Love to eat? Then food festivals are a safe bet when it comes to outings you might enjoy. They come with great grub, a sociable atmosphere and usually feature live entertainment and games. While almost every urban center has a food festival that draws tens of thousands of people, there are a number of small towns around the United States where an annual food festival is the biggest area event of the year. Here are five great small-town food festivals that draw crowds from a distance.
5. Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gilroy, California
Garlic gurus from far and wide flock to Gilroy, California, about 30 miles south of San Jose, for the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. The event is held in late July and has been a community anchor event for more than 30 years. The town touts itself as the “Garlic Capital of the World,” thanks to Gilroy Foods, which produces most of the processed garlic used in the U.S. Be sure to check out Gourmet Alley and the Great Garlic Cook-Off, where “Pyro chefs” cook garlic dishes in flaming skillets. Through the years, the Gilroy Garlic Festival has raised roughly $9 million for local charities.
4. Bayfield Apple Festival, Bayfield, Wisconsin
For roughly half a century, the Apple Festival in Bayfield, Wisconsin has been held on the shores of picturesque Lake Superior. Named the state’s best festival, this event drew 50,000 people to its 2010 celebration. Held in early October, the Apple Festival literally has something for everybody. Whether you want to drive out of town for an apple or pumpkin “you-pick” experience, or take one of the boat tours for a break from the crowds, there are plenty of ways to extend the experience. For those who prefer to be in the thick of things, there are a number of street performances, a pie-eating contest, traditional fish boil and a number of apple-themed food booths. If you’re looking for waterfront foodie fun, then Bayfield’s Apple Festival is the place to be.
3. Lexington Barbecue Festival, Lexington, North Carolina
Held on one of the last two Saturdays in October since 1984, the Lexington Barbecue Festival boasts bastions of smoked meat and flavor for more than 100,000 barbecue fans. As any local can tell you, barbecue is taken seriously in North Carolina, and especially in Lexington, which has more than 15 barbecue restaurants and bills itself as the “Barbecue Capital of the World.” Lexington barbecue chefs will be more than happy to explain the difference between “Lexington-style,” barbecue, which is smoked with a tomato-based sauce, and eastern-style North Carolina barbecue, which is made with a vinegar-based sauce. So if you’re hoping to experience barbecue with the experts, this festival will deliver the goods. Besides the food, the Lexington Barbecue Festival features live performances on a number of stages, a sand-sculpture contest, bicycle stunt shows, and a lumberjack competition.
2. Hatch Valley Chile Festival, Hatch, New Mexico
Hatch, New Mexico, proclaims itself the “Chile Capitol of the World,” so what better way to celebrate that title than with an annual festival? Held in early September, the Hatch Valley Chile Festival has drawn as many as 30,000 fans, with many looking to get a taste of the famous Hatch Green Chile. This event is for those who are serious about their spice, but there are other activities as well, including artisan craft displays and a pepper-tossing contest. The village itself is short on hotel accommodations, but surrounding towns such as Las Cruces offer lodging and are within easy driving distance.
1. Maine Lobster Festival, Rockland, Maine
A summer success since 1948, the Maine Lobster Festival has been featured nationally on the Food Network and named one of the top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association. This event in Rockland, Maine, is operated by volunteers with a large share of the proceeds going to a variety of community projects and programs. Held in early August, the Maine Lobster Festival features the expected theme-based activities, highlighted by various lobster dishes. Free shuttle bus service is available from points around town to save on parking stress, and tours of various Coast Guard and Navy vessels are available to the public as well. As a Maine native, I can tell you that Rockland itself is a precious little town. Located on the Maine coast, you’ll be able to enjoy breezes, boats and plenty of seaside charm for your driving efforts. This festival is definitely worth checking out.
One More: World Chicken Festival, London, Kentucky
Voted one of the top 20 events by the Southeast Tourism Society and best festival in the state by Kentucky Monthly Magazine, Laurel County’s World Chicken Festival celebrates the heritage of two famous chicken legends. Lee Cummings, co-founder of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, and Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken both got their start in Laurel County in the 1940s and 1950s. Laurel County is located in the heart of Daniel Boone National Forest, which provides a natural backdrop for the event.
Colonel Sanders’ original 1940 café has been restored, including the kitchen. Visitors to the World Chicken Festival can experience exactly what it was like to dine at the Harland Sanders Café “back in the day.” Other festival attractions include an antique car show, the world’s largest skillet and a variety of rides and games. The festival is held on the last full weekend of every September in London, Kentucky.