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Being Fruitful

Cooks Demonstrate Versatility of the Divine Strawberry


It's High Mass in the strawberry capital. On Saturday, the faithful gathered at Oxnard College to celebrate their beloved fruit in an annual ritual known as the Berry-Off Competition.

But don't think for a minute that this was just some promo for the city's upcoming California Strawberry Festival, or a mere cooking contest. Miss Oxnard 1996, a.k.a. Melissa Dean, who appeared at the Berry-Off, summed up her community's feelings for the strawberry in two words: "God's gift."

In this faith, to honor the strawberry is to find various ways to consume it--so the California Strawberry Festival sponsors its annual strawberry cooking competition, the Berry-Off.

Devotion to the strawberry--Fragaria californica--is so widespread that 475 cooks from 29 states vied for the $1,000 grand prize and the sacred honor of having produced the Most Outstanding Strawberry Dish.

This year, that honor went to Stuart Byford of Waldron, Ark., for his Spiced Strawberry Relish. A panel of 11 judges, including chefs from top-flight Visalia, Oxnard and Port Hueneme restaurants, called its zesty mixture of grated lemon, chopped ginger, red wine, slices of peach and pear, diced onion, sugar, spices and fresh strawberries "heavenly."

The relish recipe also won first place in the best sauce, butter and condiment category. Prizes of $200 were also awarded for best hors d'oeuvres; soup or salad; main dish or vegetable; bread, pancake or crepe; and pie, cake, cookies or other dessert.

More than a dozen students from the Oxnard College School of Hotel and Restaurant Management prepared dishes on behalf of out-of-town cooks who sent in their recipes.

Shaunna Zavala of Ventura was there in person to see her Strawberry-Mango Salsa recipe win first place for best hors d'oeuvres.

"Very different," was how she described her fiery melange of habanera, serrano and jalapeno chilies mixed with mango, strawberries, onions and cilantro.

Not to be confused with Beatlemania, there is berrymania--although their hymn, "Strawberry Fields Forever," is the same. Diehard berry devotees wear what is known as the "Strawberry look." Take, for example, Sue Odgers.

A longtime Berry-Off booster, Odgers, 53, tastes a forkful of Mediterranean Strawberry Lunch Salad as she shows off her strawberry accessories: T-shirt, earrings, socks, baseball cap. And with freckles and strawberry-blond hair, Odgers has even begun to resemble the object of her affection.

"I'm waiting for them to come out with a strawberry watch," she said.

Odgers lives in Oxnard, but she'll be joined in coming weeks by thousands making the pilgrimage for the 13th annual California Strawberry Festival. On May 18 and 19, faithful from near and far will gorge themselves on the fruit that some even consider medicinal.

When her children complain of sore throats, Berry-Off coordinator Mary Barajas gives her kids strawberries. To her, one of the berry's unheralded virtues is "it has a whole lot of vitamin C."

Lesser known, she added, is its ability to ease constipation. Said Barajas, whose 10-year-old daughter is dressed as, what else?, a strawberry: "They're also real good for roughage."

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