As street festivals go, the sweet potato festival in Rockford is a laid-back affair. In its 20th year of celebrating the harvest of North Carolina’s state vegetable, the festival is easy-going and informal with festival-goers casually strolling the un-blocked off streets where pedestrians and motorists are, by and large, respectful of each other.
Unlike festivals where hordes of pushy volunteers direct traffic and show everybody exactly where they must park, festival-goers seek out their spots along the roadside or in nearby unmarked fields. A field with cars in it is seen by other cars as an invitation to join them. It’s a very organic process.
This is not to say that the joint is not jumping. Every rocking chair on the long front porch of Rockford General Store is occupied, dozens of other folks are sitting on the porch, leaning on posts and lounging about, with a constant bottleneck of folks making their way into and out of the crowded general store.
Once inside the general store, the grill area is packed with people waiting to order lunch but the real treat is the rest of the store. It’s a walk back in time complete with “pop box,” AKA an old-fashioned soda cooler, antiques, souveneirs, strange items like empty snuff tins and empty gallon pickle jars along with an impressively large array of candy sold by the pound. The candy department also offers a few surprises, not least among them packs of candy cigarettes which are not often seen nowadays. And the store also has sweet potatoes. There are bushel baskets of fresh sweet potatoes.
Across the street, all manner of sweet potato delicacies are available under a tent, including sweet potato cake, sweet potato brownies, sweet potato pies, sweet potato sonkers, sweet potato fried pies and sweet potato rollups. Other booths offered the usual festival items for purchase, some hand-crafted, some not.
Around noon, R.G. Absher and Caroline Beverley Blackmon were playing music on the porch of Yadkin River Adventures. The duo played a mix of heritage music, old Irish airs, folk music and some new songs composed by Blackmon about folk history from Elkin where she lives. Absher played the festival last year but Saturday was Blackmon’s first time.
The accoustics were such that people listened from the steps of the porch, chairs set up in the yard and from picnic spots across the road, all enjoying the music from their favorite vantage point.
Robert Day of Jonesville found a seat across the street from the musicians where he was tapping his toes to an Irish air while enjoying a sweet potato brownie. “I’ve never had one before,” he said. “But it looks like there’s a brownie with sweet potato pie on top. Kind of sweet potato pie with brownie crust. I made a good choice. It was between this and a fried pie. I haven’t had a fried pie since my Gramma died. Maybe next year.”
Following are some recipes submitted by readers to help celebrate the new harvest of North Carolina’s state vegetable.
Chipotle Smashed Sweet Potatoes
Lois Draugn’s all time favorite sweet potato dish which came to her by way of The Barefoot Contessa.
4 pounds sweet potatoes (6 potatoes)
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp. minced chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, with seeds
1 tbsp. adobo sauce (from the can of chiles)
¼ cup pure Grade A maple syrup
4 tbsp. (½ stick) unsalted butter, diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. Place the sweet potatoes on the prepared sheet pan and pierce each potato 4 times with a small knife. Roast for 1 to 1¼ hours, until very tender inside when tested with a knife. Set aside until cool enough to handle. (Leave the oven on.) Peel the potatoes, discard the skins, and place the potatoes in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Meanwhile, place the milk, cream, chipotle chile, and adobo sauce in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. (It might look curdled.) With the mixer on low speed, add the chipotle-milk mixture to the sweet potatoes. Add the maple syrup, butter, and 1 tablespoon salt. Mix until the potatoes are coarsely pureed. Pour into a 9 × 12 × 2-inch oval oven-to-table baking dish and bake for 30 minutes, until heated through. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve hot.
Sweet Mavis Potatoes (Sweet Potato Casserole)
Kelly Jones Urban acquired this recipe while working for Weyerhaeuser in Elkin. It came from a co-worker based in Natichoches, LA. Kelly says, “One tip I’ve learned is to peel the potatoes after boiling, so much easier.”
4 cups sweet potatoes, mashed
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. butter, softened
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. butter, softened
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 325°F. Put sweet potatoes in a medium saucepan with water to cover. Cook over medium high heat until tender; deain and mash. In a large bowl, mix together the sweet potatoes, white sugar, eggs, salt, butter, milk and vanilla extract. Mix until smooth. Transfer to a 9×13 inch baking dish. In medium bowl, mix the brown sugar and flour. Cut in the butter until the mixture is coarse. Stir in the pecans. Sprinkle the mixture over the sweet potato mixture. Bake in the preheated oven 30 minutes, or until topping is slightly brown.
Sweet Potato Cobbler
Vickie Dobbins Cameron
This recipe is by Mildred Council of Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill and is a favorite of the Cameron family.
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
½ tsp. ginger
1 cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 heaping tbsp. flour
1 cup water
¾ stick butter or margarine
Pillsbury rolled pie crust
Preheat oven to 375°F. Put the sweet potato slices in a 9 x 12-inch baking dish, spreading them over a bottom crust if you like. Mix together the ginger, both kinds of sugar, and the flour and sprinkle them over the sweet potatoes. Add a top layer of pie crust, and slit the crust. Bake for about 40 to 50 minutes.
Serves 10 to 12
Sweet Potato Pie
Basic Pie Dough (can be store bought to save time)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup milk
½ cup sour cream
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 cups pureed cooked sweet potatoes (from about 1-4 pounds)
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a 12-inch round. Roll the dough around the rolling pin, and then fit it into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate without stretching it. Press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan. With a pair of scissors or a paring knife, trim the edges of the dough to form a 1-inch overhang. Fold the overhang over to form a high edge, and with your fingers, crimp the dough all around. Refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt until well combined. Whisk in the milk, sour cream, whole eggs, egg yolk, and vanilla. Whisk in the mashed sweet potatoes. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Cook until the butter foams; then continue cooking until the foam subsides and the butter turns a rich brown. Immediately pour the browned butter into the sweet potato mixture and whisk until incorporated. Place the pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet and pour the mixture into it. Bake for 1 hour, or until the pie is set with a slightly wobbly center. Cool on a rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.