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Picking, washing, capping, slicing are all part of the fun at old-fashioned festivals STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Seven women circle a table, slicing ruby-red strawberries into stainless steel bowls in the kitchen of Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church. They gossip, they tease, they laugh, and soon their bowls brim with the local bounty to be celebrated today at the Clarksville Community Strawberry Festival.

And already, the women are thinking about ways to make next year's festival even better. "I have an idea," says Dottie Raver.

"Strawberry daiquiris?" someone guesses. No, Mrs. Raver says. Box lunches. Next year, a carryout box lunch, with fried chicken and coleslaw or potato salad, would increase sales, she says.

That seems to be the way with strawberry festivals. As the season's first home-grown fruit, the berry signifies the lush promise of summer and is, in itself, worthy of communal recognition. But the berry is also a sweet catalyst in a vital social circuit, from the field, to the community, to the causes the community supports. So the bigger the strawberry festival, the bigger the draw -- and the bigger the take. For the Linden-Linthicum congregation, that means more money to support its building campaign.

Even before Maryland's short and fragile strawberry season arrives, dozens of churches throughout Maryland hold traditional strawberry festivals, replete with strawberry shortcake, strawberry sundaes, strawberry pies and strawberries, pure and simple. For the many congregations who hold them, the festivals are a time of fellowship and a way to raise money to support missions abroad, local causes and their churches as well. Proceeds can range from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the festival's scale.

Because strawberries are grown in every state, the strawberry festivals that fete them are a universal tradition that promote the fruit and increase its economic impact. (Although Marion on the Eastern Shore was the strawberry capital of the world at the turn of the century, the economic impact of the strawberry harvest in the state today is minimal, says Tony Evans, coordinator of marketing communications for the state Department of Agriculture.)

"It's fantastic! It's delicious . . . and it's a way to support the local industry, but at the same time it's a celebration of spring," says Dr. Bill Courter, who as secretary of the North American Strawberry Growers Association, encourages the proliferation of such festivals.

Way back when, Iroquois Indians held wild strawberry festivals. Today, major festivals, including several really big ones in Indiana and Kentucky, draw as many as 20,000 people to feast on the sweet member of the rose family as well as take part in square dances, farm tours, quilting exhibitions, contests and auctions.

Those planning this year's strawberry festival at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Sykesville expect up to 3,000 visitors. With the promise of Hula Hoop contests and a diaper derby, musical entertainment, a white elephant sale, two Baltimore Blast players and the Oriole Bird, as well 100 craftspeople, the church's festival will resemble a good-sized country fair.

No matter how grand the festival, strawberries, of course, are key. "Last year we picked over 500 pounds. This year, we're hoping to pick 800 pounds. We ran out of fresh berries very early last year," says Diane Fischer, publicity chairwoman for Messiah Lutheran.

Organizers begin planning strawberry festivals as early as a year in advance, assigning tasks and schedules with military precision. "It's a yearlong effort," says Chuck LaBerge, publicity chairman for Towson Presbyterian Church's annual strawberry festival. To keep things running smoothly, co-chairmen for the next year are drafted immediately after each festival and the committees in charge of strawberries and ice cream, hot dogs and hamburgers and other necessities are blessed with "a lot of repeat volunteers," Mr. LaBerge says.

"In January and February, we start to organize and we need all of our congregation. Everybody has to help in some way . . . people to pick berries, women to bake cakes, teen-agers to run games, husbands to set up these booths for us," says Mrs. Fischer of Messiah Lutheran.

In preparation for today's festival, Linden-Linthicum church members prepared strawberry glaze for pies, shortcake and sundaes over several long evenings in the church kitchen. The strawberries are "earliglow," luscious, fragrant and just ripe enough, picked at Koandah Gardens, the Howard County farm of church member Jim Sanborn.

