The United States is no longer an agricultural nation, but you wouldn't know it from the way we like to celebrate produce. From sea to shining sea during the summer, we're awash in festivals celebrating the fat of the land.
Garlic, watermelon, lentils, cherries, even the world's biggest mushroom -- if you can grow it, someone has decided to build a party around it. So pack your eatin' pants, and plan a trip to one of our favorite foodie festivals this summer.
National Cherry Festival
Traverse City, Mich.
History: This corner of Michigan is one of the nation's top cherry-growing regions, and locals began celebrating with an informal "blossom blessing" festival almost 100 years ago. The idea took off -- early promoters even baked a 3-foot-wide cherry pie for President Calvin Coolidge -- and the state of Michigan decreed it a national festival in 1931. Except for a few years around World War II, it has been celebrated annually ever since, attracting up to half-million visitors each year.
Eat this: The signature dish is cherry crumb pie, available by the slice or the pie at the event's pie shop. The Cherries D'Vine culinary event features local restaurateurs dishing up dishes featuring cherries, paired with locally produced wines. There's also a Cherries Grand Buffet, featuring cherry-barbecue pulled pork, cherry chicken croissants, coleslaw with cherry vinaigrette and cherry-infused deli sandwiches.
What else to do: Kids can don an apron and chef's cap and make their own miniature cherry crumb pies at the pie shop. Fresh cherries are for sale every day; you can also buy cherry salsa, cherry jam, cherry butter, cherry vinaigrette ... well, you get the idea. There are also pie-eating contests and pit-spitting contests -- last year's champ hocked one almost 50 feet.
Info: www.cherryfestival.org; 800-968-3380.
Marion Popcorn Festival
History: Local business-owners started the festival in 1981 to draw attention to the fact that the farmland around Marion is one of the biggest popcorn-growing areas in the nation. Aiming for a low-cost, family-friendly atmosphere, they decided that entertainment would be free, a tradition that continues to this day. (Blues Traveler and the Kentucky Headhunters are among this year's headliners.)
What to eat: Sweet, salty kettle corn is the biggest seller, probably because it's made fresh on the grounds, and the aroma is irresistible. There's also flavored popcorn in various permutations -- vanilla, blueberry, even licorice -- and the occasional special treat, like last year's popcorn sundae, made of chocolate-covered popcorn, whipped cream and a cherry on top. "It tended to melt VERY quickly, but it was good!" says event publicist Karen Herr.
What else to do: There are five Miss and Ms. Popcorn pageants, featuring contestants from six months to, well, a lot older than that. The recipe contest brings out amateur chefs; entries have included popcorn meatloaf and last year's winner, a caramel-corn apple parfait. You can also tour the town's Wyandot Popcorn Museum, which boasts the largest collection of antique popcorn poppers in the world.
Info: www.popcornfestival.com; 740-387-3378
Gilroy Garlic Festival
History: In 1978, the Italian-American president of the local community college approached a local garlic farm with what was then considered a crazy idea: to celebrate the garlic harvest with a festival raising funds for local charities. The first one, in 1979, attracted 15,000 fairgoers and raised $19,000. Now, the annual event is considered one of the nation's preeminent food festivals and attracts 100,000 happy eaters annually.
Eat this: Garlic is the star, in dishes you'd expect (fried garlic, garlic calamari, garlic fries, garlic-ginger chicken) and many that you wouldn't (garlic kettlecorn, garlic watermelon, garlic frog legs, even garlic chocolate).
What else to do: Top Chef fan favorite Fabio Viviani will perform cooking demos and host the Garlic Showdown, an Iron Chef-style competition featuring four cheftestants and lots of garlic. During the finals of the Great Garlic Cook-off, eight finalists, chosen from more than 800 submissions, will prepare their specialties for a panel of celebrity judges.
