America's Best Food Festivals

Published in Gourmet Live 06.27.12
Road-food scholars Jane and Michael Stern take a patriotic tour of 10 of our nation's tastiest, wackiest annual culinary celebrations
The Best American Food Festivals by Jane and Michael Stern

Clockwise from left: Hatch Valley Chile Festival; Chianti Crimini Mushroom Soup with Blue Cheese Crostini, created by Katie Hagerty, winner of the 2011 Amateur Mushroom Soup Cook-Off, at the Mushroom Festival; scenes from the Boudin Cook-Off (2); Hot Chicken Festival.

Those who fret that American cuisine is succumbing to corporate sameness need to get out and attend a few food festivals. Between the Wild Blueberry Festival in Maine and the Maui Onion Festival in Hawaii, a whole continent of culinary celebrations proves we're a nation that remains deliciously diverse. You probably already know about such far-famed food-happy events as California's Gilroy Garlic Festival and New York City's Feast of San Gennaro, so here are 10 lesser-known festivals for adventurous appetites.

Artichoke Festival: Castroville, California

Trivia question: Who was the Artichoke Queen of Castroville, California, at the first annual Artichoke Festival in 1947? Answer: a little-known actress who called herself Norma Jean. The queen went on to become Marilyn Monroe, and Castroville became the Artichoke Capital of the World. The globular green thistle is celebrated every spring in a weekend blowout that features not only edible artichokes in every imaginable incarnation, including cupcakes, but also an Agro Art competition showcasing sculptures fashioned from vegetables. (May 2013)

Boudin Cook-Off: Lafayette, Louisiana

Throughout Cajun country west of New Orleans, from the swamps of Avery Island to the prairies of Evangeline Parish, hundreds of independent butchers make and sell boudin sausage. Every recipe is different, but the essential ingredients are pork (with varying amounts of liver), rice, onions, and spice packed into a casing that ranges from crisp to chewy. Some boudin is four-alarm hot, some is unctuous; the best is balanced sorcery. The annual Boudin Cook-Off in Lafayette hosts more than two dozen of the region's best boudin makers, who serve up bite-size tastes for just 50 cents each. (October 20, 2012)

Cheese Curd Festival: Ellsworth, Wisconsin

Wisconsin, the Dairy State, is crazy for cheese curds, the fresh little milk-solid nuggets also known as squeaky cheese for the sound they make when you bite into a fresh one. Connoisseurs insist on curds that are absolutely fresh (the squeak diminishes within hours of their being made), but these morsels also are popular as a deep-fried snack to accompany beers and/or shots. Surrounded by dairy farms, the town of Ellsworth hosts the annual Cheese Curd Festival, where sculptors compete in a cheese-carving competition and big eaters vie to see who can eat the most of the fresh ones. Visitors get to try their first few free. (June 2013)

Hatch Valley Chile Festival: Hatch Valley, New Mexico

At the north end of the Mesilla Valley, along the Rio Grande, Hatch is prime real estate for growing chiles. Hatch pods—red and green, mild and ferocious—are prized throughout the Southwest for their sunny savor. At harvest time, the little town attracts tens of thousands of chileheads to the weekend-long Hatch Chile Fest, which features contests in both raw chile eating and watermelon eating, as well as vendors selling cheeseburgers garnished with green chiles. Chiles are constantly roasted all around the fairgrounds, perfuming the air with their earthy scent. (September 1–2, 2012)

Hot Chicken Festival: Nashville, Tennessee

Most people think of fried chicken as comfort food. In Nashville restaurants, it is extremely discomforting…in the best possible way. The city's unique "hot chicken," which is deep-fried then infused with a red-pepper paste that blows the top off normal standards of spiciness, is dangerously exhilarating. Once little-known outside Nashville's African-American community, this dish has become the city's pride, inspiring an annual Independence Day Hot Chicken Festival. The first 500 people through the gate get a free sample of chicken. To slake thirst and douse the heat, truckloads of watermelons are provided. (July 4, 2012)

Mushroom Festival: Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

Years ago there was a legendary restaurant in Reading, Pennsylvania, called Joe's. Known as a gourmet destination in general, Joe's was especially noteworthy for what it did with mushrooms, putting them into hors d'oeuvres, entrées, even desserts. It was Joe's son who told us about Kennett Square, which calls itself the Mushroom Capital of the World. Tons of white buttons, portobellos, shiitakes, oysters, and enokis are cut here and shipped around the world every year. To celebrate their favorite fungi, the people of Kennett Square host an annual Mushroom Festival, complete with cook-offs, farm tours, samples of mushroom ice cream, a fried mushroom eating contest, and tastings of mushroom soup paired with local wines. (September 8–9, 2012)

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