Take your taste buds on a tour of Arkansas’ food festivals.
[dropcap]Anyone[/dropcap] who’s ever gnawed on a turkey leg in the middle of the State Fair midway knows this truth: Good food tastes even better when there’s a party going on.
We love to celebrate our food in Arkansas, and for good reason. Whatever our state’s shortcomings in other areas, we do food well, really well, especially in the summer. Just about every warm-weather weekend you can find a food festival somewhere in the state.
We’ll start our tour in Warren, where up to 40,000 people are expected to attend the 60th annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, a nine-day affair that will take place June 10 and 11 in downtown Warren. Technically, the main attraction of the festival is its namesake — which, under the fancier moniker South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato, is both the official vegetable and the official fruit of Arkansas. But if you go, keep an eye out for Joel Tolefree, executive director of the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce. He’s got a bottomless well of stories, and a natural knack for telling them.
This year, he said, festival planners got in an argument right off the bat over whether the 60th anniversary or the 75th is considered the diamond anniversary. After consulting a number of websites and etiquette books, they ultimately concluded it could be either, and declared this year to be the festival’s Diamond Jubilee.
“If before you even get yourself out there, you start a controversy like that, you know it’s going to be a big year,” he joked.
The festival’s main events include carnival rides, a parade, several beauty pageants, live music, a street dance, celebrity and non-celebrity tomato eating contests, a fireworks display, and the All-Tomato Luncheon. The luncheon is considered a must-attend event among state politicians, especially in an election year, Tolefree said.
And occasionally, those politicians just might take part in the celebrity tomato-eating contest.
“Pres. Bill Clinton came down one time and he ate so hard he messed his shirt up,” Tolefree said. “We had to open a local clothier to get him a new shirt.”
You’ll have a full two weeks to recover from the tomato festival before the PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race on June 25 in Emerson, a town of 368, about 12 miles south of Magnolia. And you’ll need it — to be in top shape for the pea-shelling contest, to have room in your belly for a plate of purple hull peas, and to be alert enough not to miss the tiller racers as they zoom down the 200-foot racetrack.
“It’s one of those things that should be on everybody’s bucket list,” Bill Dailey, the festival’s official “pea-r” guy, said of the tiller race. “It’s phenomenal.”
That same weekend in the opposite corner of the state, you can enjoy the best of Northwest Arkansas’s thriving restaurant and brewery scene at Bite, a two-day food festival at the Wal-Mart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers. It’s part of a weeklong series of events surrounding the Wal-Mart NWA Championship LPGA tournament. It starts June 23 with Taste of the Town, featuring creations from more than two dozen of the region’s top chefs. The Northwest Arkansas Beer and Burger Fest follows on June 24. It’s billed as a “traditional beer fest with a burger twist,” featuring regional craft beers. Admission is $30 nightly and $50 per couple.
July brings peaches, the most glorious of fruit, and with them the Johnson County Peach Festival in Clarksville. This year’s festival, set for July 21 through 23 in the Clarksville court square, includes eating contests for both plain peaches and peach pie, as well as peach cobbler, jam and jelly making contests. If that’s not attraction enough, there’ll also be live entertainment, a street dance, helicopter tours, a diaper derby, bicycle obstacle course, a scavenger hunt, a cardboard boat regatta, other assorted hijinks, and a banana split contest. Oh, and a 4-mile run to help work it all off. For more information, call 479.754.9152.
And now on to watermelon, the fruit so nice we celebrate it twice. Cave City and Hope will both fete their famous melons Aug. 11 through 13, so unless you’re really ambitious, you’ll have to choose.
The schedule for the 2016 Cave City Watermelon Festival wasn’t available at press time, but last year’s events at the city park included a classic car show, a kids’ fishing derby, watermelon eating and seed-spitting contests, a dog show and watermelon-themed games.
The Oak Ridge Boys will headline the 2016 Hope Watermelon Festival. You’ll have to buy tickets to the Saturday night concert, but there’s no charge for the rest of the festivities: watermelon eating and seed-spitting contests, arts and crafts booths, a classic car show, a 5K run, and other live music. You can even compete in the Watermelon Idol contest for a chance to perform at the festival.
Grapes — and, more specifically, what grapes turn into when they’re juiced and fermented — get their due at two festivals as well. The Altus Grape Festival, July 29 through 30 at the Altus city park, features grape-stomping competitions both days, an amateur winemaking competition July 30, a juried arts and crafts show, food and entertainment.
The Tontitown Grape Festival, sponsored by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is known as much for its spaghetti dinners as for the grapes; both are nods to the Northwest Arkansas town’s Italian heritage. You can also enjoy carnival rides, arts and crafts, live music, a grape stomp and even grape ice cream. This year’s festival, the 118th, is set for Aug. 9 through 13 on Hwy. 412 in Tontitown.
Barbecue lovers can get their fix at the Delta Smoke BBQ June 9 through 11 in Wynne, which also includes live music, an auto show, a fishing rodeo and other events citywide.
Check out these other food festivals taking place around Arkansas.
Pioneer Days Dutch Oven Cook Off is set for May 6 in Melbourne. Teams will compete to cook the best main dishes, desserts and breads. You’ll find more information at mymelbournearkansas.com.
Farm to Table Weekend featuring Ozark heritage foods, workshops and classes, takes place June 17 through 18 at the Ozark Folk Center. For more information, log on to ozarkfolkcenter.com.
The Sticky Fingers BBQ Cookoff is set for Sept. 10 in Fordyce. For more information, visit the contest’s Facebook page at facebook.com/stickyfingersbbqcookoff.
The fifth annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival is set for Oct. 29 on South Main Street in downtown Little Rock. For more information, log on to arkansascornbreadfestival.com.
The date and location for the popular World Cheese Dip Championship, held in Little Rock each October, haven’t been announced yet, but you can check for updates at the festival’s website cheesedip.net.