Never travel on an empty stomach — unless you’re traveling to a food festival, where you can fill that stomach with delectable treats prepared in all kinds of tempting ways. Here’s a look at a picnic basket full of upcoming regional festivals based around unusual foods.
June 23-24: Cheese Curd Festival — Ellsworth, Wisconsin
Say cheese! Cheese curds are a delightfully squeaky delicacy that are especially popular in the Midwest and Northeast — and Canada, where they’re a part of poutine, the infamous snack made with french fries, curds and gravy. The small western Wisconsin town of Ellsworth boasts that it’s the cheese-curd capital of that state, which probably makes it the cheese-curd capital of the world. The Cheese Curd Festival boasts 2,300 pounds of fresh curds and uses them in more than 20 dishes, including a cinnamon-sugar dessert curd. It also features live music, bingo, a pancake breakfast, antique-tractor show and a milk-and-cookie tasting (run like a wine tasting, but for kids). There’s also a curd-eating contest and a 5K and 10K fun runs. Probably shouldn’t do the run right after the contest, though.
July 4: Hot Chicken Festival — Nashville, Tennessee
What exactly is Hot Chicken? It’s not just chicken that wasn’t allowed to get cold. In Nashville, it’s a flavorful chicken sandwich specially prepared with a dry sauce (not wet sauce, like Buffalo wings) and served with dill pickles on white bread. And it’s celebrated at the Hot Chicken Festival, which also includes live music, a hot chicken cooking competition, fire truck parade and more. Get there early — the first 500 guests will get free hot chicken samples. (But there’s plenty of other food offerings if you’re not an early bird.)
July 28-30: Garlic Festival — Gilroy, California
Vampires, steer clear of the northern California city of Gilroy. The city earns its status as Garlic Capital of the World by hosting the three-day Gilroy Garlic Festival every summer, celebrating the delightfully smelly and strong foodstuff. Sample garlic ice cream, enjoy live music, watch cooking demonstrations and hobnob with festival mascot Herbie, a giant garlic clove. But if you’re going with a close friend, you’d both better indulge in the eats, or they might not want to hang out with you — and your breath.
Aug. 4-6: Sauerkraut Weekend — Phelps, New York
Sauerkraut isn’t for everybody. But if your mouth waters at the thought of the finely shredded, fermented cabbage, head to Sauerkraut Weekend this August. The festival began 50 years ago, in 1967, to celebrate the fact that the small town of Phelps, New York, was one of the world’s largest producers of sauerkraut. The event includes live music, a parade, numerous races, and a giant slip and slide. But most fun, of course, are the sauerkraut-related events. There’s a recipe contest, a kraut-on-hot-dogs eating contest, a sauerkraut-by-itself eating contest and a cabbage-head decorating contest, among others. Not so sour a deal!
Aug. 18-20: Howell Melon Festival — Howell, Michigan
Ever heard of the Howell melon? It’s a cantaloupe hybrid grown in Howell, Michigan, and natives love it so much they celebrate it every summer. The Howell Melon Festival dates back to 1960, and a charming video on the festival’s website takes you back through the event’s history. (Check out how the hairstyles on the beauty queens change from ’60s bouffants to ’80s feathered ‘dos and beyond!) Come to this small town, 55 miles west of Detroit, and enjoy the festival’s live music, fun runs, car show and kids area (complete with giant chess and Connect 4 games). But most of all, savor the melon — and get there early if you want the melon ice cream. It’s made only for the festival, and sells out quickly.
Aug. 18-19: National Lentil Festival — Pullman, Washington
Do you love lentils? Eighteen percent of the nation’s lentil crop is grown in eastern Washington, near the college town of Pullman, which celebrates the National Lentil Festival every summer. Bring the little ones — the kids area includes a juggling tent, bounce houses and family friendly performances. (Parents, if you can get a sitter, the beer and wine garden might be more your style.) But of course the humble lentil is at the center of the fun, with lentil cooking demonstrations and a lentil cook-off. The cook-off holds a recipe contest beforehand and flies in the top five finalists to compete for the grand prize of $2,000. Cool beans!
Aug. 25-26: Potato Days — Barnesville, Minnesota
You’ve got to love a festival that brags on its website that it was named one of the “Top 9 strangest food festivals in the world,” as Potato Days does. Sure, there are parades, a car show, bingo and other festival standards, but keep your eyes peeled (sorry — potato humor) for the potato-centric events. There’s a mashed-potato wrestling match, mashed-potato sculpting contest, potato-sack fashion show and, naturally, potato-sack races. But you can get your fill of potatoes the normal way too — by eating them. Just head over to the French Fry Feed or Potato Pancake Feed and fill up on spuds.
Sept. 2-3, Chile Festival — Hatch, New Mexico
Even if you’ve never been to New Mexico, you’ve probably seen Hatch chiles on a restaurant menu near you. The tasty topping is popular on cheeseburgers, or mixed into cheese dips. The village of Hatch, New Mexico, proudly dubs itself the “Chile Capital of the World,” and who’s to argue with a state that’s made the chile its state vegetable? At the Hatch Chile Festival, you’ll find carnival rides, live music and entertainment, a beer garden, a chile-eating contest (yikes!) and plenty of dishes utilizing Hatch chiles. You can even take part in an interactive ristra workshop. A ristra is an arrangement of dried chiles (or garlic, or other items — but we’re talking chiles here). They’re not only attractive, but they’re practical, as the chiles can later be plucked off and used in cooking.
Sept. 8-10: Oyster Festival — Norwalk, Connecticut
Summer’s technically over by the time the Norwalk Oyster Festival cracks open its shell, but we’re including it here anyway. Enjoy carnival rides, an arts and crafts fair, lumberjack skills exhibition, motorcycle thrill show, acrobats and, naturally, plenty of this Connecticut city’s number-one food product — oysters. Balance out your seafood diet with other options, including ceviche, shrimp and crab sliders, lobster rolls, clam chowder, fried shrimp and more. If it swims, it’s in.
What is your favorite summer festival? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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