I love me some peaches. I can do serious damage to a quart box of the yellow-red fruit. For me, the juicier the better. They’re best eaten wearing an old t-shirt while sitting on a porch swing, or on a tailgate. Pits go out in the yard and may become a tree someday if you are lucky, I’ve always thought.
And even after this weekend, I still love peaches. And I still love the Johnson County Peach Festival. I just don’t know when I’ll get back around to eating peach cobbler again.
See, I was afforded the honor of judging the peach cobbler contest at this year’s festival, an honor I planned to relish. And I did. But boy… well, you just read along.
The setting: Clarksville, Arkansas, on the square. Each year the community comes out and enjoys itself fully with a celebration of all things peachy-keen. Mind you, not everything is about eating a peach — some things have far more to do with the community, mind you. The whole mess starts out with a beauty pageant to figure out who’s going to be the Miss Johnson County representative to the Miss Arkansas pageant. There’s also the selection of Peach Miss and Peach Mister. This is a tradition that has stood the test
There are the great sports celebrated, too, such as the early-in-the-morning greased-pig races. Photographer Chuck Haralson went to Clarksville early just to catch that. And boy, what a spectacle — young folks trying to capture a little pig that’s been well lubricated. An event full of laughter, that one.
Most of the Friday morning events at the festival are focused on two things: children, and doing things before it gets too hot to do anything. There are terrapin races and frog jumping contests, both packed with local kids who bring their own champions.
Thing is, used to be they could potentially do these things later in the day, rather than at 8:30 or 10 in the morning. That’s because the festival used to be in early June. Well, a couple of years ago I went and found that there was a total of a single box of peaches already off the trees. That was back in 2009, and peaches were hard to come by. So now the festival is held the third weekend of July, and there’s a hope for peaches to be about.
One of the first things I noticed when I got there late in the morning was that yes, there were peaches around. While the peach fried pie tent I’d enjoyed before was absent, there was peach tea, peach ice cream and just plain peaches all around. Seems that Wal-Mart stepped in this year and donated a bunch of peaches… and everyone was distributing them. You couldn’t turn around without smelling them, and you couldn’t step from one booth to another in the vendor area without being offered one.
There were a lot of vendors, too. Unlike some places where the vendors are lined up along roadways or in a fairground, they were all packed onto the courthouse lawn — which meant they benefited from the shade of trees. This also meant if you needed to use the facilities you could go into the courthouse and enjoy your, um, relief in air conditioned comfort. Mind you, business as usual was underway at the courthouse, but the staffers there were courteous and kind.
Now around noon it had already surpassed 100 degrees outside, and there was a sort of passive waiting about the whole thing. A couple of vendors had those great neck wraps available that hold cold water right against your neck. Several were offering free water for passers-by.
There were also a great manner of crafts on display, from elaborate woodcarvings to nameplates made from cut-up license plates, crocheted baby doll dresses to flower head bows, and a whole lot of tie-dye to boot. There were concessions, too — corn dogs, fried potatoes, walking tacos, cotton candy and snowcones all around. And jellies and jams and bandanas, too.
Now, when the heat started to get to me, I did duck across the street to a new enterprise called Fat Dawgz BBQ and Something Sweet. This little eatery smelled wonderful and was serving up not only barbecue but a fine selection of pies. I passed on the peach cream pie for something even colder — a wedge of frozen peanut butter pie with a homemade chocolate drizzle. It wasn’t quite frozen, which was good because I value my teeth, but it was cool and creamy and light and the girls at the counter gave me a gargantuanly large cup of ice water to go with it. 25 minutes of that and I was hydrated and ready to go.
I met up with Chuck on the front porch of the courthouse steps, and we waited for the big exciting competition to begin — that is, the peach eating contest. I’ve seen some kids go to town on these peaches before, and this time was no different. There was, however, a bit of confusion on how peach eating was supposed to be done. Check out the video here for more on that.
After the heat, the judge in the affair checked mouths and hands to make sure all the peach matter was gone before declaring a winner. There had to be an eat-off between the top eaters in the 6-12 year old range. Those kids… well, first time around they just absorbed those peaches. The younger kids took a little longer.
I will advise you this — if you plan to participate or have a child participating in this activity, be sure to wear shoes you don’t mind washing off with a waterhose. There will be sticky around.
Afterwards, a great crowd flowed into the courthouse for the event I was there to judge, the cobbler competition. I should tell you, I was not expecting what happened. Back when I covered the event in 2009, there was but one cobbler and one jam entry in the festival, and it took no time to determine winners. In fact, when I was on the phone with the festival folks before the event I was assured that I was in good shape, that in 2011 there were some eight cobblers, and I’d be all right.
So you can imagine my trepidation when I sat down and was told that there were 15 — count ‘em, 15 — different cobblers to judge. It also became abundantly clear to me that I was in a rare group of individuals judging this competition. After all, it’s not every day you get to share a table and some cobbler with a gaggle of teenage beauty queens. I kid you not.
And if you thought peach cobbler would be boring, think again. There were biscuit dough cobblers and cobblers made with lattice crusts and those packed in pastry dough. There were some made with ripe and almost too sweet peaches and some made with under-ripe ones. Some were very tart. Some were a little fluid. But each had its own merits.
And as I sampled each one I reminded myself that I needed to pace myself. I knew I could manage 15 bites of cobbler. I figured it out to be about twice as much as I’d get if I’d ordered peach cobbler for a dessert somewhere. And besides, I hadn’t had a real lunch yet.
Boy, I had made a mistake. Not only had I already eaten a slice of pie before we got started, I failed to take into account the possibility of having a cobbler-off — that is, having to judge a couple over. So, 17 bites of cobbler later, a winner and a second and third were selected and we were all released. And the general public descended on that long row of cobblers. See, when the competition is over, all that cobbler matter becomes fair game, and the organizers dole out vanilla ice cream to go with it. Everyone’s happy. Everyone piles in, tries what they want and cleans the plates as it were.
Except man, I could barely move. It was so much. SO much. I stumbled down the courthouse steps, got me a T-shirt from the festival and a great little peach pin and a couple of neck wraps. I chatted with folks and felt this sensation in my gut. I was stuffed to the brim with peaches and cobbler crust, and… well, I had to get an antidote. The folks with the Diamond Drive-In out west of downtown on Highway 64 set me up with an enormous cup of iced tea and a WOW Burger for the road. It was an antidote, for sure… but it sure took a while to wear out of my system.
There were other activities of note — a fishing competition, a cardboard boat race, dancing in the streets and a parade. And so much to do for the kids, like the inflatable slide and that great little train that drove the kids all over downtown.
I love the Johnson County Peach Festival and I will be back. But I think I may just have to get a substitute stomach if I find myself honored with eating peach cobbler again for these good folks. At least they were kind and found other judges for the nine different peach jams entered for competition this year!