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Norwich — Regulars at the NAACP’s annual Sweet Potato Festival mark their calendars for the fourth Saturday in February and know that friends they haven’t seen in a year will be there, too.
Newcomers saw the event listed on the city website or in the newspaper. Both types of patrons raved about the food Saturday and also enjoyed dancing, singing and music played by members of the Norwich NAACP ’s Robertsine Duncan Youth Council.
“The food is awesome,” said Liz Brevard of Montville, “and I see friends we haven’t seen in a long time. Once a year, no matter what, we always see them here.”
Her friend, Karen Liverman, also of Montville, simply said “everything,” when asked her favorite dish of the festival feast.
Others answered the collard greens or the black-eyed peas over rice — called Hoppin’ John — and, of course, the sweet potatoes.
“I’m a huge sweet potato fan,” state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said. “Fried, baked, boiled, in pies. So I’m a happy camper here.”
The festival featured most of the types Osten mentioned and a few others.
The main meal features dishes that have been on the menu throughout the festival’s 23 years in existence, including chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas. These have been staples of the dinner table for African-Americans for generations, some dating back to slavery, said festival Chairman Dennis Jenkins. Slaves used to pick the sweet potatoes and found many ways to prepare them for their sustenance.
Christopher Cagle, head chef for the past eight years, said African-American dishes often consisted of foods that were inexpensive and plentiful. Certain recipes quickly became traditions. Saturday’s menu included baked or barbecue chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens cooked in beef stock with smoked turkey, the black-eyed peas and rice, corn bread and peach cobbler.
Cagle, a professional chef, said he was surprised to find when he started volunteering at the event that the original menu did not have a sweet potato dish as part of the main meal. There always were plenty of pies and creative creations for the free tasting table — sweet potato-sausage stuffing, meatballs, cookies and pastries this year — but nothing in the meal.
He brought in his father’s own recipe: mashed sweet potatoes topped with a sweet glaze and chopped pecans. It was another favorite of patrons Saturday. Cagle also tried smoking the black-eyed peas this year for the first time “just to make it a little different,” he said.
Jenkins said the success of the event starts with the veteran, dedicated cooks and servers; he called himself the chief dishwasher. The crew starts preparing some food on Friday night and opens the kitchen at 7 a.m. the morning of the event.
“It’s fun to do it,” he said. “I have a great staff. These are the same people who do it every year. And we get rave reviews on the food.”
Jenkins was disappointed at the advance ticket sales this year and attributed the decline to the snowy winter that forced several churches in the area with close ties to the Norwich NAACP to postpone events from previous dates to this weekend.
But by 1 p.m., most of the tables in the United Congregational Church lower hall were full and other tables had a few more diners.
On stage, Maya Scott, 16, of New London, a student at Three Rivers Middle College in Norwich, performed a dance to the song “Break Every Chain.”
Her peers in the youth council, twins Miracle and Destiny Jones, 15, both Norwich Free Academy students, Barron Williams, 18, a student at Three Rivers Community College and Malachi Jarmon, 15, of Norwich Regional Technical High School, performed as the group “Faithful Chosen Ones.”
NAACP Norwich branch President Jacqueline Owens — baker of several sweet potato pies and many items on the tasting table — said she was especially proud of the youth performers. She said she recalled when Maya was a small child, sitting quietly on the floor at meetings and events. This year, she is an honor and dean’s list student at her high school.
“It’s a special core group of people that do all the things for this event every year,” Owens said.