Summer Food Fests Offer Much More than Calories

food festivalWith almost everyone on some sort of diet--be it low-calorie, low cholesterol, low-fat, low-salt, or low everything--why would you choose summer entertainment that highlights food?  Here's the answer--these festivals not only educate visitors about the crops and food industries in their area; they also offer a lot more--for example, music, cooking demos, contests, and games.  There are food fests galore during the late spring, summer, and early fall.  You might even find a few within a morning's drive from your home. It's a great day's fun for adults and kids. Even if you're not planning to attend, you'll find some of the activities and refreshments described below amusing (or, perhaps in one case, disgusting).


Food festivals are generally annual events, so, if you look back at this site's two previous articles on the subject -- "Tips on Three Summer Pleasures: Ice Cream, Grilled Entrées, and Food Festivals" and  "Summer Food Fest Fun Around the U.S.;" you'll find additional festivals not mentioned in this article; you can google  their names for this year's dates and activities. Also, you can google "food festivals" to reach articles on more events around the country.  When you go to the site of a particular festival, be sure you're looking at the 2013 post.  There's still a lot online about 2012 food festivals.


Dr. Timothy Bowser, one of the scientists on this site's Advisory Board, alerted us to the large number of food fests in his state, Oklahoma, so several from Oklahoma are listed in this article.  If your vacation plans include that area of the country, visit this site: Flavorful Festivals: Top 15 Food Fairs in Oklahoma


Onward to a quick trip around the country, chasing food fests.




The Rhubarb Festival (Lanesboro, MN, June 1): At this festival, you can taste rhubarb pies, crisps, cakes, soups, chili, jams, ketchup, and even a rhubarb drink.  Games for kids will include the rhubarb stalk throw.  Enter contests and win prizes for the largest rhubarb leaf and the heaviest rhubarb stalk. There's music, too.


The Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival (Little Chute, WI, May 31-June 2): Enjoy cheese tasting, cheese carving, a cheese curd-eating contest, and a cheesecake contest. The festival also features music, food (besides cheese), amusement rides, a petting zoo, a parade, and fireworks. 


The Georgia Peach Festival (in Byron on June 1 and Fort Valley on June 8): No wonder they're celebrating. Georgia ranks 3rd in the U.S. in annual peach production, harvesting 1.7 million bushels  a year (more than half in Peach County, where these festivals are held).  The Festival Events Calendar mentions a peach treat contest, fireworks, spaghetti and jazz dinner, car and bike show with classic cars, fireworks, and, of course, entertainment.


World's Largest Calf Fry Festival & Cook-Off (Vinita, OK, June 8): Are they frying calves? Not exactly. They're frying the local "delicacy"--often called "Rocky Mountain oysters."  To be blunt, these are testicles "removed from a bull calf to make him a steer calf," the 2012 website for this festival explains.(In other words, the animal is castrated and raised for beef.) The surgically removed parts are fried or roasted over the fire that was once used by cowboys to heat branding irons.  The website assures us that calf fries are delicious.  But, for the squeamish, the festival has many other edible offerings plus cowboy games and other children's activities.


Bricktown Blues and BBQ Festival (Bricktown, OK, June 14-15): This is an evening event held outdoors under the tents from 5 p.m. to midnight.  It features continuous live music.


The National Cherry Festival (Traverse City, MI, June 29-July 6):   USA Today has listed this festival among the nation's top 10 for several years.  The Grand Traverse region is famous for its world-record tart cherry harvest.  This annual event features air shows, parades, daily kids' events a cherry pie eating contest, and a pit spitting contest.




Huckleberry Festival (Jay, OK, July 6): A huckleberry looks like a blueberry but has a more intense flavor.  This festival celebrates the wild huckleberries that grow in the area.  What goes on there?  Exhibit halls showcase arts and crafts, quilts, and a variety of other homemade goods.  There's also a 5K run and a classic car show, carnival rides, a parade, a relay race, a chug-a-lug root beer contest, and fireworks.  Oh, yes.  There are also huckleberries--in lemonade, pies, and sauce for ice cream. 


Taste of Chicago (Chicago, IL, July 10-14): This will probably be, once again, the world's biggest food fest; it's been known to attract more than a million visitors.  The food highlights the ethnic diversity of the city and the city's famous restaurants and chefs.  The festival takes place along Chicago's beautiful lakefront.  It offers concerts, fireworks, arts and crafts, and the world's largest peach cobbler (which is 5 X 11 feet and roughly 8 inches deep).


Porter Peach Festival (Porter, OK, July 18-20):  This festival celebrates the area's peach crop with a wide range of activities including carnival rides, arts and crafts booths, games, music, a 5k race, a peach auction, and a peach cobbler contest. And don't miss the free peaches and ice cream.


Gilroy Garlic Festival (Gilroy, CA, July 26-28):  Want to try free garlic ice cream?  The 35th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival is where you'll find it. If that doesn't make you salivate, Gourmet Alley offers other edible treats.  Things to see include arts and crafts and "flame-ups" by Gourmet Alley pyro chefs.  There's also a children's area, a wine pavilion, and a cook-off theater.


Hope Watermelon Festival (Hope, AR, August 8-10): This festival highlights the area's giant watermelons.  The festival includes, of course, the consumption of watermelon and a seed-spitting contest.  Further amusements are headline entertainment and arts and crafts. 


