Food festivals provide one of the greatest — and tastiest — slices of rural America.
Revolving around a single, historically significant crop or type of livestock within a particular region, food festivals have evolved from small town farming fêtes to full-blown, multi-day events that attract both locals and curious foodies from further afar.
Most agriculture-centric celebrations feature a few standards: craft vendors, carnival rides and the coronation of a festival queen who takes her place atop a float that's towed down Main Street U.S.A. as part of a grand parade. Pancake breakfasts are also du rigueur.
And then there's the food, which is praised, promoted and inhaled in mass quantities. The great thing about food festivals is that even if you're not necessarily hankering for the exalted edible in question — bull testicles or pig intestines, for example — there's zero pressure to dig in as the festivities are just as much about supporting the community as they are they are about the nibbles. And for non-locals, small town food festivals make for great people watching.
While some foodstuffs are celebrated in multiple festivals in multiple towns in multiple states, others are more unique, unusual, offbeat. In many cases, there's nothing else out like them out there. Below, you'll find 13 singular food fests.
1. Apple-Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville, Delaware
Sure, hundreds of towns host apple festivals, perhaps the most ubiquitous regional crop celebration of them all. And Philadelphia has hosted an annual scrapple soiree on-and-off for years now. But only one town is brave enough to combine the two, pomaceous fruit and the Mid-Atlantic's most notorious/delectable mystery meat, and celebrate them together in one annual jamboree. That brave little town is Bridgeville, Delaware.
Apples and scrapple (pork trimmings in loaf form, basically) don't necessary commingle in a culinary sense at Bridgeville's annual Apple-Scrapple Festival. That's just gross. But they are honored, side-by-side, in a rural patch of southern Delaware famed for its orchards and RAPA scrapple processing plant, established in 1926. Held each October, the two-day event features live music, a craft show, a 5K "Hogg Jogg," carnival rides and the coronation of the annual Little Miss Apple-Scrapple. Naturally, there's plenty of offal-based breakfast meat and other regional delicacies available for immediate scarfing. Scrapple also takes center stage in several of the festival's signature events: Scrapple chuckin' (freestyle loaf throwing), a heated scrapple recipe-off, scrapple carving (!) and a mayoral scrapple sling event. That said, those with an aversion to crispy, greasy, gray pork mush may want to stick to the amateur baking contest.
2. Cheese Curd Festival in Ellsworth, Wisconsin
Who wants fried chunks of sour milk?! (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
As one would correctly assume, curd is most certainly the word at North America's premier celebration of salty, coagulated chunks of soured milk that squeak when you eat them.
And it's only fitting that said celebration takes place each year in the teeny-tiny dairy town of Ellsworth, proclaimed as Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin by former Governor Anthony S. Earl in 1984. Like the other festivals on our list, the Cheese Curd Festival strikes the perfect balance of local flavor, civic pride and some seriously hardcore chowing down. In addition to the requisite festivities (pancake breakfast, grand parade, handicraft vendors, etc.), Cheese Curd Festival 2015, Ellsworth’s 14th annual, featured a Bon Jovi cover band, bingo, chainsaw art carving, a meat raffle, curd-eating contest and an appearance by Pickles the Clown. We lose you? Or are you still there? While Wisconsin's annual weekend of cheddar cheese curd worship is no small deal, the grand dame of North American curd soirees is, dairy we say, a Canadian event: Le Festival de Curd in St. Albert, Ontario. Pass the poutine, s’il vous plait.
3. Chitlin Strut in Salley, South Carolina
While it may not boast quite the same widespread appeal as other regional food fests in the Palmetto State (the World Grits Festival, the World Famous Blue Crab Festival, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, et al.), we're going to assume that the Chitlin Strut is the only South Carolina food festival featuring a beauty pageant and a hog-calling contest.
