Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maxton: Where Collards Are a Tradition

In the fall many small towns and communities celebrate the harvest of the season and food that sustains them through the winter. The celebration of collards has become a tradition in the Town of Maxton, NC. With a crop as healthful as the collard plant, how should it be celebrated? Maxton, which claims to be “rich with greens,” organizes competitions of food, poetry, and costumes where collards are the central theme.

The Town

According to Dr. Gladys M. Dean, former mayor and founder of the festival, the event “honors the heritage and history of early settlers.” Scottish immigrants, who brought a tradition of eating collards with corn cakes, began settling the area in the 1700s and helped shaped Maxton, whose entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historical Places. Incorporated in 1874 with the name of Shoe Hill, the town changed its name several times before picking Maxton (the town of surnames beginning with Mac or Mc) in 1887. African Americans have also claimed Maxton as home for several generations, and it is where famous educator Charles N. Hunter, born into slavery around 1851, opened his first school in 1875 to improve the lives of African Americans.

The Annual Maxton Collard Festival, started in 2006 and held the second Saturday in November, continues to grow bigger, draw more participants, and attract more spectators from far away. The festival on South Austin Street now attracts over 4,000 people. In addition to being the collard center of the South in November, the town also claims the distinction of being “the collard sandwich capital” of the world. In fact, several festival food vendors make the sandwich – greens packed between two corn fritters with peppers and fatback – their primary item. All are tasty, but Shirley’s (a local caterer) makes the best ones.

The Competition

The best display of collards, however, is the food competition where local cooks proudly compete in categories that include main dishes, side dishes, salads and desserts. Nothing is more surprising to see than a cake with green icing labeled as “collard cake.” Soups, dressings, and salads line the table awaiting approval by the judges and tasting later by others. When my collard and black-eyed pea soup won a trophy, I knew that it must have hit the spot with the judges.

With a category known as “collard orations,” the festival recruits family stories, poems, and songs about collards. Several excellent stories – how collards survive frigid temperatures, how Scottish settlers transferred them to the Maxton area, how enslaved Africans brought a tradition of cooking the greens and drinking the juices known as pot likker – are in the festival souvenir book, sponsored by town businesses and festival supporters. However, the best “orations” read at the festival earn trophies as prestigious as the awards for the food. I’ve competed at two festivals, and each time have come home with a trophy.

The most unusual category is probably the collard costume competition when participants vie for trophies by wearing clothing decorated with collards. Winners have worn hats decorated as collard leaves topped with a red pepper as well as full-body suits imitating tall plants with mature leaves sprouting from toe to head. Even Dr. Dean as mayor walked the festival grounds in a collard suit. When I won first place, the prize was more valuable than any other.

The Competitive Spirit

The competitive spirit of the Maxton festival extends to other contests, such as for collard growing and collard eating. Arts and crafts dealers, food vendors, musicians and other entertainers round out the festival program that also includes a Veterans Day event.

The day ends with a “collard blasting ball” to celebrate how fall frosts improve the flavor and taste of collard leaves. The ball includes food (yes, more opportunities to eat collards) and dancing. Winners of dances such as the Chow Chow, the Fritter, the Fatback, and the Pot Likker receive a prize.

Maxton, a small town with a rich history, has added to its charm with a festival for everyone. Join the competitive spirit next year and enter one of the categories. You might come home with a trophy or prize.

Note: Click here to see recent photos of the Maxton Collard Festival.

1 comment:

  1. Hi my name is Adrian Williams and I would like more infomation on becaming a vendor at the 2013 collard festival. Please email at thank you