Sweet Potato Festival is about eating, fellowship

NORWICH, Conn. (AP) — Soul food at its finest – those were the aromas that met you at the door on Saturday at the annual Sweet Potato Festival at the Norwich Rose City Senior Center.

The Norwich Branch of the NAACP has sponsored the event for 30 years.

The room was filled with folks enjoying each others’ company and doing some serious eating. Shiela Hayes, president of the Norwich Branch of NAACP, has been involved in the festival for 14 years.

“It started off in churches,” she said, “and as it has grown into a larger community event, we’ve had to go to larger venues. We’ve been here at the Rose City Senior Center for six or seven years.”

In the 1990s, former branch president Jacqueline Owens organized the festival as a way to celebrate February’s Black History Month and soul-food cooking.

On Saturday, baked or barbeque chicken melted off the bone; mashed sweet potatoes had just the right blend of brown sugar and marshmallows; creamy macaroni and cheese nestled up against green beans with bacon; and white rice was topped with seasoned black-eyed peas. Participants could finish the meal with sweet cornbread.

Lottie B. Scott shared her love of the event, having attended since its inception.

“My favorite part of this is eating the food. And the fellowship, I love talking to everyone,” said Scott, a former president of the NAACP branch in Norwich and local author.

Tracey Holland and Brenda Stone were in charge of the food, dishing out generous portions to all who came through the line. Stone said that last year they needed someone to make the food, so she promoted her sister who owns Sweet Momma’s in Norwich.

“So she stepped up, and they liked it,” Stone said. “And here she is again.”

Hayes said the event celebrates Black History Month, but more than that, the cuisine makes it interesting.

“Many people, especially here in the North, might not have experienced real southern cooking,” Hayes said. “So we try to make it authentic soul food, and the sweet potato is obviously a southern staple. We offer cultural and historical information and entertainment to make it a nice event.”

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