During the month of November, the population of teeny-tiny Salley, population 400, balloons to nearly 10 times its size as folks from all over descend on the town to indulge in the Southern delicacy known as chitterlings — or chitlins for short. A beloved soul food staple, chitlins may not pique the appetites of even the most adventurous gastronomes. And that's perfectly fine as the Chitlin Strut, celebrated for over 50 years, is just as much about local flavor as it about the flavor of the stewed, and often battered and fried, small intestines of pigs. Also featuring a parade, arts and crafts, live music a signature dance-off and plenty of other food options for those who can do without offal, the Chitlin Strut is such a big deal that, in 2015, November 28 was officially declared as Chitlin Strut Day in South Carolina.
4. Elephant Garlic Festival in North Plains, Oregon
Garlic festivals, feared by vampires and close-talker phobics everywhere, are a dime a dozen. New York's Hudson Valley has one, Cleveland and Delray Beach both have one and the city of Gilroy, in California's Santa Clara Valley, has the biggest and most pungent of them all. But elephant garlic festivals? As far as we know, only one town celebrates Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum and that would be Great Plains, Oregon.
To be clear, the term elephant garlic is a misnomer used to describe a great-in-salads relative of the leek that kind of looks like (but way, way, way bigger) and also kind of tastes like (but milder) true garlic but, in reality, isn't true garlic at all. And the Cert-popping denizens of North Plains accept and embrace these not-so-small taxonomical differences. Founded in 1994 as a festive civic gathering called North Plains Days, the annual jamboree eventually grew and, in 1997, was renamed to reflect the area's agricultural heritage. Today, the Elephant Garlic Festival, held each August, features live music, food vendors, a car show, 10K and 5K fun runs, a parade and a community pancake breakfast, which, presumably, doesn't involve elephant garlic. Presiding over the festivities — motto: "Fun stinks!" — is Stinkee, a strange yet benevolent creature that resembles the love child of a pachyderm and a giant bulb of garlic.
5. Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival in Fellsmere, Florida
Aside from swimming pools and curious behavior, if there's one thing that Florida boasts in great numbers it's festivals celebrating animal-based eats sourced from the land, the sea and from somewhere, from both a biological and culinary standpoint, in between.
While BBQ blowouts and crawfish boils are plentiful in the Sunshine State, only one Floridian town has a festival dedicated to the consumption of amphibians. Not-really-seafood, not-really-meat and definitely not kosher, frogs — specifically, kind-of-tastes-like-chicken frog legs — are celebrated and devoured in mass quantities at one of the Treasure Coast's most singular events, the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival. While an acquired (and rather mild) taste, frog legs, like alligator tail, are a delicacy across parts of the Deep South; both can be sampled, with a side of grits, hushpuppies and slaw, at this long-running event that was originally established in 1990 as a fundraiser dinner for recreational facilities for Fellsmere’s youth. In the years since, the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival, held each January, has grown into an internationally recognized, multiday event featuring live music, a classic car show, carnival rides and more.
6. Kumquat Festival in Dade City, Florida
The versatile kumquat gets a one-day festival in Florida. (Photo: John Lambert Pearson/flickr)
Given its status as one of America's most abundant farming states, Florida, with its booming agritourism industry, is home to a bounty of produce-honoring festivals. And we're not just talking about citrus: strawberries, zucchini, watermelons, tomatoes, sweet corn, blueberries, mangoes and pumpkins are all celebrated in individual fetes. Yet it's a citrus fruit, one both modest in size and popularity, that manages to garner perhaps the most attention: the kumquat.
Each year, historic downtown Dade City pulls out all the stops in celebration of this hardy 'n tart cousin of the orange that's grown in abundance in predominately rural (and frequently clothing-optional) Pasco County, just north of Tampa. Going over 18-years-strong, Dade City's Annual Kumquat Festival is an Old Florida-styled celebration that attracts as many as 40,000 visitors, all looking to sample this quirky little fruit be it in cookie, smoothie, ice cream, pie or marmalade form. And although the festival is only a one-day affair held on the last Saturday of January, there are several lead-up events throughout the month of January including open house tours at local growers and the coronation of Miss and Mr. Kumquat. Also worth noting: while Dade City plays host to the country's premier annual kumquat blowout, it's the nearby farming community of St. Joseph that's touted as the Kumquat Capital of the World.
