In Hammonton, it's a blue(berry) Sunday

Posted: July 01, 2014

HAMMONTON - In this mostly Italian farming town of nearly 15,000, where flat fields and two-lane roads are a sharp contrast from the big-box stores and crowded highways of New Jersey's more developed areas, the blueberry is abundant.

Skyward, they are painted on a water tower that displays the town's name. On the ground, they flourish. And at the annual Red, White and Blueberry Festival, people from around the state buy them in bulk.

"I was raised in Hammonton," said Lisa Varesio, treasurer of the town's Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the festival. "So it's almost like the blood runs blue after a while."

The event Sunday, in its 28th year, featured a rush to buy blueberry pies before they ran out - which they did quickly - and pushed metabolisms and stomachs to the limit. Each year the festival draws up to 15,000 people, many willing to try any of the dizzying number of blueberry foods.

"We've been eating for a couple hours," said Fred Scheck, 61, around 1:30 p.m. He and his wife, Cindy, whose parents own a blueberry farm, tried the blueberry cannoli and the blueberry log - a length of cheese coated in berries. Hitting the final stretch, Scheck was scooping up blueberry ice cream.

"Everything's good," he said between licks. "Blueberry ice cream, blueberry lemonade."

On and on it went.

For the kids, there was a pie-eating contest. Draping large white napkins in front of their shirts and placing their arms behind them, they chowed down on the gooey goodness, ignoring the mess building around them.

In a nearby tent, members of the Hammonton chapter of the nonprofit Lions Club came with a mountain of goods: 1,000 turnovers, 1,000 logs, and 1,000 muffins. The treats, from Liscio's bakery in Glassboro, were selling quickly. The 200 blueberry pies they brought vanished in less than three hours.

"The people that come here from out of town really, really appreciate getting a fresh-baked product like this," said Sal Velardi, 59, president of the local Lions Club chapter. He expected to make about $2,600, which he said the organization will use to support operations that improve eyesight. "We in Hammonton, we're used to this."

Of course, the festival wouldn't be complete without the men and women on stilts.

Woody Duncan, usually 5-foot-7, staggered around at 7-foot-7, his stilts covered by long blue pants. Above those, he sported a striped red-and-white shirt, and a blue hat with tiny, waving American flags. Duncan, 62, of Port Republic, strummed some tunes on his ukulele as families posed for pictures, while cracking jokes at the more shy characters.

"Lucas is a chicken," he said good-naturedly, as one boy hesitated before joining his family for a picture. "Thank you, Lucas," Duncan said after the camera snapped, "for being a real man."

There were items for people not into blueberries, including chicken, french fries, and handmade crafts such as birdhouses. But the main attraction Sunday was predominantly blue. For good reason.

"We're actually called 'the Blueberry Capital of the World,' " said a proud Varesio, the chamber treasurer. "Of course, other states" - such as Michigan and Maine? - "would disagree with that."



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