Fest's contests, music, free fries have mass appeel

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N.C. Potato Festival attendees make their way through the gauntlet of booths on Water Street on the second day of the annual event in downtown Elizabeth City, Saturday. An estimated 20,000 people attended the festival on Saturday, adding to the estimated 10,000 who attended on opening night, Friday. The Potato Festival resumes today at 10 a.m. and concludes at 6 p.m.


By Chris Day
Muiltimedia Editor

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Just for fun, John Lee includes in the signature of his work emails that he is the two-time National Potato Peeling champion. When he returns to work Monday, he’ll have to update his signature to three-time champion.

“I’ve got to change it from two to three,” he said, smiling.

Lee won his third straight National Potato Peeling championship on Saturday, which marked the second day of this year’s N.C. Potato Festival in downtown Elizabeth City.  

“Yea, it’s three years in a row,” said Lee, who teaches art at Pasquotank County High School. 

The festival kicked off at 10 a.m. with several events, including the peeling contest. On the Main Stage the band Lovely World was cranking out songs by Pink Floyd, the White Stripes and more. Over at the stage in the park at Mariners’ Wharf the Little Miss Tater Tot Contest was beginning. 

Skylar Williams won the Little Miss Tater Tot Contest in the 3- to 5-year-old division. Caylie Landrum won the 6-8 division.   

The potato peeling contest was held at Main and Poindexter streets between Arts of the Albemarle and PNC Bank. And across Main Street, volunteers handed out free French fries to hungry festival-goers. At least they did until about 2:30 p.m., when the last of the fries were gone.

Around the corner from the potato peeling contest was the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, which is making its first-ever festival appearance. 

“We’re excited to be here,” said “Hotdogger” Hayley Rozman.

Hotdogger is what Oscar Mayer calls its group of paid marketing representatives who spend a year after graduating from college touring the nation in the Wienermobile. She said the experience she’s gained traveling and meeting new people is worth more than the salary she’s paid.

“It’s a really awesome job,” Rozman said, adding that she’s visited 10 states out west, and is currently on a 14-state trek through the Southeast. Last weekend she and fellow Hotdogger Kyle Edwards were in Roanoke, Virginia, and next weekend they will be in Charlotte attending NASCAR’s Coca Cola 600. 

Deborah Malenfant, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown Inc., which organizes the Potato Festival, said around 5:30 p.m. Saturday that based on her estimates the weekend event is on track to draw about 40,000 people. She estimated 10,000 people attended opening night Friday and another 20,000 came downtown on Saturday. 

Like previous festival, this year’s features several bands and musicians performing throughout the day. 

“The music has been amazing,” Malenfant said. “It’s a great mix of local talent and regional and even national talent,” she said. 

The Buskits, a duo formed by young brothers Andrew and Kyle, took the stage at 5 p.m. and played several acoustic versions of classic songs. Earlier in the day identical twin sisters Michaela and Annabelle Sanchez, who form the group Entangled Dreams, performed their set on the Main stage. The two are from Wilmington and played covers, such as “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a few of their original songs.  

Vendors lined each side of Main Street, selling jewelry and other crafts, and one booth was selling items geared toward supporting fallen veterans. The booths continued around the corner to Water Street, where they joined food stands, including some that occasionally emitted soft puffs of smoke that smelled of grilled Italian sausages, onions and peppers.

Also on the festival menu were crab cakes, roasted corn on the cob, beef and lamb gyros, pizza, barbecue, chicken and further toward the popular midway on Water Street snack booths were selling cotton candy and candy and caramel apples. 

Encore Theatre Company manned a booth where actors dressed as zombies offered passers-by an opportunity to have a photo taken with them. Encore was promoting its upcoming July presentation of George A. Romero’s classic horror film, “Night of the Living Dead.”  

American Legion Post 126 in Hertford had a booth where veterans were selling raffle tickets to be drawn at the post’s Veterans Day celebration in November. 

In the early afternoon a helicopter crew from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City held a search and rescue demonstration about 100 yards off Mariners’ Wharf in the Pasquotank River.

A good-sized crowd watched the potato-peeling contest. The event starts with four-person teams competing to peel the most amount of potatoes. Each team members’ peeled potatoes are weighed by a group of judges. The next round pits the member of each team who peeled the most potatoes against each other for the overall championship.

Lee was representing The Pasquotank Peelers, which won second in the team competition. First place went to The Girls, made up of Kim Byrd, Katie King, Jeri Carson and Bren O’Sullivan.

When asked if he practices peeling potatoes, Lee laughed and said no but he just enjoys attending the festival.

“I just come out here to have a good time,” he said, clutching three trophies. One trophy was for his championship, another was for having peeled the most potatoes for his team and the third was a team trophy.

“We put our team trophy in the school,” he said, referring to Pasquotank.

Lee peeled 5.11 pounds of potatoes to win the championship. Following close behind and winning second place was first-time potato peeling contestant Peter Bruderle. He peeled 4.9 pounds of potatoes.

It appeared Lee had edged Bruderle by one potato.

“I don’t know what the difference was,” Bruderle said. “It was a close call.”

Bruderle teaches personal finance and entrepreneurship at the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies. He said he’ll be back next year to challenge for top potato peeler.

“I’m going to practice all year and look at film,” he said, joking.

The festival continues today starting at 10 a.m. before concluding at 6 p.m. The band King St. will take the main stage at 11 a.m. and be followed throughout the afternoon by John Emil, Cooper Greer, Sweet Sweet, Adam Nixon, 5Starr and Delta Son.