Galveston wasn’t the only city washed away by the great hurricane of 1900. The rural farming community of Pasadena was nearly wiped off the map, and finding a new cash crop to grow quickly in its now-depleted soil was crucial to survival. Strawberry plants, introduced to and purchased for the town by Red Cross founder Clara Barton, saved the day. “We exported so many strawberries during that time period, we became the strawberry capital of the South,” says Bert Muston, executive director of the Pasadena Strawberry Festival.
Today, both town and festival have grown beyond their wildest expectations. The event, started in 1974 as a gimmick to draw visitors to the Pasadena Historical Museum, now attracts 60,000 attendees every May, many of whom come to witness the annual unveiling of what is billed as the “world’s largest strawberry shortcake.”
While that may not be technically true—the official Guinness Book of World Records title, for now, still belongs to the bakers at La Trinidad Strawberry Festival in Benguet, Philippines—it’s always huge, with a surface area as big as many Houstonians’ homes. This year’s cake is anticipated to occupy between 1,700 and 1,800 square feet.
Why a shortcake? “It’s a Southern thing,” says Muston. Plus, says Angela Perkins, who oversees the 50-plus volunteers who assemble it each year, it’s relatively simple to make—relatively.
In the form of hundreds of easy-to-transport sheet cakes, it arrives at the Pasadena Convention Center & Fairgrounds in 18-wheelers from Kroger before being topped by a literal ton of bright-red berries. “We start on Wednesday cutting the strawberries,” says Perkins. “Friday morning at 5 a.m. we start putting it together, and we finish at about noon.”
The first piece of shortcake is auctioned off at the Strawberry Festival’s opening ceremony later that day—last year’s went for $2,000—with the whole cake raising around $35,000 for scholarships, $2 slice by $2 slice. What does it cost to create? Over $40,000, thankfully donated by Kroger. Laid out on 66 eight-foot tables, the cake takes a whole weekend to polish off, with the final piece auctioned at the festival’s close. (It went for $1,500 last year.)
And the dessert is perennially popular for a reason. “It’s delicious,” says Muston. “From the first piece to the last piece, everyone enjoys the cake.”
Pasadena Strawberry Festival, May 19–21, $5–15