This story has been updated to include Ocracoke business contributions
By Peter Vankevich
If one were to produce an event that would be pure Ocracoke, an attraction for both islanders and visitors, one might say, how about figs? Eight years ago, people did and the Ocracoke Fig Festival has become a major summer attraction.
The recent event Aug. 4 to 6 drew about 300 attendees and another round of creative fig cakes.
Fig trees are a fixture in many yards throughout the village which take to the island’s sandy soil and mild climate Worldwide, there are some 700 fig varieties, not all are edible. On Ocracoke, some of the varieties are brown, pound, sugar, Celeste, lemon, turkey, blue, the late fig and the Portsmouth.
Many islanders make preserves or a compote that is frozen in bags to be thawed for making fig cakes throughout the year. Preserve-making is even a cottage industry for some islanders like John Simpson and Trudy Austin, who were one of many vendors in the barn selling fig products and fig-themed goods.
The festival has grown since its modest beginning back in August 2014, notably with celebrity foodies.
Seafood Chef Ricky Moore of Durham added pizzazz to this year’s event. Moore recently was named a James Beard award winner as Best Chef for the Southeast for his Saltbox Seafood Joint. The Beard awards have been described as the Oscars of the food world.
The festival kicked off Thursday evening with a special dinner prepared by Moore which sold out almost immediately after being announced. Island commercial fisherman Casey Tolson provided fresh-caught seafood.
The meal included fig-themed dishes and contributions from many of the Ocracoke businesses including Helios Hideaway, Native Seafood, The Ocracoke Fish House, Eduardo’s Taco Stand, The Flying Melon, 1718 Brewing Ocracoke, Moonraker Tea Shop and Old Salt Sandwiches and a dish from the Café Atlantic Cook Book prepared by Debbie Leonard.
A highlight of the festival are the tasting competitions. Their popularity stems not only from seeing who wins, but after the awards, folks can sample the many submissions.
On Friday, Cindi Davia of Carteret County won the Best Traditional Fig Preserves award. A long-time fan of the festival, her preserves have been put to good use as her grandson, Walker Raeburn, has won the Kids’ Bake-Off competition in the past using her preserves.
Islander Bethany Diehl won Best Non-Traditional Fig Preserves category with her habanero pepper and fig combo. She harvested the figs from her yard and also grew the peppers.
At midday Saturday, 11 judges, including Ricky Moore, tasted the many Fig Cake Bake-Off entries along with a new competition class called Fish ‘n’ Figs, added in honor of Moore.
Islander Trudy Austin took the blue ribbon for Traditional Ocracoke Fig Cake category, the second year in a row. “Ricky Moore came over to congratulate me afterwards and he said your cake is made with history,” she said.
Another islander, Mike Dalgleish captured runner-up.
Evangeline Lisa Ann-Marie Inwood won the 16 & Under Bake-Off with her lemony fig cake. If there was an award for the competitor from farthest away, she would have also won that as she is from London, England.
For Innovative Dessert, Jenny Leinbach of Durham won with her traditional fig cake of candied lemon and orange peel, with a cream cheese frosting. Chris Joyner of Hatteras Village, was runner-up with an Italian ricotta fig cake with two figs and a homemade fig-amaretto preserve glaze.
The new Fish ‘n’ Figs category was won by Austin Daniel, chef and proprietor of Stockroom Streetfood in Community Square. His dish was cobia with caramelized fig, palm sugar, and fish sauce served with a side of cucumber salad.
The festival is also a fundraiser for its presenter, the Ocracoke Preservation Society. Although there are invoices and bills to pay, Horn thought this year’s event was more successful than last year, which netted about $5,000 after expenses.
Many folks and businesses donate goods and services for the silent auction, organized by Debbie Leonard. Estimates for that total are about $1,500.
Chester Lynn, Ocracoke’s fig expert, interviewed by Sundae Horn, provided many details about the island figs. His mission is to preserve the fig tree culture of the island.
One may not go as far as to describe the festival as “Ocrafolk-lite,” but music and dancing Friday and Saturday afternoons featured local performers Kate McNally, Brook & Nick, Daniel Bradley, Molasses Creek and Mitch Barrett.
Music fans were delighted to see the return to the island of Coyote, Marcy Brenner and Lou Castro who moved to Florida earlier in the year.
A special performance was billed as “Ocracoke Kids with Mr. Lou” and featured 9-year-old drumming sensation Dallas Mason. The evening music included the Ocracoke square dance with the music by Molasses Creek followed by Raygun Ruby and the Ocracoke Rockers.
Chef Moore spent the week on the island with his wife Norma and their children, Hunter and Greyson. He made his way around the village visiting the Fish House, Native Seafood, Chester Lynn at his antiques shop and many local eateries. He also went sailing on the Windfall II and clamming with Ruth Toth’s family.
”I am really loving my visit on the island this week,” he said looking relaxed Friday afternoon on the porch of the OPS museum where he spent time chatting with cookbook author and former restaurateur Ruth Toth of Atlantic Café fame and meeting with folks and signing books for those lucky enough to have one. They sold out on the island.
Many attendees chose their visit to the island primarily for the Fig Festival. Zachary and Aubrey Fisk of Raleigh read about it in “Our State” magazine and decided to attend. It lived up to their expectations.
“You can walk around to every restaurant and they’ve got some kind of fig dish and I loved how everyone is celebrating figs,” Zachary said. “On our visits, we like to bring something back home and this time it will be a small fig tree.”
“Hopefully, a sugar fig,” added Aubrey.
Among the vendors was Erica Morales Mondon, with the Engelhard Health Center, who conducted health srceenings such as blood pressure checks, distributed free COVID test kits and provided health information.
Next year’s festival is scheduled for August 4-5.