Info: www.gilroygarlicfestival.com; 408-842-1625
History: Local folks say they're famous for three things:- native sons Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee, and the world's largest watermelons. So it only made sense to name a festival after one of them. Melons won. Though the town held watermelon fests as far back as the '20s, the modern festival dates to 1977. The town really does hold the record for big melons: A 268.8-pounder was certified as the world's largest in 2005.
Eat this: Ice-cold watermelon, of course. They'll serve more than 22 tons of melons at $1.25 a slice during the three-day run, says Mark Keith, director of the Hope Chamber of Commerce.
What else to do: The various watermelon-eating contests, divided by age, also have a division known as the politically correct watermelon-eating contest, in which local and regional politicians vie for bragging rights. There's a seed-spitting contest, a watermelon auction and a display of large specimens, with 200-pounders fairly common. You can buy a copy of what's thought to be the world's only watermelon cookbook, written by an area woman, Keith says. (Sadly, the Watermelon Olympics, in which all events had to be completed while carrying a watermelon, appear to be on hiatus.)
Info: www.hopemelonfest.com; 800-777-3640.
Humungus Fungus Fest
Crystal Falls, Mich.
History: In 1988, military researchers came across a giant fungus, covering about 38 acres outside Crystal Falls, a town of about 1,800 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A journal article a few years later made it famous -- well, for a fungus. (It even got its own David Letterman Top 10, with facts like "Elvis once had staff try to bulldoze it onto a 40-acre pizza.") In 1992, townspeople decided that it made a good excuse for a party, and they've been throwing one annually ever since.
Eat this: Organizers bake and serve a Humungus Fungus pizza -- at 10 feet by 10 feet, unofficially the world's biggest mushroom pizza.
What else to do: Beyond a mushroom cook-off, most of the events are typical small-town festival stuff: a parade, a softball tournament, a pie social and a street dance. That's partly because you can't actually eat, or even see, the humungous fungus, says Kim Olson, an event organizer. Hidden underground deep in the woods, it does spawn small honey mushrooms, an edible variety, but those don't come out until later in the fall.
National Lentil Festival
History: One-third of the lentils grown in the United States come from this corner of eastern Washington and neighboring northern Idaho. The festival was started in 1989 to raise the profile of both the legume and the region.
Eat this: Vendors in the Lentil Lane Food Court are encouraged to sell dishes featuring lentils, and have come up with such treats as fried noodles with lentils, lentil burritos, even lentil ice cream. (It tasted like spice cake, reports Mary MacDonald of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce.) Organizers cook up about 300 gallons of lentil chili, given away free. Fairgoers can also taste the top six recipes from the Legendary Lentil Cook-off and vote for their favorite; past winners have included lentil-stuffed mushrooms and a lentil-rhubarb crisp.
What else to do: Lentils are the theme of the day, from the 100K bike ride (the Tour de Lentil) to the games in the Lentil Land children's area (a lentil coloring wall, lentil crafts, a lentil sandbox). Lentil beer is even sometimes on tap.
Info: www.lentilfest.com; 800-365-6948
Lenexa Spinach Festival
History: It celebrates Lenexa's 1930s heyday as the Spinach Capital of the World, when a group of Belgian farmers started raising world-class spinach after their other crops had failed. Even though spinach is no longer grown there commercially in large quantities, it became the namesake when the historical society started an annual fundraiser in the early '80s.
What to eat: The on-site Spinach Café sells spinach balls, spinach quiche, Wimpy burgers and spinach salad, but the real showstopper is the World's Largest Spinach Salad, made with 150 pounds of fresh spinach, 12 jars of bacon bits, 100 cloves of garlic and 600 mushrooms, all tossed in a kiddie wading pool.
What else to do: The kids' area is spinach-themed, with a Sweet Pea crawling contest for babies, spinach-can stacking and games like Brutus' Bean Bag Toss; Popeye and Olive Oyl generally make an appearance. On the last day, winners of the recipe contest are announced, illustrating some real culinary creativity. A past winner was spinach coconut chiffon cake, served with spinach ice cream and spinach jus.
Info: www.lenexa.ks.us/parks/spinachfestival.html; 913-477-7100