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Red, Plump and Plentiful

Strawberry Festival offerings will range from popcorn to pizza at fund-raiser.


Popcorn isn't just for the movies, and strawberries aren't just for shortcake. The two can be more or less happily married, just like strawberries and pizza, strawberries and barbecue sauce, strawberries and spinach, strawberries and a slew of other unlikely candidates.

Such wonders are yours to experience at the 14th Annual California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard this weekend, a two-day splurge for berry lovers.

Not just food for the palate, the festival is also food for the ear--Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is among the groups entertaining. And if you O.D. on strawberries, you can try heaving a pie at a loved one, perusing the arts and crafts, or taking a spin through the kids' area.

But, naturally, the berry itself is at the center of things--since the Oxnard area produces more than 20% of the state's strawberries.

For local nonprofit groups, the festival is a chance to raise money by selling strawberry concoctions, the zanier the better. At least that's what Food Share Inc.'s board vice president, Marla Schwartz, thought when she wracked her brain for a distinctive strawberry creation.

"I was desperate," said Schwartz, whose food assistance program had never run a booth at the festival. "Then, one night I woke up at midnight and thought, 'What about popcorn?' "

Strawberry popcorn, of course.

She thought it would be a snap to make in her kitchen. She bought a couple bags of popping corn, and experimented with red dyes, strawberry flavored oil, crushed strawberries.

"You name it, I tried it," Schwartz said. It was a disaster. "I had red dye all over the kitchen."

That's when Ron Fischer of Fischer and Sons Popcorn Products came to her rescue. At his Oxnard plant, he makes 40 different flavors of popcorn, some as offbeat as rum and pistachio. Strawberry was a cinch, and he popped 10,000 10-ounce bags for Food Share to sell at its festival booth for $2 apiece.

If you want to sample some strawberry popcorn at the festival, it won't be hard to find. Schwartz will be dressed in a strawberry costume, strolling the rounds with a tray of the bright red stuff.

Last year about 30 nonprofit groups like Food Share raised $100,000 for their causes. With 80,000 people jamming the festival site near Oxnard College, it's not surprising that the event is a moneymaker for them.

The crowd typically eats some 5 million strawberries, so these groups deal with mountains of food. Rio Mesa High School's Athletic Booster Club orders about 120 cases of strawberries for its strawberry pizza, a tradition at the festival.

"It sounds awful, but it's the best item there," said the club's Susannah Alvidrez. Served cold, this dessert is a ready-made pastry crust slathered with a sweet cream cheese mixture and topped with strawberries.

It takes a crew of at least 20 parents each day to serve up this delicacy, which sells for $3 a slice. "We've got people washing berries in tubs, slicing strawberries, doing the cream-cheese mixture," Alvidrez said. The money they raise helps buy equipment for school sports.

Jeanne Azbell's strawberry muffins, strawberry bread and strawberry cream cheese are a moneymaker for the First Baptist Church of Oxnard's Music Ministries for Youth program.

Using the church's kitchen, she enlists the help of her children and grandchildren for the baking. This year's batch: 1,000 muffins and 500 loaves of bread.

"We just get an assembly line going: Each one has a step," she said. The recipes are her own creation. "I had to play around with them so the bread wouldn't get soggy."

Some of the strawberry offerings are a little more predictable, like strawberry malts, shakes, ice cream cones, smoothies, floats and "strawmonade." But some are doozies, like the strawberry barbecue sauce for hot dogs and egg rolls, and strawberry-and-spinach salad with poppy seed dressing.

This is not the time to consider dieting, especially when faced with something called the "strawberry cool cup," a conglomeration of nuts, powdered sugar, chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream.

"It's a little obscene in terms of calories," said Gary Windom, chairman of the Ventura County chapter of the Black American Political Assn. of California, the group offering this devastating dish.

Nor is dieting a priority for anyone who goes through the make-your-own strawberry shortcake line. You get a bowl and pile it as high as you want with pound cake, sliced strawberries and whipped cream.

Frank Hayward, whose Oxnard College students in the hotel and restaurant management program operate the do-it-yourself booth, has seen all methods: "the layer method, the wedge, the running down your elbow, the conservative method."

Hayward's students, who receive scholarships from the proceeds, can speed about eight people per minute through the line. They'll gorge on some 2,200 loaves of pound cake, about 1,200 gallons of whipped cream, and close to 10,000 pounds of strawberries picked in Oxnard the Friday morning before the festival.

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