The Community of Elizabeth City, North Carolina
A Place Where the Art of Potato Peeling is Revered
In 1963, Fannie Seymour Leary of Camden County, North Carolina, peeled 8 pounds, 4 ounces of potatoes in ten minutes to impress the judges and capture the crown as overall winner of the Albemarle Potato Festival's National Potato Peeling Contest. She won $50.00, received extensive press coverage, and became a hometown hero. Today, Fannie's daughter, Pauline Berard, carries on the family tradition by helping to organize the potato peeling competition, now called the North Carolina Potato Festival. "The potato peeling contest, held on the waterfront in downtown Elizabeth City, is a major event – a tribute to the region's potato farms. Farmland along Albemarle Sound is among North Carolina's major potato-growing areas," says Pauline. "We average around 25 teams for the potato peeling contest, with four people in each team. The teams consist of a cross-section of people - firemen, politicians, U.S. Coast Guard members, realtors, college students, professors, restaurateurs. EMS is always standing by in case of cut fingers . . . and that happens."
The North Carolina Potato Festival, known as “Hometown Spirit of Fun and Excitement in the Harbor Hospitality”, is held annually on the third Saturday in May along Elizabeth City's waterfront. Peggy Langley, Executive Director of Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. and an organizer of the festival, indicates that "support of the local business and agricultural community continues to grow annually and has contributed to the success of this unique, fun-filled family event." In 2009, the event attracted 15,000 festival goers. Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that administers the Main Street Program, one of over 15,000 in communities across forty states, with the shared mission of improving the viability of central business districts. Elizabeth City is located in North Carolina on the Pasquotank River, halfway between Norfolk, Virginia, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Its six National Register Historic Districts and proximity to the Great Dismal Swamp have made it a popular tourist destination.
The Festival includes a regatta race, fly-over by the U.S. Coast Guard, free amusement rides for children, street dance, puppet shows, Moth boat races, potato sack races, and 5-K run, as well as food booths, arts and craft exhibits, and live entertainment. Deep-fried French fries are made from the pared potatoes by event volunteers and are given away free while they last. The "Anything But Fries" potato cook-off is particularly popular, as is the "Little Miss Tater Tot Pageant," a contest for girls between the ages of 6 and 7, in which the contestants wear potato-picking attire for the duration of pageant activities.
This much-anticipated event has endured thanks to those who see it as a part of their community's legacy. For Pauline Berard, it is also a part of her family's legacy. Pauline recalls visiting her mother's family farm as a young girl to attend Sunday dinners prepared by "Big Mama" (Fannie's mother), where fifty family members would gather and where Fannie’s love of entertaining would be born. Pauline remembers her mother making huge pots of chicken chow mien, inviting the entire neighborhood, and typically feeding 20 to 25 guests. Fannie learned to prepare her meals with great speed. She could cook a baked potato in ten minutes without a microwave oven. With all that experience and a competitive spirit, it is easy to understand how her mother peeled potatoes as quickly as she did. Now, as a third-generation family member, Pauline is honored to be on the committee to ensure that the North Carolina Potato Festival remain an important part of the community. And as for "Aunt Fannie," as she was lovingly referred to by everyone in her community, this Southern lady with a great presence and zest for life represents an earlier time in America when the importance of keeping the traditions of the family and community intact was paramount. She had five children, 17 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. In addition, she gave time to her community through her work for various service, political, and church organizations, and helped her husband run one of the Outer Bank's first motels.
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