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Food Festivals Worth a Visit (and those to avoid) (long)

First, I want to clarify. I'm not a big fan of fairs and festivals where onion blossoms, corn dogs, and funnel cakes are front and center, although those foods (occasionally) have a time and place.

I'm interested in festivals you've attended where a certain food was glorified in a chowworthy way, front and center, where you came away having learned something, and tasted something new to you. Also, please let everyone know if you went to a festival that seemed like it ought to be a glorification of a particular food, but sorely disappointed you.

My two:
Carmel California - the tomato festival each September. We went in 2001 and had a wonderful time. Then, it was $75 pp, and what you got was 50 local chefs putting together a tomato-based dish, an olive oil tasting and a salsa tasting (featuring maybe 30 each), but best of all, an enormous table made of 4 large party tables set in a square with approximately 200 varieties of heirloom tomatos, diced, for everyone's tasting pleasure. Obviously, there were plenty of tomatoes and seeds to buy, and at the end, there was a free for all for the imposing specimens of each heirloom that sat atop a pedestal next to their diced up relations, so that we could see how striking these tomatoes were. Clint Eastwood was there, emcee'ing some contest that I've forgotten about. And many of the chefs ran out of slittle dishes long before the event ended. But that tomato tasting table was worth the admission price by itself. A wonderful event for anyone who loves tomatoes.

Oxnard, California - strawberry festival. This is not new information for the southern Cal hounds who have been, but the strawberry hangs its head in shame at the thought of this festival. Sure, you can buy strawberries, some amount of strawberry shortcake, and some strawberry mocha shakes (not a great combination), but there is no reverence here for the fruit. It is a typical fair, with big inflatable slides for the kids, impossible parking, and the smell of frying grease. I'll pay my respects to the strawberry at the local farmer's markets in early summer, when several different varieties of strawberries and fresh strawberry juice are available.

Anyone else? Who's been to the garlic and artichoke festivals? There must be some great stuff in other parts of the country as well.

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  1. Whatever you do, do NOT go to the Brentwood corn festival. It was the most depressing fair I've ever been to and I felt so guilty for dragging my family to it. It was like a tacky county fair, with rides, junk food, and bad music. The park was very hot, with no shade. The only corn in evidence was some corn on the cob for sale. Awful! Years ago I went to the Stockton asparagus festival. At least there was plenty of asparagus, including a shortcake. (Eww) However, I woudn't go out of my way for it.

    1. I went to the Garlic Festival! My first food festival ever. Great fun for its sheer ridiculousness. So amusing to see everyone so worked up about garlic. It was definitely worth the trip for the delicious garlic ice cream!

      Though I must admit I was a little disappointed because I expected a lot more sampling to be going on, and less selling (i.e. I ended up only having a sandwich that wasn't anything special -- could barely taste the garlic -- and the ice cream there because I was so stuffed. And I wasn't about to buy random bottles of garlic oil and other random products because it would get pretty expensive)

      All in all, a memorable experience for someone who loves garlic. I wouldn't recommend making a pilgrimage there if you're coming from far away, but if you're around the Bay Area (as I was) it's worth stopping in one summer!

      5 Replies
      1. re: amandine

        I also have exactly the same sentiment about the Garlic Fest... like most fairs/festivals, the food they did have was pretty pricey but imho not great -- especially the $5 for a "bowl" of escargot: 5 puny escargot drowned in butter/oil and buried under a mound of "garlic" mushrooms.

        1. re: amandine

          For, oh, the last twenty years or so, the local wisdom has been that the Garlic Festival is to be avoided because it's so mobbed.

          1. re: Sharuf

            "Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded."

            --Yogi Berra

          2. re: amandine

            I believe there is more than one garlic festival... Is this in the US? What state and town?
            thanks

            1. re: val ann c

              It's in Gilroy, CA. That's sort of inland from Monterey/Carmel, south of SF.

