7 Classic and/or Weird American Summer Food Festivals

It doesn’t quite seem like summer if you don’t have the opportunity to go to a festival or fair, eat some food on a stick and enjoy a variety of interesting and unique treats. While there are fairs and festivals in nearly every city and town in America, some of the most unique are those that feature a particular food. Here are some tasty places to get you started.

RC Cola and Moonpie Festival – Bell Buckle, Tennessee

rcdashBell Buckle, Tennessee is home to the RC Cola and Moonpie Festival, two traditionally Southern treats. This year on June 20th you can find the 15th annual festival which begins with a 10-mile run open to all ages.

Other unique events include the cutting of the world’s largest Moonpie, and quirky awards for things like the family that traveled the farthest, oldest person present and youngest person present.

The festival features arts and crafts, clog dancing and plenty of food. There are also contests for festival-goers like the watermelon seed spitting contest and the moon pie toss. If you want to really impress your friends, start practicing now for the RC Dash. Contestants in the dash must balance a full, open can of RC on their heads while walking about 20 feet. If they make it past round 1, round 2 involves balancing two open but full cans of RC on their head. It really does have something for everyone.


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Gilroy Garlic Festival – Gilroy, California

gilroygarlicGilroy, California has been home to the Gilroy Garlic Festival since 1978 when Dr. Rudy Melone decided that Gilroy should be proud of its garlic. The festival celebrates everything garlic in a town that is one of the largest producers of it in the world.

The highlight of the festival is Gourmet Alley where you can sample traditional garlic dishes like garlic bread, slightly more adventurous dishes like garlic fries and garlic popcorn or go all out and try the garlic ice cream. There are food vendors but also many cooking demonstrations featuring a variety of ways to prepare garlic.

If you have a great garlic recipe you can enter the garlic recipe contest and cook-off. Eight finalists are chosen from the entered recipes and they whip them up at the festival cook-off style for a chance for some serious garlic bragging rights – and $1,000 for the first place winner.

The festival entertainment is offered up by a wide variety of bands and musical acts – each offering something different. Everything from rock to country is represented and there is even a little surfabilly music if you come at the right time. The Children’s Area features a theme each year with games, crafts and other activities to entertain your little ones. In 2008 kids were treated to a land of knights and princesses and even a dress-up photo booth for their own garlic festival memento.

You can also find plenty of arts and crafts at the festival and not all of them are garlic related. There are many artists offering paintings, drawings and other items that will remind you of the garlic festival without any lingering odors.

This year the Gilroy Garlic Festival will take place July 24-26.

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The Yarmouth Clam Festival – Yarmouth, Maine

clamsIf you like a good old-fashioned East Coast clam bake head up to Yarmouth, Maine the third Friday in July for the Yarmouth Clam Festival. This year’s fest, the 44th, happens on July 17, 18 and 19.

The clam festival is a yearly fundraising event for non-profit organizations in Yarmouth so instead of a bunch of out of town food vendors all the tasty clam dishes are prepared by local churches, clubs, sports teams and other groups. Everything you buy including fried clams, steamed clams, clam chowder, crab cakes and crab rolls gives a little bit back to the community.

You can browse the juried craft show or take in the art show featuring regional artists which takes place under three Maine State Champion Oak Trees. It wouldn’t be a proper festival without a parade and the clam festival parade takes place on Friday, July 17. On Saturday there is a kid’s fun run and a canoe and kayak race for the adults. And of course there is a clam-shucking contest. Some of the more amusing contests involve the firefighter’s muster, teen cover band invitational and the karaoke contest.

You can find pancake breakfasts every morning from local organizations and plenty of food and activity for your entire family at the clam festival. And no matter what you choose you will be helping to support the village of Yarmouth which anyone can feel good about.

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Maine Lobster Fest – Rockland, Maine

lobster-crate-raceIf lobster is your thing, the Maine Lobster Fest in Rockland, Maine is the place to get as much as you want, fresh from the Atlantic. In 2008 the festival offered up 20,000 pounds of steamed lobster for hungry festival-goers. You can also find clams, shrimp and mussels along with traditional festival foods.