7. Lettuce Days in Yuma, Arizona
Whatever you do, don't plan on attending Yuma County, Arizona's biggest annual event with a negative attitude toward salad greens. Because here, in the self-proclaimed Winter Vegetable Capital of America, iceberg reigns supreme.
Yes, it's true that an event called Lettuce Days doesn't exactly drip with excitement. Dripping with ranch, sure, but not culinary innovation and intrigue. But the annual "feastival," held each February in celebration of the area's agricultural abundance, manages to lift lettuce from its lowly, pedestrian status and make it pretty darn enticing. After all, how can one resist a ginormous, farm-fresh salad bar complete with chef-concocted dressings? In addition to its signature salad bar, Lettuce Days, which located to larger, farm-ier digs at the University of Arizona's Yuma Agricultural Center in 2015, features appearances from "Top Chef" contenders, cooking demos, a farmers market, a beer garden and plenty of diversions for the younger crowd including a petting zoo. (No word on the return of cabbage bowling and the Lettuce Box Derby). The Harvest Dinner is also a popular draw. And because nothing says "leafy greens" like live belly dancing, Lettuce Days also boasts a jam-packed performance and concert schedule.
8. National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee
No offense to the others but we're going to go out and a limb and say that the National Cornbread Festival, held each April in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, is the most olfactorily pleasing of all the singular food fests on this list. Because really, what's a more enticing, more comforting aroma than a skillet of cornbread fresh from oven?
And if South Pittsburg, located just west of Chattanooga along the Alabama border, rings a bell, it's likely because legendary cast-iron cookware purveyor Lodge also, most conveniently, calls this charming little burg home. In addition to a heated cornbread cook-off, South Pittsburg’s cornbread wing-ding features pretty much all the regional food festival standards: a car show, carnival rides, craft vendors, live bluegrass, a pancake breakfast and beauty pageant — all hail the Cornbread Festival Queen! And after festival-goers have sampled numerous different mouth-watering varieties of the South's most cherished quick bread, they can watch others stuff their faces in one of several cornbread eating contests held during the run of the festival. The buttermilk chugging contest, on the other hand, isn't for the faint of heart, or stomach.
9. National Lentil Festival in Pullman, Washington
Unless you happen to hail from the Northwest's lovely, lush-with-legumes Palouse agricultural region (aka America's Tuscany), you might not be aware that the bustling little college town of Pullman in far southeast Washington leads the country in lentil production. Now you know.
Both celebrating and promoting the area's pulse-producing prowess, Pullman's National Lentil Festival attracts legume lovers from across the land, many of them looking to dig into the world’s largest bowl of lentil chili (over 350 gallons!). Other highlights include cooking demos, the "Lentil Lane" food court, a fun run and softball tourney, concerts, parade and, of course, a community pancake breakfast to kick things off. And yes, the pancakes do indeed have lentils in them. Also not to be missed is the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council-sponsored Legendary Lentil Cook-Off. Helen Fields, a Texan, won the top prize of $2,000 for her "Garden Burst Lentil Salad" in 2015. Oddly, Rolaids isn't among the corporate sponsors of this two-day August event first organized in 1989 so, please, consider bringing your own if you plan on partaking in the festivities.
10. Potato Days Festival in Barnesville, Minnesota
It's true that festivals celebrating the humble spud aren't that unusual. But Minnesota, a state you might not normally associate with potato production (it ranks seventh in the nation according to the National Potato Council), is home to the biggest, baddest and messiest potato party of them all. Sorry, Idaho!
