Food Fest: American Food Festivals, Wonderful and Weird

July  5, 2013

In Strange Food History, we're hitting the books -- to find you the strangest, quirkiest slices of our food heritage.

Today: From "burgoo" feasts to Spam Jam, how American food festivals got their start. Plus, the most intriguing events to line up for. 

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The earliest history of food festivals is much like the history of autumn harvest holidays; they were closely tied to the celebration of the autumn bounty and the veneration of earth gods. 

It was in the midst of the Great Depression, however, that food festivals (at least those in the United States) really got their start. According to Harvey Levenstein in his book Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, the 1930s coincided with a surge in concern for regional culinary practices. In this decade of instability, Americans sought to reinforce familial and community bonds by preserving rich traditions. And what better way to do that than to hold communal eating festivals?

More: The best regional dishes, from near and far. 

Southerners gathered to eat pork (smoked or fresh), Midwestern rural groups convened on Sundays for chicken dinners, and city dwellers and Southwesterners favored beef at their get-togethers. Kentucky was home to “burgoo feasts” where a giant pot-au-feu would be filled with beef, chicken, squirrels, canned corn, cabbages, carrots, and the mysterious “burgoo seasoning.” In Virginia and North Carolina, people ate Brunswick Stew, similar to burgoo but made only with squirrel meat. In a decade when restaurants were in decline and popular cookbooks featured bland recipes, regional cuisine was a beacon of lively, flavorful food that stuck to tradition.

In the present day, with national and regional food culture having a stronger presence than ever before, food festivals and communal eating events remain some of the best ways to experience culinary traditions and local specialties. Here are a few of the food festivals that we think might be worth a visit:

1. It's no secret -- here at Food52, we're such big fans of avocados, we've started our own fan club. If you're like us, pack your bags, head for Avofest in Carpinteria, California, and hope there's all-you-can-eat guacomole

2. Acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace brought the Maine Lobster Festival to national attention with his essay "Consider the Lobster" for Gourmet Magazine. If you go, you'll find lobster served in almost every way possible and a fiercely competitive lobster cook-off.

3. Is there anything more delicious than a warm piece of tender cornbread? If cornbread's what you crave, consider entering yourself in a cornbread eating contest at the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. 

4. Hawaiians are known to be some of Spam's biggest fans, consuming about seven million cans each year. The Spam Jam, held last year in beautiful Waikiki, has attracted over 25,000 people. If you think you'd have a great time hamming it up, Spam Jam is a great excuse to plan a tropical getaway.

5. The Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California is a vampire's wost nightmare. Cool off with a scoop of garlic ice cream, watch the crowning of Miss Gilroy Garlic, and try innovative garlic recipes at the Great Garlic Cook-off. 

What food festival would you be most excited to attend? Tell us in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Connie Hansen
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    Frank Wright
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Connie H. August 1, 2013
We had a delightful Garlic Cafe in Las Vegas everything they served was infused with your desired degree of garlic. It has gone out of business but I still dream of their garlic ice cream!
Bubba M. July 12, 2013
The Hampton County Watermelon Festival in Hampton, SC. Oldest continually operating festival in SC, began in 1939...last week of June. http://www.hcmelonfest.org
Henry J. July 8, 2013
For you Car Talk aficionados, at the end of the show Doug Berman is always just returning from an imaginary food festival with a long rhyming name.
Waverly July 7, 2013
Every March, The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo holds a 3-day Bar-B-Que contest. It is a huge deal and lots of fun. The Rodeo raises millions of dollars for charity: http://rodeohouston.com/Events/WorldsChampionshipBarBQue.aspx
Frank W. July 7, 2013
The Lanesboro, MN Rhubarb Festival on the first Saturday of June. Cutting edge recipes in rhubarb tasting and contest, games, music, run, lots of rhubarb pies and rhubarb themed food booths. http://www.rhubarbfestival.org
Catherine B. July 6, 2013
I try to go to the Strawberry festival in Oxnard every year. http://strawberry-fest.org/
Sarah J. July 6, 2013
The Strawberry Festival sounds like a great cause -- plus, who doesn't love strawberries?
poetinthepantry July 5, 2013
I have been meaning to go to the Garlic Harvest Festival in Bethlehem, CT for years. My boss tells me it's pretty fantastic.
Gabriella P. July 5, 2013
Love love love this piece, Sarah! Just FYI for garlic lovers on the East Coast, there's a Hudson Valley Garlic Festival in late September every year. (Garlic ice cream, get into it.)
Sarah J. July 5, 2013
Thanks so much, Gabriella! I need to mark my calendar for that festival. I'm also dying to try olive oil ice cream!
Brette W. July 5, 2013
I think I could win the cornbread eating contest.