10 Bizarre Food Festivals Around The United States

While you’ll find no shortage of ethnic food festivals, craft beer shows and wine tasting events around the United States, sometimes it can be fun to do something a little out of the ordinary. For a bizarre yet delicious experience, attend these wacky food festivals around the country. Want to make your trip extra quirky? Add some of these roadside attractions to the itinerary, as well.

Waikiki Spam Jam
Waikiki, Hawaii

Who wouldn’t want to take part in a celebration dedicated to canned meats? Judging by the 20,000+ attendees each year, it seems like there are quite a bit of dedicated Spam-lovers out there. Visitors can enjoy Spam burgers and Spam fried rice, as well as purchase Spam T-shirts and watch Spam dancers and Spam theater productions. While the festival is a bit unusual, it actually has some historical significance, as during WWII meats were in short supply, forcing Hawaiians to grow a love for Spam. In fact, according to Waikiki Spam Jam, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else in the world. The fun festival also helps those in need, as money from the event is donated to the Hawaii Food Bank. Don’t be upset if you missed the 2012 edition, as you can start planning a trip to Hawaii to coincide with the 2013 festival on Saturday, April 27. Additionally, you can follow Waikiki Spam Jam on Facebook and Twitter.Yuma Lettuce Days
Yuma, Arizona

Vegetarians and healthy eaters will love this festival, which celebrates locally grown produce and agriculture. Yuma Lettuce Days is an annual event that takes place each March, combining education, entertainment and a lot of vegetables. While the festival’s name makes it sound a bit bland, there are actually many exciting experiences to be found, like interactive salad bars, harvest dinners, wine and microbrew tastings, the world’s largest salad, a homegrown cooking contest, lettuce sculptures, cabbage bowling and more. You can attend next year’s festival from March 8 to 10, 2013.

Telluride, Colorado

This mushroom-centric festival features four full days of shroom-themed activities. Their mission is “to educate citizens, both visitor and local alike, about the many incredible aspects of the amazing world of mycology.” Attendees can immerse themselves in mushroom forages, fungal lectures, live music in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and, of course, live cooking demos and mushroom-infused meals. Shroomfest is an annual tradition, and this year from August 16 to 19 will mark the event’s 32nd year.

Cheese Curd Festival
Ellsworth, Wisconsin

Ellsworth is the “cheese curd capital” of Wisconsin, so of course, it is only logical to hold their annual Cheese Curd Festival there. Celebrated every year since 1984, the festival boasts 6,000+ visitors each year. The focus of the event is the curd eating contest, where kids and adults race in heats to shove either a quarter or half pound of cheese curds down their throats. The prize? Ten dollars and a trophy. Attendees can also enjoy live music, fun runs, crafts, games and more. If you’re interested in indulging in some cheese curd goodness, the 25th annual Cheese Curd Festival will be held May 31 to June 3, 2013.

The International Rutabaga Curling World Championship
Ithaca, New York

The International Rutabaga Curling World Championship may sound bizarre, but it’s an annual tradition that marks the end of the market season in Ithaca. Attendees can see the offbeat sport as well as hear the melodic rutabaga choir. The town has been playing with rutabagas since 1996, although the first official Rutabaga Curl was in 1998. Moreover, around December when the event takes place, rutabagas are the only vegetable left in the market. And, nobody wants to eat them.

Turkey Testicle Festival
Huntley, Illinois

What started over 30 years ago as a joke has blossomed into one of the most traditional yet oddest festivals in the United States. The Turkey Testicle Festival is not a play on words, but actually cerebrates the nether region of the turkey. Around Thanksgiving each year, people flock to Parkside Pub to chow down on batter-fried turkey testicles while enjoying cold beers and live music. The event boasts 4,000+ attendees, as the pub makes over 1,000 pounds of turkey testicles each year. Moreover, the $10 admission charged at the door goes to helping local charities.

Bug Fest
Raleigh, North Carolina

Put on by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, BugFest is all about educating and fascinating. While there are presentations, roach races, Q&As, street fairs and exhibits, the “main course” of the event is Café Insecta, where visitors get their own taste of entomophagy. All dishes feature bug-infused recipes created by local chefs, so you’ll be helping the community while also heightening your sense of adventure.

Roadkill Cook-Off
Marlinton, West Virginia

Before you start gagging, know you won’t be seeing any tire marks on your meal. This food festival focuses on wild game like deer, possum, squirrel, raccoon and other animals that are commonly squashed by cars. Some example entrees from past years include “Biscuits and Squirrel Gravy,” “Pulled BamBiTo under Saboogo,” “Deer on a Stick” and “Rigor Mortis Bear Stew.” The event takes place annually in September, with this year’s Roadkill Cook-Off being held on September 29, 2012. Some highlights will include a Possum Trot 5k, a welcome ceremony of Mr. and Mrs. West Virginia Roadkill (elected at a prior pageant), tasting and judging of roadkill recipes, harvest games, a dog show and more. Click here for the full schedule.

