A longstanding signature of the Autumn Leaves Festival — collard green sandwiches made by Sandy Level Community Council — will be missing in action at this year’s festival.
Standing in the long lines of the community group’s booth in order to score some specially prepared collards and pork fatback sandwiched between two pieces of cornbread has been an Autumn Leaves ritual for thousands upon thousands of people for decades.
But inability to meet festival rules mandated by the Surry County Health Department will leave Sandy Level’s collards sitting out the 2018 festival.
“We couldn’t find a place to cook them,” said Shelby King, a spokesperson for Sandy Level Community Council. “We have to have a special oven. Our pans won’t go into a regular oven.”
“We feel just sick about this,” said Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, which owns and presents the Autumn Leaves Festival each year.
“The problem is with the rules coming from the Surry County Department of Health,” said Collins. “Some of the food vendors are given permission to cook on-site. Others, like Sandy Level, are required to cook off-site in a certified kitchen. I’m not sure why. It depends on what kind of food they serve.”
“We have assisted them in finding a certified kitchen before,” said Collins of the Sandy Level group, “and we worked for several months this year to help them find a certified kitchen.”
Collins said that ultimately Sandy Level told the Chamber they would have to drop out of the festival because they had not found a suitable kitchen.
“We have never had a problem with the Sandy Level crew passing an inspection, but the Health Department has their role to play. They have to do their duty, and we don’t have any choice. We have the utmost respect for the Sandy Level people. We feel badly about what has occurred, and there is no appeal process with the Health Department.”
Collins said there has been some misinformation circulating on social media.
“We want the community to understand it was the food vendor’s responsibility to secure a kitchen, not the chamber,” he explained. “If it was the ground steak or the hot dog folks, it would be the same thing.”
According to Collins, he has gotten quite a bit of feedback at the chamber office already, and some of it is people wanting to know if Sandy Level will be able to regain its prime location in the future when they have resolved the kitchen issue.
“Every food vendor has to reapply every year. There are no guaranteed spaces. We will have to see what happens. As far as we know, the festival will continue in its present form.”
“This could happen to any one of our 25 food vendors. It’s being said that somehow this is an effort to keep them out. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was actually Sandy Level who came to us and said they couldn’t participate.”
Collins added that when the Chamber knew Sandy Level wasn’t going to be able to take part in the festival, they asked a local restaurant if they would consider coming in to offer a similar product.
That restaurant, Mam Eatery and General Store on North Main Street, has experienced some negative feedback, according to Collins, who said there seems to be a belief there’s a conspiracy to keep somebody out. Collins also said he has heard dissatisfaction that the town has not stepped in.
“The Chamber owns the festival,” said Collins. “We accept and take full responsibility for the situation, and we hope it can be resolved. Sadly, we will have to do without Sandy Level this year. We feel just sick about it.”
Speaking to the Mount Airy News 10 years ago when collard green sandwiches were already an institution, Shelby King said, “Collard green sandwiches arose out of a desire to have something different to bring to the festival.” They have also helped the council raise funds for such needs as a new community center, according to that decade-old story.
Though she declined to say much about the situation, King did have one word of encouragement for fans of the sandwiches: “We’ll be back in the future.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.