A small town in eastern North Carolina makes a name for itself by chewin’ up collards.
After six pounds of collards, little green beads of sweat start to form on John Gurkins’s forehead — the onset of leafy vegetable delirium.
With eight minutes to go, he’s already outeaten 13 challengers, a woozy-looking bunch who waddled off the stage burping Texas Pete.
Now the field stands at two.
Gurkins’s last rival brushes away his sixth Styrofoam cup and sprinkles pepper onto a seventh.
One hundred spectators cheer and pump fists, counting down the seconds, watching the contestants chew through pain.
At stake: $50 and Ayden’s collard crown.
Mayor Steve Tripp hangs on every bite. This moment marks the peak of Ayden’s Collard Festival, the town’s proudest day, every bit as gripping in Pitt County as the final sprint in the Tour de France.
“Being known as the collard champion goes on your resume good,” Tripp jokes. “Mort Hurst ate seven pounds in the ’80s, and he’s a county commissioner now. He even got on the Johnny Carson show. We claim that’s how he got to be a successful politician.”
Tripp pauses as contest officials unwrap giant, blue garbage bags in case of gastric emergency among the contestants.
“Maybe we’re standing too close,” he warns, stepping back.
But here on this stage, where the forks fly and collards disappear, you can see the stuff of Ayden’s greatness, Tripp explains. Perseverance. Hard work. Collard devotion.
It seemed important to have a festival in Ayden, a Pitt County town of 5,000 that is folksy enough to sell fishing tackle in the downtown pharmacy, where a treasured downtown clock tower says 4 p.m. at noon.
People know and trust each other here, enough that there’s a sign for a lost cockatiel named Sweet Pea posted on the front door of the police department.
If you walk through the festival crowd with Mayor Tripp, it’ll take you 30 minutes to cover three blocks because he can introduce you to every other person on the sidewalk and remember whether they put vinegar on their collards.
Ask him how many of the town’s residents he knows by first name, and he pauses to think about it, appearing to count in his head before giving the total:
“Right many,” he says.
There’s better barbecue in Ayden than just about anywhere else on the planet, at least according to The New York Times, which swung through in 1995 and more or less laid the crown on the late Pete Jones and his Skylight Inn.
But if you want a little variety in your wood-cooked pork there’s also Bum’s Restaurant, which locals say is just as good, and which also rustled up 50 pounds of collards for the big eating contest.
“I use ham drippings,” whispers Shirley Dennis, wife of Bum, the proprietor. “And a little lard.”
There’s colorful history here, more than enough to merit a festival.
‘But I hate collards.’
Modern Ayden evolved from a rowdy outpost in the 1870s. Outlaws and brawlers congregated as exiles from polite society, earning the town the name Aden, short for “a den of thieves.”
Rough past aside, Ayden has entertained more distinguished company. George Washington spent the night at Shadrack’s Inn, seven miles to the east.
“Absolutely, they wined and dined him,” says Stacy Gaskins, Chamber of Commerce director. “We are hospitable here.”
But until 1975, the town had no signature event, something that would draw in the rest of the state, a chance to show off what’s big about a small town.
Ayden felt this lack keenly.
So one day in the mid-’70s, Willis Manning wandered down the street from his office at the Chamber of Commerce and dropped in on Mitchell Oakley, editor at the Times-Leader.
There ought to be some kind of Ayden celebration, he said. Grifton, right down the road, had the Shad Festival, after all.
So the two men kicked around ideas until Oakley thought of Lois Theuring.
She was a transplant from Ohio, and she wrote a weekly column for the Ayden newspaper full of musings from the perspective of a Yankee newcomer.
The most infamous of these columns described her grudging acceptance of Southern ways, and in it, she ended each paragraph with this maxim:
“But I hate collards.”
Oakley laughed at the memory. Maybe Miss Theuring will head up a collard festival in Ayden, he told Manning. And the idea stuck.
Before collards got the official stamp, the Times-Leader polled its readers on festival preferences. The paper presented six choices: the Cucumber Festival, the Harvest Festival, Garden of Ayden …
But collards ran away with the vote.
Today, planning lasts all year long.
Nineteen different subcommittees plan the parade, the concessions, the T-shirts, the 5K race.
Seventeen different Shrine clubs ride down Third Street.
“To get Shriners, you’ve got to have a good parade,” Tripp insists. “They don’t go just anywhere.”