What sets the long-running Potato Days Festival apart are the myriad wacky ways in which the organizers have incorporated tubers into a wide variety of events and activities. That being said, this isn't a potato festival where you'll find a bunch of people standing around eating tater tots while listening to live music.Visitors are encouraged to participate whether it be in a mashed potato wrestling match (yes, you read that correctly), potato sack fashion show or mashed potato sculpting competition. For the kids, there are potato sack races and the Miss Tater Tot Pageant (entrants most model "potato sack attire" and a party dress). Those trying to cut back on starches and/or avoiding the signature French Fry Feed can busy themselves with a horseshoe tourney, 10K fun run or scenic wagon ride. And because this is Minnesota, there's also whist and a lefse cookout.
11. PurpleHull Pea Festival & World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson, Arkansas
For the obscure, super-regional legume win comes Arkansas’ PurpleHull Pea Festival & World Championship Rotary Tiller Race.
In 1990, residents of the Louisiana-bordering rural outpost of Emerson established the annual event in 1990 as a means of drumming up excitement in the community while also honoring a close cousin of the "more familiar, but less tasty" black-eyed pea. Reads the festival website: Purple hull peas are "a great reason for a festival if there ever was one" Got it. Something of a cult favorite on the small town festival circuit in the South, the PurpleHull Pea Festival is weird, and it knows it. Festivities in 2015 included a pageant, pea shelling competition, cornbread cook-off, fireworks show and performances by both the Silver Belles Dancers and a band composed entirely of inmates from an Arkansas prison. And then there are the tillers. Aside from pea eatin’ and partying in the streets, the main draw of the festival is the one and most certainly only World Championship Rotary Tiller Race, a heated event broken up into several divisions in which entrants — pardon, "racers" — sprint around a 200-foot track while pushing souped-up garden tools.
12. Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival in Clinton, Montana
First things first: Some folks really enjoy eating testicles. Bull testicles, lamb testicles, pig testicles, even turkey testicles. As far as testicle festivals go, one might assume that there are only two in existence when, in reality, there are numerous organized events dedicated to the consumption of this castration byproduct.
While it may not be oldest or the rowdiest testicle festival, Clinton, Montana, is home to the country's most well-attended (and innuendo-laden) "testy festy." The Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival is a multiday and very much adults-only gathering featuring booze, babes, bikers and over 2-and-a-half tons of beer-battered bulls balls. If the outskirts of Missoula aren't in your immediate travel plans, Washington, D.C.'s Montana State Society hosts somewhat of an unofficial sister event in Arlington, Virginia, dubbed the Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival. (Rocky Mountain oyster being a euphemism for the breaded and fried reproductive organs of cattle served with a side of cocktail sauce). As Jane Leffingwell, president of the Montana State Society, explains: "A Rocky Mountain oyster, I like to say, is sort of the chicken of the sea of Montana. It's not exactly a chicken, if you know what I mean. But it looks like a chicken nugget."
13. Sauerkraut Weekend in Phelps, New York
Although Phelps, a charming village in New York's Finger Lakes region, is no longer the fermented cabbage-producing powerhouse that it once was, the one-time sauerkraut capital of the world continues to celebrate this distinctive, colon-cleansing legacy.
During the first full weekend of August, both the Phelps community and 'kraut enthusiasts from further afield gather to observe Sauerkraut Weekend, a tradition that's been going strong since 1967. As with other small town food fests, the chance to gobble and gorge on the celebrated edible is only part of the appeal. In this case, there's also carnival rides, fireworks, live music, a Mustang rally, a 20K run, cabbage head decorating contests, a grand parade and other events and attractions that line Main Street. Obviously, there's a lot to see, do and put in your mouth (sauerkraut chocolate truffles, anyone?) during Phelps' signature annual bash. In terms of post-festival plans, we recommend (particularly if you're not a regular 'kraut consumer) taking a long, solitary walk in a remote area to let your lower intestine adjust after all that beneficial-to-your-body excitement.