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Red-Letter Day for 44,500 Fans of Berries


OXNARD — With a pie tin full of strawberry sauce and whipped cream, 7-year-old Aleia Ando stared at the face of her father, protruding through a hole in the center of a giant wooden strawberry.

"Honey, I love you," a slightly nervous Ron Ando of Santa Monica called out to his daughter.

But she would not be lulled by sweet talk. She cocked back her arm and slammed the gooey strawberry tart into her father's face. Mission accomplished, Aleia shrieked with delight.

"I just kind of felt like torturing him," said Aleia, tilting her head beneath an oversized floppy brown hat, her long brown hair framing the large smile plastered across her face. "It was fun."

Aleia and her father were among the more than 44,500 people who came to the Oxnard site Saturday to buy, eat, toss and--in Ron Ando's case--wear the sticky sweet berry.

Saturday kicked off the 16th annual California Strawberry Festival, meant to celebrate one of Ventura County's premium crops. Because Oxnard is the second-largest strawberry producer in the state (Watsonville is No. 1), yielding more than 27% of California's berry crop, festival Executive Director Shelley Merrick said the event has become a tribute to the city's heritage.

"This is not just a big party," Merrick said. "It's a celebration of the strawberry producers. We are considered the strawberry capital of California. So the strawberry is a part of our culture, it's part of what we're about. This festival is all about heritage, community, and it also happens to be a lot of fun."

By early Saturday, event organizers were already predicting crowd counts this weekend would top last year's record-breaking turnout, which surpassed 62,000.

Before noon, a throng of people crowded around the more than 40 food booths in hopes of tasting one of the many strawberry concoctions.

There were plenty of dishes to choose from: strawberry muffins, strawberry shortcakes, strawberry pizza, strawberry funnel cakes, strawberry smoothies, strawberry crepes, strawberry kabobs and chocolate-covered strawberries.

And to wash it all down, strawberry shakes, strawberry wine coolers, strawberry daiquiris, strawberry wine, or strawberry beer.

Many people chose to gobble their berry goodies near one of the two festival stages to hear the rock and blues bands such as Randy Rick and the Ravens, Raw Silk, El Kabong and Ska Daddyz.

Headlining Saturday's entertainment schedule was 1980s dance music diva Taylor Dayne. Headlining today's schedule is Grammy Award winner Rita Coolidge, whose hits include "We're All Alone" and "Superstar." Coolidge will play from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

And for those who tired of eating the berry-of-the-hour, there were plenty of games, including the tart toss, where Aleia Ando took home a second-place prize.

Ojai's April LeMay, 13, won a first-place prize Frisbee for slamming a tart into her mother's face.

"Yeah, but what do the moms get?" Linda LeMay remarked sarcastically as she painstakingly wiped the sticky red goo from her face, hair and clothes.

Another popular game was the strawberry relay, where contestants race to build strawberry shortcakes on an obstacle course and pass the creation to a partner who must scarf down the dessert before crossing a finish line. The strawberry shortcake eating contest was also a favorite.

The festival, held at Strawberry Meadows, 3250 Rose Ave., continues today from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Tickets are $7 for adults, $4 for children 2 through 12 and seniors 55 and older. Parking next to Strawberry Meadows, across from Oxnard College, is free.

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