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Food Fest: American Food Festivals, Wonderful and Weird

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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. 

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!

Tags: Garlic, Lobster, Summer, Travel, Food History