RC Cola And Moonpie Festival
Bell Buckle, Tennessee

The RC Cola and Moonpie Festival happens annually on the third Saturday in June. Here you’ll find a craft fair, 10-mile run, bluegrass music, and clog dancers, as well as quirkier fare like deep fried Moon Pies, the cutting of the world’s largest Moon Pie, parades featuring people dressed up as RC Colas and Moon Pies, a Moon Pie toss, a watermelon seed spitting contests, a “Moon Pie Song Contest” and an RC dash where runners balance a full soda can on their heads.

Testicle Festival
Clinton, Montana

While Illinois celebrates turkey testicles, Montana honors the balls of the bull. Also known as “cowboy caviar,” attendees can order the delicacy fried, boiled, sauteed or even raw. Held at the Rock Creed Lodge, the Testicle Festival draws over 15,000 people and requires over 2.5 tons of bull balls for a weekend of bizarre food fare, as well as crazy partying and debauchery. Quirky happenings include a bull-chip throwing contest, wet T-shirt and hairy chest competitions and even a game of bingo that involves a bull defecating on the game card. If you end up drinking a little too much of the event’s signature beer, Bull Snort Brew, party-goers can camp at the lodge or take the free shuttle. You’ll have so much fun attending this event, you may leave drunkenly babbling their motto: “I had a ball at the Testicle Festival.”

[images via madmarv00, Visit Telluride, audreyjm529]

Cheese festival season has sprung: the best in the West

Spring, as they say, has sprung. In farmstead and artisan cheese parlance, that means pastures are currently abound with calves, lambs, and kids (of the goat variety), and the first milk of the season is in. That’s why March is the kickoff month for cheese festivals, especially on the West Coast because of its more mild climate. The following just happen to be some of the nation’s best.

8th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival, March 17
Hosted by the Oregon Cheese Guild and Rogue Creamery, this much-loved event features dozens of cheese, beer, and wine makers. General admission is minimal, the sampling is free, and the vibe is laid-back. The festival is held at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, just outside of Ashland in southern Oregon. It possesses the vibe of a giant farmers market, with all of the vendors gathered beneath a giant tent. Events include a “Meet the Cheesemakers” dinner (held the night before), seminars, and tastings, including chocolate and cider.California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-25
What better place for a California cheese festival than wine country? CACF is held every March in Petaluma (located in Sonoma County, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco) and draws over 2,000 attendees who come to taste cheeses from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rockies. Sign up now to get in on local creamery tours, special lunches, and educational seminars.

On April 7, the inaugural Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival will take place in Seattle. In addition to cheesemakers from across the state, expect Washington food artisans, craft beer and cider producers, and winemakers. The event is a benefit for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to local food security.

Can’t make the festival circuit? Try taking a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which is focused solely on classes and tasting events for professionals and caseophiles alike. With an ongoing curriculum of classes taught by industry professionals, offerings may include everything from “Mozzarella Making” and “Craft Brews & Artisan Beers,” to “Sheep & Syrah” and “Springtime Cheeses and Loire Valley Wines.” This is the place geek out on dairy.

Admittedly, this video isn’t from a cheesemaker in the western U.S.; it comes from renown Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. But it’s an excellent short clip on how cheese goes from cow to cheese case. Should you be fortunate enough to find Harbison at your local cheese shop, I strongly recommend you pounce upon it, because it’s simply dreamy.

[Photo credit: Kate Arding]

Got goat? A cultural exploration of the other red meat

There are goat people, and then there…aren’t. We’re like dog people, except we can’t carry the objects of our obsession in our purse. There aren’t city parks dedicated to goats.

I grew up with goats because my brother and I raised them for 4-H. When we got our first dairy goat in the mid-’70’s, my mom tapped her inner hippie, experimenting with making yogurt from the prodigious amounts of milk produced by our doe. And while no one in my family could be accused of squeamishness, it was an unspoken rule we’d never use our goats for meat. Although my mom claims it was because she preferred to donate the young bucks to Heifer Project International, I now realize she just didn’t want to see those adorable little kids sizzling on our grill.

Now that I’m older and more gluttonous, I know that goat makes for some fine eating, whether it’s mild, milky-tasting suckling kid, or adult animals cooked down into flavorful braises (think think less gamey mutton). Yet, while a staple in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of Europe, goat has never been popular in the United States outside of specific ethnic communities.

In the last decade, however, goat has been getting more respect. Small goat ranches sell meat at select farmers markets nationwide, and amongst culinary cognoscenti goat is all the rage at select, locally-focused butcher shops and high-end restaurants. I’ve noted that goat as a mainstream ingredient is most popular in the Bay Area–something I attribute to the large Hispanic population, the sheer number of farmers markets, and the willingness amongst chefs, ranchers, and consumers to try new things. Ditto in New York, where goat was once reserved for divey ethnic restaurants of the outer boroughs.

