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Food + Cooking

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)

Muskie Derby and Ploye Festival: Fort Kent, Maine

At the top of Maine, where Route 1 begins, ployes are the staff of life. Thin buckwheat pancakes cooked briefly on a griddle, ployes are served alongside pot roast (to sop gravy) or as a breakfast food, pancake-style. In Fort Kent at the annual Muskie Derby and Ploye Festival, anglers can earn cash prizes from the contest's $35,000 purse, while hungry fairgoers enjoy ployes by the dozen. (Nobody eats muskies; they are caught as sport fish and most are released.) Hot dogs come wrapped in ployes instead of buns, and ployeboys are made by frying the soft pancakes until barely crisp, then brushing them with butter and sprinkling them with cinnamon and powdered sugar. (August 10–12, 2012)

National Lentil Festival: Pullman, Washington

Did you know that ancient Egyptians considered lentils an aphrodisiac, as well as brain-food for children? Or that eating lentils can lower your cholesterol? Thrill-seeking omnivores may not put this humble legume high on their list of exciting edibles, but in the Palouse region of Idaho and eastern Washington, where a quarter of all native U.S. lentils are grown, these homely rounds rule. At the National Lentil Festival, in Pullman, Washington, you can eat all the lentil chili you want for free, washed down with local microbrews. The featured attraction at the festival's Saturday morning breakfast is, unsurprisingly, "scrumptious pancakes full of lentils." All vendors at the festival's Lentil Lane Food Court must offer at least one lentil item. (August 17–18, 2012)

Ohio Sauerkraut Festival: Waynesville, Ohio

tWith so many of its citizens' roots in Central Europe, Ohio is a state with high regard for sauerkraut. Every autumn, the tangy pickled cabbage is honored at the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival, where attendees can enjoy kraut pizza, kraut donuts, kraut nachos, brownies with kraut, and sauerkraut balls. The balls are a favorite regional hors d'oeuvre—bite-size spheres of kraut combined with ground pork and ham, deep-fried until golden brown. Also on the menu are traditional plates of Bratwurst—with a side of kraut, of course. (October 13–14, 2012)

World Cheese Dip Championship: Little Rock, Arkansas

Cheese dip is dug into everywhere, but nobody likes it more than Arkansans. The state's restaurant reviewers seek out the best dips the way Texas reporters hunt barbecue. According to the historical account put out by the World Cheese Dip Championship, now in its third year, cheese dip actually was invented in the Natural State in 1935 at a restaurant called Mexico Chiquito (which is still open, by the way). The annual competition in Little Rock features amateur and professional divisions and gives all attendees the opportunity to taste and determine the People's Champion, be it hot, cold, ferociously spicy, or comfort-food mild. Last year's winner in the pro division, the Little Rock restaurant Dogtown Coffee and Cookery, brought its dip to our 2012 New Orleans Roadfood Festival, where it wowed even the most worldly epicures. (October 20, 2012)

Jane and Michael Stern are the authors of Roadfood, now in its the eighth edition, and Roadfood.com, a source for reviews, recipes, and tasting tours of good eats nationwide. Longtime contributors to Gourmet magazine, they recently wrote for Gourmet Live about America's Tastiest Testicle Dishes and two worth-a-detour restaurants that owe it all to Mom.