While most Southerners try to fight kudzu — and lose the battle — members of Mays Chapel United Methodist Church in Maiden choose to explore its culinary delights.
More than 15 years ago, Ruth Cansler recalls standing behind the church with the pastor, then Lutz Keller. They gazed at acres of kudzu growing right up to the church’s parking lot. If not for constant mowing, “the vine that ate the South” would soon take over the church and its buildings.
“He (Lutz Keller) said ‘Let’s do something about that,’ and I said, ‘Let’s celebrate it,’” Cansler said.
Church members traveled to Rutherfordton to talk with a couple who made hay, jelly and other kudzu “delicacies.”
“Why, they even made kudzu snuff,” Cansler said. “I had to try it. I don’t like it, but I know guys that use it to try to quit smoking.
“The chef at the Marriott in Charlotte buys kudzu jelly from Rutherfordton, mixes it with butter and serves it with corn bread,” she said. “Those people can’t get enough.”
So, Mays Chapel started its annual Kudzu Festival 15 years ago and had it regularly for five years.
“Then, it just dropped by the wayside,” Cansler said. “We decided to try it again, and last year we had good success. People came from out of town for the festival.”
In preparation for the Sept. 15 Kudzu Festival, the kudzu field around the church has been harvested to make kudzu jelly, which will be for sale, kudzu candy, kudzu quiche and fried kudzu leaves. Samples will be available for tasting. Other items created from the kudzu vine and leaves will be on display.
Last year, the kudzu jelly was so popular, the church sold out during the first two hours of the festival.
“We made 60 half-pint jars last year — this year, we have 120 jars,” Cansler said. “I make kudzu quiche for tasting, but last year people liked it so much they wanted to buy it.”
“Sure, it tastes like spinach quiche, and it’s healthy,” she said. “I boil the leaves, drain, dry and grind. I don’t throw away the water. I put honey in it and drink it — it’s good for you. Some folks say that cures alcoholism.
Kudzu has more protein than any other plant, Cansler said, but people look at it as a nuisance — they don’t know what to do with it.
And, of course, to satisfy that good ‘ol fried-food-hankering, folks can try fried kudzu at the festival.
“We fry the tender leaves,” Cansler said. “They’re delicious and taste like potato chips.”
Another favorite is kudzu candy, made with white chocolate, roasted pecans and roasted kudzu leaves, all mixed together.
“It’s different, I’ll tell you that,” Cansler said. “My sister and I collect the flower blossoms — lilac-colored — to make the jelly. The blossoms smell like grapes.”
Even the children of Mays Chapel contribute to the festival by making kudzu crafts. One of the popular items they make is a kudzu butterfly.
Festival-goers will also find wreaths made out of kudzu vines, soap, snuff and more — even fried pies. But there’s no kudzu in those.
Cansler’s sister, Betty Willis, makes the dough from scratch and uses dried apples.
“I’ll have 120 to sell at the festival,” Willis said. “And, I’ll have homemade dandelion jelly.”
While many call kudzu the bane of the south, folks at Mays Chapel celebrate its bounty and pay it forward.
Proceeds from the Kudzu Festival benefit the missions and ministries projects of the various organizations in Mays Chapel.
“We support ECCCM, the Corner Table, and anybody in our church family who has health or money problems,” Cansler said. “We send money to schools for children who can’t afford dental or medical care.”
So while the kudzu is allowed to grow in the field behind Mays Chapel, constant mowing is required to keep it from encroaching. And what may sound like, well, rural legends, Cansler said it’s no easy job to contain the fast-growing plant, which has roots “as big as a human being.”
One year at the festival, a contest was held for the longest root, which was 85 feet long.
And, in the dark and quiet cover of night, that rustling sound heard in the kudzu field is the sound of the kudzu growing — one foot each night.
Want to go?
What: Kudzu Festival and Bazaar.
Where: May’s Chapel United Methodist Church,1707 May’s Chapel Church Road in Maiden.
When: Saturday, Sept.15 from 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
More info: Breakfast served, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch. Homemade ice cream, fried apple pies, home baked items and canned goods are for sale. Other items include handmade crafts and gifts, flower arrangements, various plants and a giant yard sale. Live music will be featured, along with free children’s games.