Summer Lovin' at American Food Festivals

Parades, cook-offs, rides and games: It’s summer food festival season in America.

From the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Calif., to the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich., small towns dotted across the map are preparing for annual festivities. Potato sack races, cherry pit-spitting contests and live bands help raise money for charities and celebrate local pride.

Summer food festivals (search) “are emblematic of America,” said Allison Page, director of programming at the Food Network, which produces shows on the events all over the nation. “It’s a chance to showcase local specialties and regional history and celebrate tradition.”

In the course of these festivals, small towns double or quadruple their populations and come together to present the best features on display.

"We have almost everything a festival can have: amusement rides, a food fair with sweet potato jacks, chicken on a stick," said Kay Mitchell of the Watermelon Festival in Murfreesboro, N.C. "Of course we have North Carolina barbecue and cotton candy. We have free watermelon. We give out thousands of watermelon slices.”

Mitchell, who has lived in Murfreesboro for 20 years, said the alcohol-free festival brings in about $200,000 for local groups like the Rotary Club (search), Chamber of Commerce (search) and the rescue squad. And the town of about 2,500 people hosts 40,000 visitors during the four-day event.

Some of the main attractions at the Watermelon Fest are the Little Mr. and Little Mrs. Farmer contest, where toddlers dress in overalls and straw hats; the North Carolina beach music; and parades, which include floats, antique cars and farm equipment.

“This is really like an old fashioned festival. It’s different from what the cities do,” said Mitchell.

That small-town sense of history is one of the main reasons folks flock to these all-American festivals, according to Page.

“There’s a sense of nostalgia,” she said. “People like the idea of getting back to the way it was — or the way they imagine it was — and see that in these festivals.”

And many of them do have a long history of tradition.

“We are going into our 78th year,” said Susan Wilcox, director of media relations for the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich. “It’s steeped in tradition in the agriculture sense. We are top producers of tart cherries in the world and the festival exposes many different people to the use of cherries, whether it’s an old fashion cherry pie or new fare.”

But for Traverse City, the festival is not just pies and parades. The eight-day festival, one of the largest in the country, represents $25 million for the local economy, according to Wilcox. And it gives directly back by providing a scholarship to the Great Lakes Culinary Institute and an $8,000 college scholarship to one young woman who wins the Cherry Queen contest.

Also, the Cherry Festival, like most food fests, relies on volunteers, added Wilcox.

“[We have] four staff people and 1,200 volunteers. If it wasn’t for the pride and spirit, we wouldn’t have a festival of the same flavor.”

But not every local adores the crowds of tourists and hoopla that accompanies their local festivities.

“I never go. I’ve been there, done that,” said Bill Hahn about the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, Maine.

Hahn, who co-owns The Country Inn nearby in Camden, said he likes some of the bands the festival attracts, but mostly avoids the tents and games.

“I’ll go for music. I don’t go for the lobster — there are other places to [get lobster],” he said. “It’s a nice event — for other folks to come to.”

The Lobster Festival, which has been around for nearly 60 years, serves 24,000 pounds of the seafood during the five days it goes on, according to Bob Hastings, the executive director of the Rockland Chamber of Commerce.

Thought not everyone loves the festivals, plenty of people make participating in their local event a family tradition.

Patti Hale, who had volunteered at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Calif., for 26 years, has three grown children who come back every year to sample goodies like garlic ice cream and stuffed mushrooms. Hale said she started working the festival to help raise money to buy uniforms for the local schools' soccer team.

“That’s why I think the festival is so successful — they are working for someone other than themselves, they are working for charity,” she said. “It’s a community pride thing and a camaraderie you have with people who you might not have met in any other way. You make real good friendships and it helps to build community.”