Annual festival honor state fruit

The air was filled with sweetness this weekend in Ponchatoula, the self-proclaimed strawberry capital of the world. The city turned into one big festival ground for the 43rd annual Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, and Memorial Park hosted the action where Ponchatoula farmers were selling their fresh, sweet, juicy strawberries in an array of possibilities. Strawberry shortcake, dark and white chocolate covered strawberries, strawberry beignets, strawberry tarts, strawberry daiquiris and strawberry snowballs were among the options offered by over 60 vendors. Members of Greek organizations participate in the festival each year by selling food and strawberry desserts.
Volunteers put on the festival every year during the first weekend in the first full week of April. Louisiana is a festival-centric state, and even though the French Quarter Festival was happening the same weekend down in New Orleans, volunteer Helen Barker of the Ponchatoula Kiwains Club says this festival stands out among the others because of its laidback environment under the spring sun.
“The strawberry fest is such a family friendly environment, its very family oriented,” said Barker, who was working the souvenir table with her son and daughter. “I’ve been volunteering here for many years, and I just love it. The weather this weekend was perfect too.”
In 1973, 11 booths lined one block of N. 6th street, along Memorial Park, where farmers, schools, churches and various non-profit organizations raised money by selling strawberries to honor the local farmers. According to the Ponchatoula Times, 15,000 people went to the first festival and today the crowds have grown, pumping $33 million into the local economy. People from all across the nation come to taste the locally grown Ponchatoula strawberry. The fruit was named the state fruit in 2001 by the Louisiana Legislation.
Traditionally, the crowd from the festival spills into downtown Ponchatoula, where more farmers sell their berries. Farmer’s Row offers strawberries from local farmers. Homemade strawberry preserves, salad dressings and syrups were a few items sold by Linda Tamburello. Her booth this year was different, however, breaking a tradition she has kept for 43 years. Her and a few other farmers’ booths were moved from the traditional Farmer’s Row to Hickory Street.
“Being on the back road has cost us some business,” Tamburello said.
Mary Gordon drove from Vicksburg, Miss. to eat some Ponchatoula strawberries. Gordon was a first timer at the festival this year and says it was even better than she imagined.
“I’m in love [with] it all,” Gordon said. “The bands are good, the food is great, but the strawberries are even better.”
The fair grounds with rides, games and live music are in Memorial Park between N. 6th and N. 7th Streets but Downtown Ponchatoula businesses, and the surrounding blocks all join in on the party and craft vendors set up on NW Railroad Avenue. There are sack races and a strawberry eating contest, on a first come, first serve basis and locals know all too well they must defend their title. The winner of the 18 and up age group was Tim Matthews, a ten-year veteran and strawberry eating contest champion. He gets up on stage each year to “keep the streak alive,” said Matthews.
There is no entrance fee, like many other Louisiana festivals. The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival is the second largest free festival in Louisiana, second only to Mardi Gras. Contestants in the strawberry eating contest got to keep the berries that didn’t make it into their mouth and they didn’t have to pre-register, the live music by The River City Hot Sqaud, Nonc Nu, Top Cats, Chase Tyler, Passing-Outlaws and Todd O’Neil was free and all money made goes back to support the local farmer.