and a previous winner in prior years, captured top entry in the Kids division.
Michelle Thornell won the Best Innovative Fig Preserves Recipe as judged by public taste testing Friday. “I put Thai chili peppers in my grandmother’s fig preserves,” she said. “It has peeled figs, sugar and hot chili peppers. It tastes like figs on fire.”
Charlotte Wade was the runner-up in this category, and for traditional preserves, Kathy Whitten took first place and Cathy Griffin and Robbie Lewis of Ocracoke tied for runner-up.
Island fig expert, historian and author Chester Lynn shared snippets of his vast local fig knowledge along with tales about his time as cook at The Island Inn in the 1980s.
“They got here the same way the horses got here,” he said about fig trees. “They came on a boat. In the old days, one person would share cuttings with another. Figs grew well here and were the only fruit that could survive the salt tide and the hurricanes. The fig is really important in Ocracoke history.”
On the porch, OPS Board President Ken DeBarth talked briefly about the monetary and structural challenges OPS faces with the Island Inn Park restoration project.
Local regulars John Simpson and Trudy Austin held down the barn’s prime, middle-of-the-room vendor spot, selling nearly 400 jars of their fig preserves and locally cultivated fig trees.
By late afternoon, they had only eight jars left.
“We did great!” said Trudy, and later they learned that their cake won first place in the Traditional category.
Among new vendors exhibiting this year were Andy and Marianne Whitehead from Huntsville, Alabama. They roast figs from the Mediterranean into their new “FigBrew” roasted fig beverage, a coffee substitute.
“The technology’s been around since World War II, as a way to stretch the coffee ration,” Andy said. “After the war, everybody went back to coffee and forgot about roasted fig.”
Andy said Maria Holt bought two tins to sell at her Moonraker Tea Shop located at Spencer’s Market at Irvin Garrish Highway and School Road.
Another newcomer Emily Figueras of Goldsboro, brought handcrafted jewelry, face jugs, fig-themed pottery and fabric crafts.
“My last name means fig or ‘tender as fig,’” she said. “My husband and I have vacationed here for the folk festival. When I found out you had a Fig Festival, I knew I had to come.”
Sundae Horn, festival coordinator since 2013, and OPS Administrator Andrea Powers were happy with the event, noting that contestants brought a record number of cakes and preserves for judging.
“It was a big undertaking, probably the biggest yet, but well worth it,” Powers said.
“We’re really grateful to Vivian and Andrea, who came for the weekend,” Horn added. “They helped promote the event. Vivian was very gracious. It was really fun and felt great for everyone to get back together.”
Ocracoke Fig Festival Cake Bake-off 2021 winners:
1st – Trudy Austin and John Simpson
2nd – Kerstin Nygard of Durham, N.C.
1st – Walker Raeburn – 8 yrs. old – Fig Strawberry Drizzle Cake, gluten and dairy free
2nd – Sam Verostic and Jordan Hahne – Fig Walnut Cake
1st – Linda Groff and family – Ocracoke Lighthouse Cake – Fig Cake with frosting
2nd – Kathy Whitten – Fresh baked red snapper on a bed of red cabbage sautéed with blueberry fig jam topped with fig chutney with nuts
Ocracoke Fig Festival preserves winners:
Traditional: 1st – Kathy Whitten; Cathy Griffin tied with Robbie Lewis for runner-up
Innovative: 1st – Michelle Thornell; Charlotte Wade, runner-up
To view a slide show of photos by Richard Taylor, click the arrows below: