Guide to Summer Food Festivals

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
This salmon bake is one of several held in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the few that are truly "Indian-style." It is a fitting way to prepare this king of fish, producing a moist, mildly smoky fish with a very crisp skin.

A few years ago, while smacking our lips at our favorite
annual chicken barbecue given by the Cutchogue (New York)
Fire Department — we began to think that there must be
thousands of such local food celebrations and festivals all
over the country. We decided to explore this premise . . .
and proceeded to eat our way through the calendar and
across America.

Guide to Summer Food Festivals

• Summer food festivals combine the excitement of a celebration
with the fresh taste of local foods and the honesty of
homemade preparations. In the era of potato flakes and
imitation bacon bits, it’s comforting to have the real thing.

• Festivals range in length from one day to two weeks, and
they’re ideal entertainment for whole families. There’s
always something special going on for children, but there are
also events and activities for retired people, locals,
tourists, singles, and teenagers. Many festivals have a
midway, often set off to the side. Almost all have at least
one stage, for concerts, contests, and award ceremonies.
Starting in the 1970s, many festivals added a foot race, some
of which are officially sanctioned, but all of which attract
an astonishing number of runners. Some festivals are
agricultural fairs, so they have judgings for the
best-looking livestock or produce. Many have eating contests,
which are usually embarrassing but always a lot of fun.
Others have zany events like bed races or crazy costumes, and
most have beauty pageants. We’ve also seen our share of
tractor pulls, mud hops, and tug-of-wars. 

• Summer food festivals are
fun and joyous. They celebrate harvest and bounty. They are
America letting loose for a party. We have tried to
communicate some of that fun to you. We hope you’ll go to
lots of them and eat yourself silly and have a great time
doing it.

Gonzales Jambalaya Festival

Jambalaya (JAM-bah-lie-ah) found its way into
Creole-Cajun cookery in the late eighteenth century. It can
be made with ham, chicken, sausage, fresh pork, shrimp, and
oysters (all together or separately), to which shortening,
rice, onions, garlic, pepper, and other seasonings, and
sometimes tomatoes, are added. And, as anyone from East
Ascension Parish will tell you, it’s best made in Gonzales.

The atmosphere at Gonzales harks back to old-fashioned
church fairs. In the nineteenth century, such fairs in
southern Louisiana towns were large public gatherings.
People brought their black iron pots from home,
parishioners donated the ingredients, open wood fires were
built, and jambalaya was made and served to the crowd.
Later, politicians took over the custom and served
jambalaya at rallies.

But people don’t come to the Jambalaya Festival for
politics. They come to listen and dance to Cajun music, to
watch the cooking contest, and to eat the prizewinning
jambalaya.

The contestants must supply their own 30-gallon cast-iron
cooking pot (at one time, these pots were used for
laundry). Just about all the entrants are men, mostly
two-man teams sponsored by local companies or
organizations. They take turns tending the pot and the wood
fire below it, and when it is time to give their jambalaya
a stir, they use a long-handled spatula to lift and sift
the ingredients, being careful not to break or mash the
rice kernels.

In contrast to the main cooking contest, the mini-jambalaya
contest calls for somewhat different cooking skills. These
cooks have to put a mighty effort into producing a zesty
half cup of jambalaya, using a one-quart cast-iron pot and
cooking it over a fire of kindling. The small fire gets
very hot, and the contestants must make their brew along
the curb of the main street as the crowds hang over them.
Though originally begun as a novelty, this contest is also
difficult to win, and competition is mighty stiff.

As we downed forkfuls of jambalaya, the joyous sounds of
Cajun music came in through the wide doors of the
cafeteria, and the happy, slightly discordant waltzes got
people’s feet tapping and hips swaying. We realized then
why we love Louisiana’s food festivals the most: They
represent the traditional French love of good food, the
Spanish love of good drink, and the Cajun love of their
slogan, “Lais sez les bon temps rouler!”

The Gonzales Jambalaya Festival is held the second weekend
in June. There is no admission charge. Food booths sell
everything except jambalaya, which can only be had in the
cafeteria. A plate (servings are very large) costs $3.50.
Gonzales is located about 15 miles south of Baton Rouge,
off U.S. 61. For more information, contact the Jambalaya
Festival Association, Gonzales, LA.

National Cherry Festival

Imagine walking through an orchard on a sunny day, picking
sweet cherries and popping them in your mouth. Sounds
wonderful, doesn’t it? On Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula,
where there’s an especially large concentration of cherry
trees, you can make this dream come true. We did at the
National Cherry Festival.

The best cherries around were either still in the orchard
or part of the Very Cherry Luncheon, which is held on the
Friday of this week-long festival. Here a visitor can enjoy
a cherry filled meal beginning with a cold cherry soup,
followed by a variety of main courses, salads, and breads
that contain cherries, and topped off with a selection or
two from the three-tiered dessert table. This buffet table
is the highlight of the luncheon, and with good reason.
Heaped high from one end to the other, it is a cornucopia
of old-fashioned cakes, pies, puddings, and cookies
prepared by the growers’ families-a cherry-lover’s fantasy
come true.

Other hits of the Cherry Festival include a pie-eating
contest, open to children of all ages, and a pit-spitting
competition, won recently by Rick “Pellet Gun” Krause, who
sent a cherry stone flying 53 feet 7-1/2 inches.

Another feature of the festival is the cherry orchard tour,
and this will get you among the trees so that you can start
eating. The buses take you to a farm (a family operation)
high on a hill overlooking both Grand and Little Traverse
Bays, where you’re given a tractor ride between rows of
sweet cherry trees. We found this tour to be the most fun
of the festival.

The National Cherry Festival is held in Traverse City the
week following July 4. There are events, contests, and
orchard tours daily. The Very Cherry Luncheon, on Friday,
is $7.00 for adults and $4.50 for children.

Traverse City is located on Grand Traverse Bay, about 185
miles north of Lansing, off U.S. 31. Sleeping Bear Dunes
National Lakeshore is nearby (25 miles) and is definitely
worth a visit. For more information, write National Cherry
Festival, Traverse City, MI.

Gilroy Garlic Festival

An oak- and eucalyptus-shaded park the size of a small town
is the setting for this very large food festival, a
three-day event that is world famous for its single-minded
devotion to the “scented pearl.”

We eased into the fair and strolled among the booths, which
were selling a host of items derived from, or based on,
garlic. One stand featured Garlique, a fragrance made from
garlic extract with rose scent added; the flier noted, “He
may forget your name, but he’ll know you’ve been there.”

We moved along quickly to Gourmet Alley, a central area of
major food booths run by the festival organizers. It is
here, under a huge tent, that the large-scale cooking goes
on and the best foods are offered. There are six
specialties, and they rarely vary: marinated and stuffed
mushrooms, pasta con pesto, pepper steak sandwich, scampi,
calamari, and a vegetable stir-fry with garlic bread.

Not far from Gourmet Alley, in a ring surrounding the
demonstration area, are additional food booths. Here we
sampled some other garlic offerings: garlots, garlic
tamales, garlic-fried ravioli, escargot kebabs (three
escargots and two mushrooms on a skewer, dripping with
garlic butter), pickled garlic, garlic jelly,
and — yes — garlic ice cream!

Why all the fuss about garlic in Gilroy? The Garlic
Festival was begun in 1979 to boost Gilroy’s image as a
garlic producing and processing area, and it has succeeded
in bringing upward of 110,000 people here each year to
discover countless uses for garlic. Will Rogers described
Gilroy as “the only town in America where you can marinate
a steak by hanging it on the clothesline,” but these Gilroy
folks have turned a liability into an asset. The air does
have an intense smell that strains your patience, but this
festival is one of the most sophisticated we’ve ever
attended.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is held July 25-27. An admission
fee ($5 for adults, $1 for children, $2 for senior
citizens) is charged and is good for the whole day.

Gilroy is located about 100 miles south of San Francisco,
off U.S. 101; just follow your nose! For more information,
contact the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gilroy,
CA.

Indian Style Salmon Bake Festival

“We start the fire with cedar to get the heat up, then put
on the alder to keep the coals.” That’s how the Sequim
(pronounced skwim) Rotarians began describing their
Indian-style salmon bake. They’ve been doing it this way
since 1969, following methods developed by the Northwest
Coast Indians centuries earlier.

A day or two before the bake, one of the Rotarians comes in
and rototills a small patch of the lawn by the Grange’s
main building. Then some members of the group lay a bed of
sand a foot thick, which will hold the heat when the fire
gets going well. By seven o’clock the morning of the bake
the men begin to assemble, and while the fire crew gets the
coals going, the rest are busy preparing the 2,400 pounds
of king (chinook) and silver (coho) salmon. First the fish
are split open and the heads and tails removed. Then they
are boned, butterflied, and carefully placed on long cedar
stakes, tail end down. The stakes have been split in half
almost from end to end, but the closed end serves as a
hinge, and the slab of salmon is slipped between the two
halves of the stake, then pinned to crosspieces so that the
fish is spreadeagled on the stake. The fish are given a
liberal dose of salt and cracked whole pepper, then set
into the sandy bed alongside the fire. By this time the
heat of the fire is a steady 150 degrees. As stake after
stake of salmon is added, the rows of fish begin to look
like a stockade surrounding the fire. Walking around this
stockade, you can see the silver skins of the salmon
glisten as they are slowly baked.

“You got to have the angle just right,” we were told, “so
that there’s no dripping off the fins. If the fins drip,
the fish is cooking too fast and the oils go out. Can’t
cook the fish too fast.” The cooking crew sees to
that — walking the fire, they call it — watching
each one and making whatever adjustments seem necessary:
restaking, turning, or moving the fish from the front row
to the back. Periodically they check the heat of the fire
by holding their hands over it, and after about two hours,
when the salmon are nearly baked, the fish are turned so
that their skin side faces the fire and the heat gives it a
last-minute crispness.

This salmon bake is one of several held in the Pacific
Northwest, and one of the few that are truly
“Indian-style.” It is a fitting way to prepare this king of
fish, producing a moist, mildly smoky fish with a very
crisp skin. The bake is held in August, when the fish that
is served is ocean — caught. The salmon have only just
begun to muster strength for the return to their freshwater
birthplaces. Thus they are juicy and plump — perfect
for baking.

Dinner is plentiful: cole slaw, beans, buttered bread, and
of course the salmon about a pound apiece; and we were asked
if we wanted more! Everyone sits at long tables under sunny
skies enjoying themselves while L.J.’s Reminiscers play
old-time songs.

The Sequim Salmon Bake is held at Prairie Grange, Macleay
Hall, Sequim, on the second Sunday in August. Tickets are
$6 and are available at the gate. The bake is from noon to
6:00 P.M.

Sequim is on the Olympic Peninsula, about 17 miles east of
Port Angeles on U.S. 101. For more information, write the
Sequim Chamber of Commerce, Sequim, WA.

The International Zucchini Festival

The International Zucchini Festival is probably the
funniest food festival around. But then, zucchini can
become a pretty funny vegetable. If you’ve grown your own,
you know what we mean — especially at the end of the summer.
By August, you’ve given zucchini away to all your friends,
relatives, and neighbors. You’ve made zucchini pickles,
zucchini hash, and zucchini ice cream.

And that’s just when the International Zucchini Festival
comes along-perfect timing. You and your zucchini can do
things together. You can enter it into competitions such as
the Farthest Traveled Zucchini or the Longest or Heaviest
Zucchini. You can make something of your zucchini and enter
it as the Best Zucchini Needlework or the Best Off-Color
Zucchini. If you have more than one, there’s the Best
Matched Zucchini. And if you have only inspiration left,
there’s the Best Zucchini Essay.

If you have been able to grow more than just zucchini this
summer, you could enter the Best Vegetable “Old Masters”
Reproduction or the Most Peaceful Use of a Vegetable.
Should your talents lie in the performing arts, open to you
would be the Best Vegetable Song (but you must sing it
before an appreciative audience).

Should your zucchini not feel up to entering an
agricultural exhibit, perhaps you should consider the
Motorized Vegetable competitions or the Flight of the
Airborne Vegetables. Of course the Greased Zucchini Toss is
a crowd pleaser, but your vegetable might not care for it.

For the athletic, there’s a Vegetable Olympics, including a
Pentathlon-five events performed with five different
vegetables. The Zucchini Power Lifting competition calls
upon the strong to lift crates filled with zucchini. For
the Vegetable Diving Contest, entrants stand on the end of
a diving board; they execute the dive by tossing the
vegetable into the center of the pool. The dive is judged
on accuracy, entry into the water, and form. There is also
a Regatta, with prizes for both the zucchini boat that
sinks the fastest and the one that stays afloat the
longest.

We assembled the makings for lunch from the various food
booths that were scattered about: icy-cold gazpacho,
grilled lamburgers and lamb sausage heros served with
sauteed zucchini and onions, and gingered spareribs and
lamb kebabs with rice and zucchini. Dessert was a slice of
zucchini bread spread with cream cheese. Food is purchased
with Zukes and Gadzukes, the currency of the festival. And
there are many signs warning, NO CUKES!

This zany festival takes place in Keene, New Hampshire, on
the campus of Keene State College, on August 23. There is a
$3 admission ($1 for children); Zukes (25 cents) and Gadzukes
($1) are on sale and are used to purchase food, crafts,
balloons, face painting, and so on.

Keene is in the southwestern corner of the state, about 90
miles northwest of Boston, off Route 101. For information,
contact the International Zucchini Festival, Harrisville, NH.

Marion Ham Days Festival

The road to Lebanon cuts across the knobland of central
Kentucky, to the county named for General Francis Marion,
the Swamp Fox of the Revolutionary War. On a late-September
morning, the fields glisten from an early frost, and in the
tobacco barns the drying leaves hang like bats in a cave.
The air is heady as the road nears the bourbon
distilleries. Warehouses filled with barrels of aging
bourbon resemble prisons — tall, straight-sided, metal clad
buildings with bars on the windows and chain link fences
around the perimeters.

Sour mash bourbon and tobacco are Kentucky traditions. So
is real country ham. Marion County celebrates its ham
tradition with a glorious two-day festival featuring a
“pigasus” parade; pig calling, pipe smoking, and tobacco
spitting contests; an auction of the champion ham; a 10 km
“pokey pig” run; country music; crafts exhibits; and a
country ham breakfast that rivals the best. The streets of
downtown Lebanon are cordoned off, and tables are set up in
front of City Hall for the breakfast. And the crowds eat.
Five hundred volunteers serve fried apples, scrambled eggs,
country ham with red-eye gravy, sliced tomatoes, and
biscuits to hungry guests.

If your only experience with ham has been a tasteless,
brine-cured, boiled ham, you’re in for a real surprise.
These somewhat saltier hams are dry-cured with a salt rub
for six weeks, then rinsed and rubbed with sugar and smoked
for a few hours over hickory chips. They then are aged for
from six months to two years.

If you need a little diversion between ham biscuits,
there’s the chance to tour the Maker’s Mark distillery, a
few miles away. This is the only distillery in the United
States granted National Historic Landmark status, and even
if you aren’t a bourbon fan the tour is well worth the
trip. (There are no samples or sales at the distillery;
it’s against the law.) Marion County Ham Days are the last
weekend of September. Tickets for the breakfast cost $4.50.

Lebanon, Kentucky, is about 60 miles southwest of
Lexington, off U.S. 68. For more information, contact the
Lebanon/Marion County Chamber of Commerce, Lebanon, KY.

Massachusetts Cranberry Festival

The Indians had many uses for the native American
cranberry. In addition to eating the berries, they used
the juice for a red dye when weaving, and a cranberry
poultice was fairly common for treating arrow wounds. They
shared this crisp, red fruit with the early English
settlers, and cranberries have been a part of Thanksgiving
Day feasts ever since 1621.

The cranberry is a low-growing vine that thrives in peat
and sand. At harvest time (late September) the bogs are
often flooded. The ripe berries are then knocked off the
vines (by the harvesters) so that they float to the
surface, creating vast crimson patches all over the flooded
area. Dry harvesting, done with the old-fashioned scoop (or
rake), is another method but less favored.