Some chefs, like former “Top Chef” Season four winner/2011 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Stephanie Izard, owner of Chicago’s The Girl & The Goat, prominently feature caprine preparations on their menus, even if most of their colleagues eschew it (fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless, Mexican cuisine guru/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco also uses goat). Jonathon Sawyer, another “Best New Chef” alum (2010; The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland), is also a fan of goat, and utilizes meat from nearby Cuyahoga Valley.

Why is goat meat so prevalent in other cultures, but not our own? Or, as popular TV host/chef Andrew Zimmern puts it: “Goat is like soccer: it plays well everywhere else in the world but the U.S..”

[Photo credit: Flicker user onkel_wart]The reason is that goat is one of the most widely (and oldest) domesticated animals in the world. They thrive in harsh environments, on sparse vegetation, so they’re easy, inexpensive keepers. They’re small, nimble, highly intelligent, and fairly disease-resistant, and are thus lower maintenance than cows or sheep. They provide an ample supply of milk–which can then be sold as cheese, yogurt, or butter–and they’re also a source of skin, fuel (their dung), and meat. There are specific breeds meant for meat (the Boer, for example) or dairy (the prolific Nubian), but most animals in the developing world are multi-use, or serve several functions in their lifespan. Once they can no longer bear kids and produce milk, they become a source of food and hide.

Despite the widespread consumption of goat, they’re also a symbol of status and pride for the millions of nomadic peoples worldwide.The more goats (or other livestock) one has, the more affluent one is. These animals are also treated as members of the family, sharing living quarters and often treated almost as pets. Yet their purpose in life is always at the forefront: to provide sustenance and income for the family and community.

As Americans, we tend to anthropomorphize animals, even the ones we eat (think “Babe,” Charlotte’s Web, and the prevalence of cute little lambs on baby clothes). Goats get a bad rap in this country, due in part to their mythological and biblical associations with the underworld or Satan. They’re supposedly smelly, mean, and will eat the clothes off your back given half a chance.

Allow me to clarify. Goats are actually very tidy animals, although uncastrated bucks most definitely stink beyond description. As for their legendary appetite, goats are innately curious by nature, because they’re intelligent. Thus, they tend to nibble, and yes, sometimes your clothing (or, if you’re a journalist, your notes) might be included. But tin cans, nails, and humans are not in their repertoire. The reason goats are widely used for brush and fire control is their ability to eat and digest brambles and other tough plants most ruminants are unable to tolerate. As for their ornery reputation, goats–being very bright–can have personality clashes with some people (usually those who dislike them).

“Goat is Great”
In June, I watched Zimmern do a seminar and cooking demo called “Goat is Great” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The three-day festival of eating and drinking is full of talks, tastings, and demos celebrating the glory of pork, rum, budget and collector wines, and cooking with animal fat, but this is the first time goat has made the itinerary. Naturally, I was first in line.

Zimmern, who is far less goofy and more edgy and endearing in person, began his talk by touting the glories of goat. Not only is it healthy (high protein, and leaner and lower in cholesterol than beef or lamb), it’s affordable, versatile–he frequently substitutes it for lamb–and sustainable, because it’s not factory farmed. “To the degree that we eat more goat, and only a little fish, we slow the impact of factory farms’ pressure on the environment,” Zimmern explained. The best way to find goat is to request it. “Ask your butcher to carry it. Start telling your local farmers markets that you’d like to see it. You’d be amazed at what’s growing and being raised near your town.”

We watched Zimmern whip up three different preparations of goat, based upon dishes he’s eaten on his travels. The first was a tartare, a contemporary riff on a traditional Ethiopian dish, tere sega, which is usually made with raw beef. He seasoned the meat with crushed berbere (a spice mixture of chile and spices), egg yolk, lemon juice, minced shallots, chopped celery leaves, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, and minced caper.

Next, we watched rock star butcher Josh Applestone of New York’s Fleischer’s Meats break down a goat carcass in record time, to provide Zimmern with some cuts and offal for his remaining dishes (FYI, Fleischer’s does not carry goat at either of its locations, and based on the tone of the employee I spoke with, they’re really sick of being asked this question).

Zimmern also featured an Italian red wine-braised goat shoulder, before ending things with a globally beloved dish: meat on a stick. “All over the world I’ve eaten skewered goat,” he said, before demonstrating a Tunisian twist on Italian spiedini, or kebabs. He marinated chunks of meat, liver, and kidneys in garlic, olive oil, and homemade harissa (a Tunisian chile paste) before grilling them and finishing the dish with lemon juice and parsley.

Where to get goat
Ethnic (Hispanic, African, and Caribbean) and halal markets and butcher shops
Farmers markets
Butcher shops that emphasize local sourcing and humane livestock management

What to do with your goaty offerings? Here’s some tips: throw shoulder cuts on the grill, pan fry chops, and braise shank, riblets, and leg steaks. Bear in mind that goat (especially kid) is lower in fat than most meats, so be careful not to overcook it if you’re barbecuing or using other dry-cooking methods.

[Photo credits: Berber, Laurel Miller; carcasses, Flickr user Mr. Fink’s Finest Photos; heads, Flickr user Royal Olive]