And the festival can draw 15,000 people on the same Saturday as an East Carolina University football game, when tailgating is at its prime.
To Tripp, the festival and the town are the same. All day long, whenever someone heaps an extra scoop of collards and ’cue on your plate, or talks about money raised for charity, he repeats, “That’s Ayden.”
Show goes on
Last September, Hurricane Irene parked itself over the town and dropped 12 inches of rain. Five houses were destroyed. Twenty-five more had trees fall through their roofs.
But nobody ever thought of canceling the festival, which at the time was just a few weeks away.
“Absolutely not,” says Gaskins, chamber director. “Ayden’s resilient. We bounce back. I learned more about electricity the week of the hurricane than I cared to know about.”
So just after crowning Miss Ayden — Logan Moseley, with her red hair showing under a silver crown, took this year’s honors — the parade begins with Tripp riding in a ’99 Volvo convertible, followed by 140 others.
The Ayden-Grifton High School marching band struts down Third Street, blasting “Rock and Roll Part 2,” also known as “The Doctor Who Song,” with just one snare drum and five flag girls.
A wagonload of hillbillies in costume rolls by next, a float complete with an outhouse and a sign that reads “Eat More Possum.”
Even the public works trucks get to join, carrying Colleen the Collard — the festival’s official mascot.
At one time, Ayden had collards growing on its downtown streets. But they hardly dominate the festival. It’s clear that if collards didn’t grow here, Ayden would find another excuse to celebrate.
There’s local honey, fried pickles, and peach cider for sale. There’s a psychic tent and homemade ice cream. There’s a booth offering free spinal checks.
As Tripp walks the streets, a clown on a unicycle rides up and offers him $20 to lead the parade on his one-wheeled vehicle. The mayor laughs and politely declines, although he sees the good-natured offer as another chance to say, “That’s Ayden.”
“We’ve got big hearts,” Tripp says. “We’ve got small-town charm. If you go to Piggly-Wiggly, they call you by name. If someone in your family passes away, they’ll know that.”
This remains true, even though Ayden has nearly doubled in size in the last decade, shooting up from 3,000 people to about 5,000. It’s a hub between Kinston and Greenville and a haven for people who prefer the one-stoplight kind of town.
But North Carolina is full of small towns, each one a little bit different. If there’s a distinction for just living in a place where everybody knows everybody and where, for the most part, likes everybody, then Ayden has a hundred competitors for the most-charming-and-quaint medal.
But it’s the only town willing to hang its identity on a bitter-tasting vegetable.
It’s a daring move, considering the number of people who, like Lois Theuring, haven’t acquired the taste.
It takes character to invite the state to partake in a one-pound cup of collards, to gorge itself until its teeth are flecked with green bits of leaf and its lips are smeared with ham drippings.
So back at the eating contest, true to his Ayden roots, John Gurkins abandons his fork and lowers his face directly into the collard cup.
This is the sprint. Gurkins chews. And chews. And chews. The whole town is watching.
“You’re that close to it!” Tripp shouts. “Put it down!”
Then, a few bites into his seventh cup, Gurkins’s challenger blinks, grasps his belly, and quits. Gurkins collects his leafy trophy, full of six and a half pounds of Ayden’s finest.
“Feels a little rough,” he admits.
But he wobbles off the stage with his collard trophy, taking pats on the back and smiles from the mayor, who doesn’t actually say it, but you can tell what he’s thinking:
5 things not to miss in Ayden
Ayden Collard Festival 2012
This year’s festivities start on September 6 and peak on September 8 with the parade, the horseshoe tournament, and the big eating contest on the West Avenue Stage. The town’s golf tournament follows on Sunday.
Third-generation owner Amanda Jones runs the quintessential small-town flower shop, which her family started in 1968.
515 Third Street.
From a cozy storefront right on Ayden’s main drag, Cindirene’s offers refreshment to discerning palates. The store stocks roughly 150 craft beers and 100 eclectic wines, serving both on and off the premises. A combination of the names Cindy and Irene, it’s often misspelled, but always enjoyed.
559 Third Street.
This gallery specializes in painted furniture and refurbished antiques, and offers painting classes. It is also an authorized retailer of Annie Sloan Chalk Paint.
574 Third Street.
Ayden Chamber of Commerce
554 Second Street
Ayden, N.C. 28513
Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh. His most recent story for Our State was “The Violin Maker” (August 2012).