The Massachusetts Cranberry Festival, begun in 1948, is
held in South Carver each September. This is the heart of
cranberry country, with over 3,000 acres of cranberry bogs.
The site is the Edaville Railroad Park, a family amusement
center with a cranberry bog in the middle. There is a
narrow gauge railroad that encircles the bog, and a
highlight of the festival is a 45-minute ride on the
old-fashioned train. The railroad was originally
constructed to serve the bogs: hauling sand out to them in
the winter and bringing the harvest back in the fall.

Other events at the festival include the woodsmen’s
competition, a sheep-to-shawl spinning and weaving contest, a
puppet theater, and a spinning bee. Under the Cranberry
Tent you can watch cranberry-screening and
cranberry-cooking demonstrations (with samples for the
tasting) and refresh yourself with glasses of free
cranberry juice.

Along the walkways that encircle the central cranberry bog,
one can find other, delicious diversions: a chicken
barbecue served with cranberry sauce (what else?), a local
bake sale featuring cranberry cakes-some of them past
winners in the cooking contest, and all of them
irresistible and a stand selling cranberry sherbet. There is
also an arts and crafts sale.

The Cranberry Festival (and 4-H Fair) is held the last two
weekends in September at the Edaville Railroad in South
Carver, Massachusetts. Admission to the grounds (which
includes a train ride) is $5 for adults, $3 for children.

South Carver is about 15 miles southwest of Plymouth, on
Route 58. For more information, contact the Massachusetts
Cranberry Festival, South Carver, MA.

Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival

“Mullet? Where I come from even the cats won’t eat it.”
This is what one man from Florida told us. Of course, in
some parts of the state the shoreline is muddy, and so the
mullet, which are bottom feeders, taste a lot like what
they eat. Mullet are considered trash fish in a lot of
places, but along the Boggy Bayou on the Florida panhandle,
they’re eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Florida mullet is the migratory Mugil cephalus,
commonly called the black, silver, or striped mullet
because of the long black lines that run the length of its
body. It has a tapered nose that broadens out to a flat,
wide head. When it feeds along a shallow bottom, its tail
points skyward. The mullet is a fish that can make a rapid
switch from salt water to fresh water by making a chemical
change in its body that science has yet to understand. It
leaves the Gulf of Mexico and swims up the shallow bayous
each year to spawn.

During the third weekend in October, the friendly people of
Niceville hold a festival to show the rest of the world
just how tasty mullet can be. The Boggy Bayou Boys-a local
sportsmen’s club-fix the mullet in two very appealing ways.
The fried is the most popular, and it’s easy to know why.
They head the fish, split them open, and remove the bones.
Then they butterfly the fillets, dust them faintly with a
mixture of flour and cornmeal, and fry them in vegetable
oil. The fish emerges virtually greaseless and very crisp,
especially around the edges. It’s served either with just
hush puppies, or on a platter with cheese grits, beans, and
hush puppies.

The smoked mullet has also been headed, cleaned, and boned.
It’s then sprinkled with lemon juice, Worcester shire
sauce, and melted butter. The fish is given a “heat
smoke” — more a combination of smoking an
cooking — for an hour to an hour an a half. When the
fish starts to change color, the cooks baste it with more
the lemon juice mixture. The mull; finishes up as a very
moist, light smoked fish — not at all salty, because it
hasn’t been cured first.

Although thousands of people a tend this festival each
year, a comfort able, small-town feeling prevails. Giant live
oaks shade the crafts booths and food stalls, and there are
large round tables placed conveniently near the food booths.
On stage, there is a bang-up performance by the Golden Eagle
the high school band — so large it must include the
entire school population The other entertainment include
country music, clogging, jazz, and rock. This is a festival
without any rides, but with the usual beauty pageant, foot
race, and evening dance.

The Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival held the third weekend in
October in Niceville, Florida. A fried mullet plat runs
about $3 (no admission charge

Niceville is about 60 miles east Pensacola; take Route 85
south or 1-10. For more information, write call Boggy Bayou
Mullet Festival, Inc. Niceville, FL.

EDITORS NOTE: This article is excerpted from the book Food
Festival by Alice M. Geffen and Carole Berglie, copyright
© 1986 by Alice M. Geffen and Carole Berglie and
reprinted wit the permission of Pantheon Books, division of
Random House, Inc. The book is available for $9.95 plus $l.00 shipping from Random House, Westminster, MD.