Rush Springs Watermelon Festival (Rush Springs, OK, August 10):  This is one of the most popular festivals in Oklahoma; every year, it attracts more than 20,000 visitors.  And it serves them about 50,000 pounds of watermelon, and, in the afternoon, the watermelon is free.  Besides watermelon consumption, there's a seed-spitting contest, some 100 vendors with arts and crafts, carnival rides, live entertainment, and classic cars.


Maine Lobster Festival (Rockland, ME, July 31-August 4): The 66th year of this annual event will take place in a harbor town, so a U.S. naval ship usually makes an appearance and allows tours. Visitors devour some 20,000 pounds of fresh Maine lobster, enjoy live entertainment, and see a parade featuring bands, floats, and a sea goddess. Furthermore, there are carnival rides, seafood cooking contests, and a blueberry pancake breakfast.


Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off (Sparks, NV, August 28-September 2): About 500,000 people flock to this festival, which sells about 100 tons of ribs. This is the 25th year of this annual event. At the rib-eating tournament, participants have 12 minutes to eat as many pounds of ribs as they can.  The event's website says it features "top professional eaters from around the world!"  It also features top-name entertainment on 5 stages. 


Chicago Events: More than 400 Neighborhood Festivals  


Chicago has some annual major festivals such as--Taste of Chicago, the Air and Water Show, and the Jazz Fest--and this summer will also have more than 400 neighborhood festivals and parades.  These often highlight the ethnic food, music, and art of a particular neighborhood. See "Chicago Summer 2013: Festival and Events Calendar" for a list of community events running to the end of September.


Festivals Around the World


This is a handy reference: has a site entitled "The Big Worldwide  List of Festivals: Wine, Beer, Spirits, and Food  Festivals." Here, you can insert your home area and find festivals there.  You can also add a festival to the site if there's one you're involved in promoting.  The festivals listed on this site might be any place or any season. 


Advice and Warnings


To have the most fun and avoid problems, read the website-- carefully and completely--of the festival you plan to attend. 


  • ŸBe sure you have the date right--both the day(s) and the year!
  • ŸPrint out or jot down other useful info, for example, exact location (print out the map), entrance fee (if there is one), and opening and closing times. Go early before it gets very crowded, before the sun is very strong, and before the food has been sitting out in the heat for hours.
  • ŸThere may be restrictions there are on what you can bring in. You can save money by bringing in your own water and nibbles, but some festivals don't allow this. Some do not allow coolers, probably for security reasons.
  • Be alert to matters of sanitation.  Whether you're bringing in your own food or buying food at the festival or both, remember that perishable food must be kept hot or cold.  Bacteria grow rapidly in perishables held between 40°F - 140°F. Be sure that you and food vendors are keeping food at the proper temperature.  Click on Food Safety at Fairs and Festivals for more safety tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Remember this one: if soap and water aren't handy, at least use disposable alcohol wipes or a sanitizer before eating.  And have children clean their hands after petting animals. 


The Food Poison Journal offers the following warning: "Festivals provide great food experiences but because they are temporary sites, food preparation, storage and transport can be problematic."  These are some causes of food contamination: food kept at an improper temperature, cross-contamination, personal hygiene of those preparing or consuming the food, and food obtained from unsafe sources.  In 2007, the "Taste of Chicago" Salmonella outbreak sickened 717 people who ate contaminated food at the Pars Cove Persian Cuisine booth. 


Getting Educated and Stuffed at a Food Festival


My husband and I started out the food fair season by attending Chicago's Pastoral Artisan Producer's Festival on April 27.   It's an annual occasion, so, if you're in the Chicago area, try to catch it next spring. The location was, believe it or not, the Ogilvie train station, next to shops that sell the gourmet foods we could sample for free at some 80 different stands.  We ate cheese, crackers, bread, ham and more to our heart's (and stomach's) content. We drank wine, beer, and coffee. 


Because we arrived early (a little before the official opening), we had a chance to sample food just put out and time to chat with the artisan producers about how their products are made. At this fair, the emphasis was on cheese, mostly from the facilities of small Wisconsin cheese makers.  I wanted to be sure I wasn't going to eat any cheese made with raw milk (which is risky), so, for the first 10 minutes, I asked at every booth, "Is your cheese either pasteurized or aged?"  It was always one or the other, so I stopped asking and just enjoyed tasting all these:


  • Combination cheeses (made with cow milk combined with goat or sheep milk);
  • Beer cheese (The beer is what makes the product spreadable.);
  • Slivers of cheese topped with a dab of plum preserves cheese (Scrumptious! Skip the crackers.);
  • ŸFenugreek gouda cheese (which had a hint of maple syrup flavor though, the cheese maker assured me that was not one of the ingredients).


We also ate exotic crackers--caramelized onion, hazelnut graham, and caraway rye--and grainy, not-very-sweet Mexican chocolate, which was interesting.   Our taste buds were delighted by all the novelty.


Even smaller food fairs can give visitors new taste sensations and renewed enthusiasm for entertaining.  The larger ones offer more than food; they provide a great variety of activities to interest adults and even restless kids.  Our rating on food festivals:  highly recommended. 





Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (Reader's Digest) "10 Super Summer Food Festivals" "Salmonella cases linked to Taste of Chicago increase" - .UZY7tpVQ0yE



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