BY PAUL ROUPE
The Grammy award winning musician Al Jarreau once sang, “Anyone who’s ever had sweet potato pie don’t want pumpkin again.”
If you love sweet potatoes, then the Livingston Sweet Potato Festival is a must see.
Since the crop makes up a significant portion of the local economy, it’s only natural that there would be an event celebrating the versatile vegetable.
When it first began six years ago, the “Yamboree” was lumped together with the city’s 4th of July celebration. There were no exhibits, no rodeos, no pony rides; just cases of sweet potatoes donated by obliging farmers who stood by their product and smiled for the occasional snapshot.
The city manager at the time, along with a studious member of the community, decided to start a festival that honors the region’s most valuable asset. Livingston, home to 18,000 acres of sweet potatoes, is the country’s third top producer behind Louisiana and North Carolina. Many of the local farmers and citizens rely on it for their livelihood.
The sweet potato is to Livingston what garlic is to Gilroy, or asparagus to the San Joaquin Delta, and that is exactly what Livingston Recreation Superintendent Jacquelyn Benoit hopes people associate the city with.
“The Valley here loves food festivals. Apricot, peach, asparagus…people come out because it’s family oriented and usually free to get in,” Benoit says.
In addition, sweet potatoes are enjoying a surge in popularity because they provide a plethora of health advantages.
“They’re becoming a sexy item,” she says. Their appeal reached the commercial level when, among other things, Carl’s Jr. released their sweet potato fries and Wendy’s put out a baked sweet potato.
They’re low in carbs, but loaded with potassium, fiber, and manganese, which can stabilize the appetite and level out blood sugar levels. They can also be cooked in any way imaginable: baked, grilled, fried, steamed, sautéed, boiled, roasted, or even microwaved.
This festival aims to highlight the sweet potato in its many incarnations, and there is plenty going on to entice both veterans and first-timers.
New this year are a farmer’s market and a culinary exhibit, where a group of community volunteers will give food demonstrations on different ways to prepare and cook sweet potatoes. Last year there was a Lucha Libre exhibition– which both children and adults loved– and it will be there again this year.
Another event making its first appearance is the corn hole tournament. This game, which consists of tossing beanbags into a hole on a slanted piece of wood, can earn participants who chip in a small entry fee cash prizes that could total up to $15,000.
There are also a lot of favorites returning. The petting zoo is always a kid pleaser, and if regular farm animals don’t grab your attention, bags of food will be available to feed a camel, who Benoit insists “are super gentle.”
Another child-friendly activity is the Dress Your Tater contest. It’s much like sticking arms and legs into Mr. Potato Head, only here you can pick up a sweet potato from city hall and construct a person, animal, or thing with whatever your imagination can cook up. The more aesthetically pleasing specimens (and those not so attractive) can be viewed under a tent, where judgment is not only invited but encouraged.
The festival provides something for everyone, whether it’s the food court, the mercantile marketplace (where all food vendors are required to incorporate the sweet potato into every dish), the pie eating contest (sweet potato, of course), the recipe contest, the pony rides, the wrestling, the rodeo, the bull riding or abundance of the star veggie itself (sweet potato ice cream, anyone?).
And certainly, no festival is complete without a full carnival.
All these factors are sure to add up to a wonderful time, and Benoit envisions visitors coming from all over the region and state to experience it for themselves.
“If (people) like sweet potatoes, or are looking for new ways to prepare them, and they want to have fun with their families, it’s just a short drive to Livingston,” she says.
The Livingston Sweet Potato Festival is being held from Sept. 22-24 at the Max Foster Sports Complex (off the Hammat exit), 2600 Walnut Ave. It is open Friday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 3p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free, but parking is $5. The concerts are $5 if paid in advance or $10 at the gate. For more information, visit www.livingstoncity.com.