Ten of the South’s Most Mouth-Watering Food Festivals
From Vidalia onions to beer cheese, the American South has culinary celebrations covered
Southern hospitality and good food go hand in hand in the American South, just ask any southerner, which could explain why this part of the country is particularly rich when it comes to food festivals focused on many of its regional staples. Here are ten festivals to put on your calendar for the spring.
Vidalia Onion Festival
Vidalia, Georgia, April 25-28
For the past 42 years, Georgians have been celebrating Georgia’s official state vegetable at the annual Vidalia Onion Festival. The four-day event revolves around the mildly sweet allium, which has roots dating back to the Great Depression. According to the Vidalia Onion Act of 1986, only 20 counties in Georgia can legally grow and sell their onions under the Vidalia trademark, including Toombs County, which happens to be where the onion was originally cultivated. This year’s festivities include a cook-off, carnival and an onion-eating contest.
Original Chicken-Fried Steak Festival
Lamesa, Texas, April 26-28
Digging into a plate-sized portion of chicken-fried steak is a rite of passage in Texas, so is it any surprise that there would be a festival there in honor of the beloved gravy-smothered cutlet? And no other place is as passionate about it as the west Texas town of Lamesa, the birthplace of the dish (the Texas legislature confirms it). According to local lore, a line cook by the name of James Donald Perkins who worked at a local haunt called Ethel’s Home Cooking invented the dish in 1911 when he mistook an order for chicken and fried steak. Now in its ninth year, the Original Chicken-Fried Steak Festival promises to be as gut busting as ever, with a chicken-fried steak dinner, cook-off and vendors traveling statewide to hawk their rendition of the caloric dish.
National Cornbread Festival
South Pittsburg, Tennessee, April 27-28
Any cornbread connoisseur will attest that you need a piece of sturdy cast-iron cookware if you want to bake cornbread that has people begging for seconds. So it only makes sense that South Pittsburg, home of Lodge Cast Iron, would host the National Cornbread Festival. Begun in 1996 as a bit of a marketing ploy, the festival has become a celebration of everything cornbread and includes tours of Lodge’s 123-year-old foundry, a walk through Cornbread Alley where you can sample different recipes, and a cornbread eating contest.
Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival
Fernandina Beach, Florida, May 3-5
Located on Amelia Island off the northeast corner of the state, Fernandina Beach is the birthplace of America’s modern-day shrimping industry, which got its start when a group of Mediterranean boat builders began designing vessels in the area specifically for shrimping. Fast forward to today and approximately 4 million pounds of shrimp are pulled from U.S. waters each year. To celebrate this lucrative industry (and, of course, its delicious profits), Floridians have been descending on the island for the past 56 years for the annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. This year’s lineup of festivities will be plentiful as ever and will include a shrimp boat-decorating contest, parade and plenty of crustaceans to eat.
Salisbury, North Carolina, May 18
For more than 100 years, Southerners have quenched their thirst by sipping ice-cold bottles of Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soft drink invented by the Carolina Beverage Company in Salisbury in 1917. Over the years the beverage has become a popular accompaniment with Southern food staples like barbecue and soul food. To honor the beloved beverage, the annual Cheerwine Festival celebrates all things “good and cheerful, southern and delightful,” so expect Cheerwine-inspired food stuffs, a beer garden, live music, kids activities, a scavenger hunt and more.
Poke Salat Festival
Arab, Alabama, May 18-19
Pokewood (Phytolacca americana) is one of many poisonous plants growing wild in the south, so why do people eat it? For decades, poke salat, a boiled dish of greens with a taste similar to spinach, has been a popular side item at dinner tables across the south. While the perennial is highly toxic, so long as it’s prepared correctly (leaves and stems of young plants must be boiled three times and washed three times in fresh water—never eat the roots), it can be safely consumed. Regardless of its bad rep, folks in Arab, Alabama, choose to celebrate the misunderstood plant during the town’s annual Poke Salat Festival, a weekend filled with live bluegrass music, an arts and crafts fair and plenty of greens to go around.
Blue Crab Festival
Little River, South Carolina, May 18-19
April through November is peak blue crab season in South Carolina, with blue crabs popping up on menus and dinner plates throughout the state. Since 1981, the town of Little River along the Intercoastal Waterway has dedicated a weekend to celebrating this locally caught crustacean with its annual Blue Crab Festival. Nowadays it’s one of the state’s largest street festivals with dozens of vendors selling their own recipes using the crab’s sweet meat.
New Orleans Oyster Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana, June 1-2
Perched atop a saltine cracker and topped with a squirt of hot sauce (either Tabasco or Crystal, nothing else) is how many New Orleanians prefer to eat their oysters. But fried, charbroiled and as shooters are also acceptable preparations, so long as the oyster is plucked fresh out of Louisiana waters. And while locals consume oysters on a regular basis, it’s only during the two-day New Orleans Oyster Festival that the city goes overboard (think oyster-eating contests, cooking demonstrations and vendors from restaurants citywide shucking their catch).
Beer Cheese Festival
Winchester, Kentucky, June 8
In 2013, the Kentucky legislature declared Clark County the official home of beer cheese. It was here that Joe Allman, owner of the historic Driftwood Inn in Winchester, created the addictive blend of sharp cheddar cheese, beer, garlic and cayenne pepper, which today is typically served cold as a dip for soft pretzels, crudités and French fries. The cheesy concoction has had a loyal following ever since, which is especially evident during the annual Beer Cheese Festival. As in previous years, for 2019 expect a beer cheese contest, beer cheese tastings, a beer garden and more.
Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival
Warren, Arkansas, June 14-15
Plucking a sun-ripened pink tomato right off the vine is a sign of spring for gardeners across Arkansas. Pink tomatoes, believed to be descendants of such pink-hued heirloom varieties as Brandywine and Cherokee Purple, have been an important part of the state’s agricultural industry for decades (according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the state produces more than 3 million pounds of tomatoes each year). Even the Arkansas General Assembly named it the official state fruit and vegetable of Arkansas in 1987. And for the past 63 years, the community of Warren has dedicated a weekend each June to the staple. Called the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, the event features a tomato-eating contest, tomato luncheon, live music and fireworks.