Every spring, the city of Baltimore hosts a flower festival called the Flowermart. (This year’s event starts today.) Founded in 1911, the Flowermart is the country’s oldest festival dedicated to blooms; annual events include a children’s maypole dance and a decorated-hat competition. But mention the Flowermart to any Baltimoran and the first words out of his mouth won’t have anything to do with plants; they’ll be, “Lemon sticks!”
A lemon stick is nothing more than a large lemon that you slice (either in half or open at one end) and skewer with an old-fashioned, porous peppermint stick. You hold the lemon in your hand and suck on the stick embedded in the citrusy flesh; the lemon juice is pulled up through the porous peppermint, producing a puckery, cooling sensation in your mouth.
In a town where you can’t go a block without seeing a sign claiming “Baltimore’s Best Crab Cakes,” lemon sticks are revered for their rarity. Anybody can make them, but everybody seems content to wait for their annual appearance at the Flowermart, where kids and adults alike stroll around, slurping on their peppermint straws by the hundreds. It’s perhaps the simplest fair food in America.
In this age of jumbo turkey legs, deep-fried candy bars, cheesecake on a stick, and other heart-stopping festival fare, it’s hard to fathom the popularity of the lowly lemon stick. I found myself wondering if it was an anomaly, a holdover from a less caloric age.
So I concluded that the perfect way to find healthy, creative fair food is to hit the often-quirky regional festivals that flourish in nearly every state. Seafood fests, naturally, pop up along the country’s coasts, while farm fairs fill the agricultural regions. Many individual foodstuffs have weekend extravaganzas all their own. And cities and towns across the nation celebrate local cultural traditions, such as barbecue competitions and ethnic festivals.
Summer’s coming up, and I plan to schedule my free time around my region’s food festivals. It’s a package deal, after all: a great day trip that supports local businesses, encourages community connections, and tastes great.
Here’s a list of some of the country’s best-known foodfests.
If you’re in Louisiana in early May, you can hit both the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. Jambalaya, shrimp po’boys, crawfish étouffée, red beans and rice, even alligator pie — all the Delta classics are here. (May)
Held at the Pike Place Market, one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country, the Seattle Cheese Festival features artisanal cheeses from all over the world. Wacky sideshows include barrel-shaped-cheese race. (May)
At the Castroville Artichoke Festival just south of Santa Cruz, California, you can eschew fatty foods altogether in favor of the festival farmers’ market, which features “artichokes and more, fresh from the heart of the salad bowl.” (May)
Just up the road, the Gilroy Garlic Festival draws in locals and out-of-towners alike to celebrate the stinking rose. Lurking amid the waffle cones, sausages, fried calamari, and jalapeño poppers are such pungent treats as escargot in garlic sauce, garlic-dusted kettle corn, and garlic-marinated mushrooms. (July)
Billed as “the original haus party,” Milwaukee’s Germanfest actually takes place on the city’s lakefront. This is the place to strap on the lederhosen and scarf not just bratwurst but schnitzel, sauerkraut, strudel, and spanferkel (whole roasted pig). (July)
Lobsters decorate the state’s license plates, so you know that the major foodfest in Maine has got to be the Maine Lobster Festival. At the 2006 festival, 12 tons of steamed lobster were downed by fairgoers — and that didn’t include the fair’s offerings of shrimp, mussels, and clams. (August)
The healthy pinnacle of foodfests is Los Angeles’ Tofu Festival. Some of soybean confections last year included tofu tacos, tofu ice cream, yakisoba noodles with tofu, “gazpachoesque” chilled tofu soup, and tofu kabobs. (August)
The Urbanna Oyster Festival in Urbanna, Virginia, offers a variety of ways to consume oysters: raw, roasted, fried, smoked, steamed, and in soups and stews. It’s all so tasty, you can easily forget how low in calories and high in zinc oysters are. (November)
Planning way, way, ahead? Try the Poteet Strawberry Festival, held in April in San Antonio. This being Texas, the event includes a barbecue cookoff, but there’s also the Taste of Texas, a cooking contest emphasizing baking. Strawberry shortcake, anyone? (April)
There are hundreds of food festivals out there, and choosing one can be tough. Hit your local bookstore or library and pick up a copy of Food Festivals: Eating Your Way from Coast to Coast, by Barbara W. Carlson; it’s 10 years old, but still a good resource. And the Food Network has online links to every festival profiled on its show “All American Festivals.”
Baltimore-based Rachel Rappaport keeps a food blog called Coconut & Lime.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry