Strawberry Jam-boree : Sweet Fruit Is Expected to Tickle the Palates of Thousands During Weekend Festival in Oxnard

Times Staff Writer

Strawberry quesadillas with jalapenos, strawberry spaghetti sauce, strawberry meat loaf with buffalo and strawberry-pretzel salad are among the jarring combinations that the 75,000 people who are expected to converge this weekend on California's strawberry capital this weekend will not get a chance to sample.

The concoctions were among nearly 200 strawberry recipes that former chef Tom Barth helped keep from California's culinary vernacular during the first round of the California Strawberry Festival's Berry-Off last month.

"There were a few that you might find," said Barth, pausing to draw a deep breath and clear his throat, significantly, "interesting, in terms of their, well, uniqueness."

Tamer gustatory anomalies based on the strawberry--as well as a wide range of entertainment--will be available Saturday and Sunday at the festival site in Oxnard bordering Channel Islands Harbor. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day along a two-block stretch just west of Channel Islands and Harbor boulevards, berry-lovers will be able to sample the likes of strawberry cheesecake on a stick and "Hawaiian-style" strawberry-and-cream shaved ice.

Standbys Available

Such old standbys as strawberry shortcake, strawberry blintzes and unadulterated strawberries and cream will be available for the less adventurous, as well as strawberry wine, strawberry tamales and strawberry pizza for bolder souls.

"You can get a hot dog and hamburger anywhere, but not a strawberry pizza," said Michelle Alicki, assistant special events coordinator.

Still, the California Strawberry Festival, which is entering its fifth year, is more than a slavering celebration of the red fragrant fruit that covers more than 3,000 acres of the former lima bean capital.

The event combines a 10-kilometer run, a relay race for waiters and waitresses, a crafts fair, a tea dance and a beauty pageant for anyone with strawberry blonde hair--"from nature, a bottle or a wig," publicist Shirley Jackson said.

In a nonstop lineup, bands will blast jazz, rhythm and blues, calypso, salsa, Veracruzan jarocho , surfer music and country music from two stages. One duo, Kim Robertson and Cheri Chaco, will even tickle the Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer.

Shortcake Eating Contest

Strawberry pancake breakfasts kick off activities both mornings from 10 to 11:30. Also both days, there will be a strawberry shortcake eating contest at 2 p.m. and a strawberry stemming contest at 4 p.m.

Buses and vans will ferry festival-goers free of charge from parking lots at Oxnard College, the Seabees base in Port Hueneme and the Ventura County Government Center in Ventura.

On Saturday, about 50 redheads will vie at 11 a.m. for the crowns of fresh strawberries that will be awarded to the Outstanding Strawberry Blonde (18 years and older) and the Junior Strawberry Blonde (5 to 12 years).

Waiters and waitresses in fruit costumes will test their tray-balancing abilities with decanters and glasses of strawberry wine in a 1 p.m. relay race.

A tea dance to the strains of the Very Special Jazz Band, a 17-piece band specializing in the tunes of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, follows at 3 p.m.

Sunday's activities begin at 8 a.m. with a 10-kilometer run that is expected to draw more than 600 participants. A 2-kilometer "fun run" takes a less ambitious but more relaxed course.

The concept of a festival honoring a crop is not exactly new. Castroville has its Artichoke Festival. Every year, Santa Cruz celebrates Brussels sprouts. And, in perhaps the best-known festival of its kind, Gilroy pays homage to garlic.

"In California, we tend to make a festival out of everything," said Charlene Allen-Dowdy of the California Strawberry Advisory Board.

And, in the heart-shaped fruit that was first cultivated in the 18th Century, there appears to be a lot to celebrate.

California produces 80% of the nation's strawberry crop. And while Watsonville and Salinas are the state's biggest producers, Oxnard was responsible for nearly one-quarter of California's crop in 1987, according to Reid Wagstaff, director of field procurement for J. M. Smuckers Co., the festival's original sponsor.

Versatile and Abundant

Strawberries are as versatile as they are abundant.

Winners of the California Strawberry Festival's Berry-Off, held March 28 at Oxnard College's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, used strawberries to cover chicken kebabs, tiger prawns and sea bass.

They mixed strawberries with fennel, with amaretto, with pistachios. They dumped strawberries in spinach, in consomme, in chutney.

Debbie Sheesley, a 36-year-old Oxnard entrant who won the grand prize with her "Soda Fountain Heaven Pie" with ice cream cone crust, even disputes the wisdom of dismissing strawberry quesadillas and spaghetti sauce.

A frequent entrant, she remembers that a competitor two years ago won first place with a Mexican salsa that combined strawberries with jalapeno chilies. Sheesley herself once aced out the competition with a barbecue sauce that mixed strawberry and tomato puree.

'Subtle Flavor'

"A real subtle flavor of strawberries comes out when you barbecue," Sheesley said. "It's almost a woody taste."

That is not to say, however, that there aren't limits to which even the strawberry should not be stretched.

"The strawberry meat loaf with buffalo really took the cake," said Barth, who, after five years as a chef in several Southern California restaurants--including Le Beaujolais in Redondo Beach, Orlean's Cajun Creole in West Los Angeles and the Albatross in Camarillo--works as a counselor at Oxnard College.

The recipe combined ground sausage veal and buffalo with strawberry preserves.

"The weirdest of all time," he said with a sniff.

But the pretzel salad, which combined crushed pretzels with frozen strawberries and imitation whipped cream, didn't rate much higher with Barth.

"I'm not sure I can qualify it intellectually," he said. "But it sounds like a rather unusual taste combination."

And as for the strawberry Bolognese, Barth has to differ with Sheesley there, too.

"Tomatoes are acidic," he said. "And I don't feel it would work well at all with the strawberries. In fact, it may explode."

Times staff writer Donna Dowling contributed to this story.

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