As leader of the glaze effort, Nancy Wilson, extrapolating from her recipe books, estimated that a total of 750 pounds of strawberries was needed to serve the crowds expected. In a delicately choreographed plan, enough strawberries were to be picked each day by members of the congregation to supply the women's needs each night as they washed, capped, sliced and cooked down the berries in two large kettles.

Careful records are kept of festivals past. Carolyn Insley of Kenwood Presbyterian can tell you that at last year's festival, there were 83 orders of strawberries and ice cream, 231 orders of strawberries and shortcake, 47 orders of plain strawberries and 27 orders of strawberries, ice cream and shortcake.

Strawberry festivals are a longtime tradition for many churches. Towson Presbyterian will hold its 45th annual festival June 6. No one remembers exactly how many years the strawberry festival at Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church has taken place. "My lands, I guess it started in the late '30s, down at the old stone church on Maple and Camp Meade roads, out on the lawn," one church member in her 70s recalls. Back then, the festival was run by the church's Young Business Girls Circle.

Today, the circle is named in honor of Evelyn Keller, a former member. "The same people have been doing [the festival] for years. They all have their same jobs," says Marjorie Holmes, the group's president.

Weather conditions and other intangibles make the Maryland strawberry season unpredictable. "Last year, everything was ahead a week and by Memorial Day most berries were winding down it was so hot and dry," says Dave Martin, an agent with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service based in Anne Arundel County. "This year, it's kind of the opposite. It's a lot cooler, delaying the harvest. I expect we'll see some strawberries even to June 15."

The quirks of local berries lead a number of churches to depend on California strawberries, more uniform in size and less perishable. "One year, we had a lot of rain and the strawberries didn't come in. You really can't depend on that unfortunately. It's too iffy," says Mrs. Insley of Kenwood Presbyterian. But the California berries are fine with her. "I tell you, those things are as big as a lemon, but they taste good."

This is Linden-Linthicum's first strawberry festival in some time. But church member Jeannette Bowen remembers a festival long ago, when the church counted on local berries and, at first, could find none. "I put four kids in the car and rode around and NTC thought, 'Dear Lord, if you want a festival tomorrow, you better do something about it.' " Soon enough, she found them at a farm near Fort Meade. "Funny things happen," Mrs. Bowen says.

Strawberry festivals

Here is a list of some of the strawberry festivals taking place today and the next two weekends:

* Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church holds the Clarksville Community Strawberry Festival, with barbecue, pony and hay rides, a dunking booth, arts and crafts, and clogging, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the church, 12175 Route 108, just outside Clarksville. Call (410) 531-5653.

* Kenwood Presbyterian Church holds its annual strawberry festival and flea market 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today on the church grounds, 4601 Fullerton Ave. Call (410) 668-4664.

* St. John's United Methodist Church holds its strawberry festival 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at the church, 216 W. Seminary Ave. in Lutherville. Call (410) 825-3969.

* Messiah Lutheran Church holds its strawberry festival 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 6 at the Sykesville-Freedom District Volunteer Fire Grounds. Call (410) 795-0494 before June 6.

* Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church holds its strawberry festival 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. June 6 at the church, 200 School Lane in Linthicum. Call (410) 859-0990.

* The Towson Presbyterian Church holds its annual strawberry festival 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 6 on the church grounds, at the corner of Chesapeake and Highland avenues in Towson. Call (410) 823-6500.

* The Wesley Grove United Methodist Church holds a strawberry festival 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 6 at the church, 1320 Dorsey Road, in Harmans. Call (410) 761-9119.

* Epiphany Lutheran Church holds a strawberry festival 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Hightman Hall, at Raspe and Marluth avenues in Baltimore. Call (410) 485-7654.

* Mount Carmel United Methodist Church holds a strawberry festival and ham dinner from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. June 13 at the church in Parkton. Call (410) 329-8098.

* Ann Arundell County Historical Society holds a strawberry festival and farmer's market June 13 at the historic Benson-Hammond House at Baltimore-Washington International Airport at the intersection of Route 170 (Aviation Boulevard) and Andover Road. Call (410) 768-9518.

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