Generosity flavors meals

Bounty: Nona Schwartzbeck and volunteers in the Carroll fair kitchen transform farmers' donations into home-style fare.

August 03, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

For one week a year, anyone in Carroll County can eat like a farmer.

But it wasn't always so. Just five years ago, the kitchen at the Carroll County 4-H Fair was serving up limp cold cuts and rubbery burgers.

Then Nona Schwartzbeck took charge. She and an obedient cadre of volunteers turn out hand-made chicken pies, spaghetti with meat sauce and barbecued pork and chicken.

The meals are built around a bounty of meat and vegetables donated by farmers, drawing between 400 and 900 people a day during the weeklong fair, which runs through Saturday morning at the Carroll County Agricultural Center in Westminster.

"I judge in fairs all over the state," said Schwartzbeck, who owns Peace and Plenty Farm outside Union Bridge with her husband, Joe. "They all serve lunch to the judges. And then they come to Carroll County, and all they got was a bologna sandwich."

Schwartzbeck and her volunteers -- most of them fellow farmers -- have changed that. Every year, they roll out homemade crust for the potpie and ladle genuine gravy over roast turkey and dressing.

"It's not Stove Top," says volunteer Jeanne Bowers as she piles on the bread dressing. "It's a real meal."

Schwartzbeck is known for the feasts she puts on her own kitchen table. It wasn't unusual for her to have a dozen people at lunch, from family to farmhands to anyone who had the good timing to drop by around mealtime.

All anyone needs to know about her annual Thanksgiving Day party is that the turkey averages 50 pounds.

"When my husband and I got married and had children, I told him I didn't want any scolding at the table. I wanted our meals to be joyful," Schwartzbeck said.

She brings the joy and the plenty with her to the fair, and farmers match her generous example.

Melvin and Joan Baile bring fresh corn from their Wakefield Valley fields, and it gets dunked in melted butter donated by the Carroll County Dairy Club.

The Lease, Feeser and Hevner families donated six hogs that turn up as everything from chops to barbecue. The Lippy brothers and Grace Weant donate eggs.

A donated half steer goes into the tacos, meat spaghetti sauce and pulled beef barbecue. Becky Powel made the soups. Susan Manedez made the chili. And a woman known as "Aunt" Margaret Mullinix made the cookies.

Using what they have

What isn't donated shows up on the $7,000 invoice from a local food wholesaler, but Schwartzbeck always builds the meals around what's donated, and what's fresh, just as she would do at home. Last year, her kitchen raised $11,000, all of which is donated to the fair.

A dinner special goes for about $5, the buffets and steak dinners are no higher than $8.50. Lunch begins at 11 a.m. and draws people from outside the fair.

"I normally come here three or four times a week," said Samuel Hoff, an insurance salesman who grew up on a Carroll dairy farm.

He bit into corn on the cob and pronounced it sweet and good. He chooses the fair kitchen over his usual lunch venues, such as a local country club.

Yesterday, he brought Lloyd Thomas, a retired contractor.

"It's a good deal," Thomas said over a barbecue sandwich. "It's not fancy, it's not gourmet, but it's very tasty."

Secret family recipe

The menu changes daily, and when something is gone, it's gone. Sometimes forever.

The chicken potpie took two days to get right, and Schwartzbeck promises she won't try again to make the recipe that included meat from 21 chickens -- "big, fat baking chickens," she said. She added 100 pounds of potatoes, six stalks of celery, more frozen peas than she can remember, plus respectable portions of carrots and onion.

Every year, her daughter-in-law, Lisa Schwartzbeck, makes Eastern Shore chicken salad from her family's secret recipe.

"Try to get it out of her, and if you do, give it to me," Schwartzbeck said.

Lisa will divulge only that it is "a cooked dressing, and you add mayonnaise to it. I got it from my mother, and she got it from her mother."

Kitchen hubbub

The set-up at Burn Memorial Hall looks much like a small school cafeteria, with a line of food that begins with a chalkboard announcing the day's specials and ends with pies and gelatin salads

Before and after lunch, the open kitchen bustles with 20 to 50 women and men ricocheting from counter to stove to sink to steam table. Schwartzbeck is in the middle, directing traffic, delegating jobs, answering two or three people and dealing with minor catastrophes.

"Who burnt herself already?" Schwartzbeck asked during a hubbub the day before the fair opened last weekend.

The victim was Arlene Hoff, who underestimated how hot the handles of a pot can get on a Vulcan range. She was boiling water for the gelatin salad.

"Someone write aloe on my list of things to get," Schwartzbeck said.

"Aunt Nona, the boys locked themselves in that room," a niece came to inform her.

"Well, that's a good place for them. Just leave them there," Schwartzbeck said.

The kitchen filled with the wonderful aromas of roasted turkey being carved by volunteers Kevin Brown and Robert Smith and beef being browned by Bowers. Food was everywhere, but no one had time to eat.

For many of the fair families who visit to care for animals and help from dawn to midnight, the kitchen at the fair is a surrogate home.

"If we're not working here, we're eating here," said volunteer Donna Myers, a New Windsor farmer. "My kitchen is closed."

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