The festival takes place from July 29 – August 2 this year and the always-entertaining Great International William Atwood Lobster Crate Race takes place on the final day. Participants run across a bridge of 50 partially submerged lobster crates as many times as possible before falling into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. The current record for the event is 4,501 crates, held by 12-year-old Andrew Bachiochi from Connecticut.

As with any good food festival, there is a seafood-cooking contest open to anyone over the age of 18. Past winning recipes include a Maine Shrimp Chimichanga, Double Stuffed Sea Scallops and Baked Stuffed Lobster Tail on a Cedar Plank. If you have a winning seafood recipe make sure you bring it to the festival!

The fine art tent features everything from oil paintings to baskets to fudge, all made in Maine by talented artisans. You can definitely find a unique memento of your festival visit here. If art isn’t your thing you can watch the Lobster Fest parade, run in the 10k road race, cheer your kids on in the kid’s fun run or just hang out and eat some lobster. Kids can join in on the lobster eating contest, the codfish carry, the diaper derby or a fun costume parade.

Hatch Chile Festival – Hatch, New Mexico

chilesHatch, New Mexico is home to the spicy chile festival on Labor Day weekend each year. This year the festival will happen on September 5th and 6th. For the entire weekend the air is filled with the smell of roasting chiles, intoxicating to some and fear inducing to others.

You can find every imaginable chile dish from eating plain, freshly roasted chiles, to chile caramel corn and a beer garden to cool the flames on your tongue. There are contests for the best dried chile arrangement and the furthest chile toss and of course there is a chile eating contest. For those less adventurous there is also a watermelon eating contest.

There are chile cooking demonstrations and even a raffle of a chile themed quilt for those die-hard chile enthusiasts.

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Taste of Chicago – Chicago, Illinois

chicagoOne of the biggest summer food festivals is the Taste of Chicago. Covering the 4th of July weekend the festival runs from June 26 through July 5 and offers an amazing assortment of Chicago cuisine.

You can try everything from deep dish, Chicago style pizza, to the famous Rainbow Cone and beyond at over 50 restaurants. You can try full size portions or smaller “taste” portions to get your fill of some of Chicago’s finest offerings.

The food is the highlight but the entertainment is no slouch. The 2009 music line-up includes names like Counting Crows, the Barenaked Ladies and the Wallflowers. Friday, July 3rd features fireworks and the 85th Army Band.

Opening day of the festival will find celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse doing some cooking demonstrations and signing copies of his most recent cookbook. There will be cooking demonstrations by a wide variety of Chicago area chefs throughout the festival and visitors can participate in the Battle of the Bands and the Race to the Taste, a 5k run or 2 mile walk through nearby Chicago neighborhoods.

Once you are satisfied with tasty treats, take a quick stroll over to the shores of Lake Michigan, a mere 2 blocks away, to cool off from the sweltering Chicago summer heat.

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Pierogi Fest – Whiting, Indiana

pierogiIf you aren’t familiar with the Eastern European pierogi, you’re missing out. Little dumplings filled with everything from potatoes to pork, from cheese to strawberries pierogi are something everyone should try.

Whiting, Indiana takes pierogi seriously, hosting the annual Pierogi Fest each summer. In 2009 the 11th Pierogi Fest will take place from July 24-26. The fest offers plenty of food and some unique fun.

The Polka Parade with the lawnmower drill team and the babushka brigade is something you aren’t likely to see elsewhere. Men with lawnmowers moving in precision is quite a sight and if you don’t know what babushkas are, well, you’ll have to go to the parade to find out.

The fest features numerous food vendors, with most featuring their own unique take on the pierogi. And if you’re really lucky you’ll get to see Mr. Pierogi, a singing, dancing pierogi walking around the festival to greet visitors and share some Old World goodwill.

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Additional photo credit:
RC Dash by Brent and MariLynn on Flickr

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Older comments on 7 Classic and/or Weird American Summer Food Festivals

Eric Bayne
10 June 2009

Taste of Chicago is amazing. Avoid lunch hour.

Ian Rose
04 June 2009

We went to the Yarmouth clam festival when I was a kid. I don’t remember the very scary man-in-clam-suit, though, and I think I would.