          3. When we lived in New Orleans we found many of the local food festivals to be disappointing, much to our surprise. For example, there was no andouille to be purchased at the Andouille Festival in La Place; there was some jambalaya and gumbo supposedly containing andouille but neither was very good and said andouille was nearly undetectable. The Gumbo Festival in Bridge City offered up a couple of kinds of watery, not very tasty gumbo. The Alligator Festival did feature a few things made with alligator, such as deep fried chunks and alligator sausage, but nothing memorable, and besides, wouldn't you think they'd have a real alligator or two at an alligator festival?

            On the positive side, we always heard that the World Champion Gumbo Cookoff that the Tabasco folks hold in New Iberia is really good, but never made it there. One that we did enjoy was the Cracklin' Festival in Port Barre -- lots of pork cracklins to sample: http://www.tabasco.com/taste_tent/fes...

            Hungry Celeste's family is involved in a festival held around this time of year in the Lafitte/LaRose area that was much better than average, food-wise. http://mobiletel2.mobiletel.com/~bayo...
            Celeste? Chime in here.

            Sarah C

            1. The LA Tofu festival was kind of fun, just for the emphasis on tofu. Last year (I didn't go this year) the food was divided into 3 camps - Japanese, health-foodish and commercial, and of the 3, the Japanese section was by far the best. Not much ambience - a big parking lot - and kinda pricey, but I wanted to go once to say I had done it.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Snackish

                We missed this year's too, but last year very much enjoyed the great variety of foods available, some stunningly cheap. Aside from finding out how many ways you can make tofu taste really good, the high point for me was the eel! I could've just sat down and let them feed me that all afternoon, especially as Mrs. O and I seemed to be among only a few people who were enthusiastic about it.

                I am amazed that I've never gotten to the Garlic Festival, especially as I lived practically next door to it in its early days - I mean, that's my favorite vegetable! I will have to correct that omission one of these years.

              2. I went to the Carmel Tomato Festival in 2004, and I'm sorry to report that it was a bust: while 2 chefs had memorable food, the lines were so long that we hardly got to sample very much else of note, and the square tomato table was so mobbed that we only got to sample half of them (and we got there early!). I think they grossly oversold tickets, despite what they claimed.

                The Garlic Festival is too expensive, too crowded, too hot, the food too over-rated, and bands pathetic. All my friends like it, though - go figure.

                This is not a festival, but I love the Thursday night Farmer's Market in San Luis Obispo. Great BBQ at good prices, free admission and music, friendly people, nice weather and town. I wish more places would do that (although Sunnyvale, CA has a summertime Wed night Farmer's Mkt and free music that come close).

                1 Reply
                1. re: Claudette

                  12 Bucks for the Gilroy Garlic Festival is too expensive but $75 for the Carmel tomato festival isn't?

                2. I also went to the Carmel tomato festival in 2001 - first and only time, but only because we moved to Oregon shortly after that. We had a blast, the tomatoes were fabulous, seeing Clint Eastwood was fun. I am sorry to hear it wasn't as good after that. I hope it'll be back to its former glory at some point, as I'd love to go again.

                  1. The garlic event has been renamed the Gilroy Budweiser and Parking Festival.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      LOL!

                      And isn't it usually held during the middle of a heat wave! Amazing how they can coordinate with the weather that way!

                    2. We went to the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastapol this year (usually held the second or third weekend in August) and it was well woth the 4 hour round trip drive. Given the abbreviated season of Gravensteins, it's a good way to get your fill before they're all gone. It's definitley has a folksy, down home vibe to it; no annoying entertainment or carnival rides-just farmers, local wineries offering tastings, local artists offering unique handcrafted items (i.e., no junk), and lots of apples. They even had a apple pie eating contest! It was fun and we'll do it again next year. I'll take that over Apple Hill on the weekend anyday.

                      1. Wellfleet Oysterfest, Essex Clamfest - both in MA

                        1. LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival in Southwest Florida is good... all about hearts of palm and my fave recipe is 'swamp cabbage' cooked (somehow) in cream (and water) with white pepper and 'white bacon' (salt pork, I believe).