How does a bowl of seafood gumbo thickened with okra or a plate of cornmeal-encrusted fried catfish sound? Or a pulled pork barbecue sandwich and a slice of peanut butter pie? If your mouth isn’t watering and your lips aren’t yet smacking, then how about some cheese grits, speckled butterbean succotash, peach preserves and buttermilk biscuits smothered in sorghum?
Loosen your belt and get ready to eat local. There’s no better way to celebrate Alabama’s bounty and down-home culinary traditions than at its many gut-busting, high-spirited food festivals. So mark your calendar to eat your way across the state all year sampling the best each locality has to offer — from chicken and eggs on a stick in Moulton to prize-winning sweet potato pies made by a 96-year-old woman in Lowndes County.
Southern food is hip these days, and, as Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell notes, food festivals strengthen a community’s identity. “Our state has so many wonderful food products that it makes sense to promote what is best about each region. Whether a town celebrates pecans, fried chicken, barbecue or seafood, it works.”
Here’s a look at six of Alabama’s annual food festivals.
Syrup Sopping Day
On Syrup Sopping Day, held every fall since 1972, the tiny historic town of Loachapoka, located 10 miles west of Auburn, swells to about 15, 000 people. The crowds come to the admission-free event to savor the fine-tasting syrup locals make from sorghum and ribbon cane.
They start serving at 5 a.m., so arrive early if you want to be sure to get a homemade biscuit to sop up hot syrup. But don’t fret if you get there after the roosters crow. There are plenty of stands selling sorghum for you to enjoy at home. Jars of locally made jams and honey also are for sale.
Sorghum fans insist that molasses pales by comparison. Sugar was scarce during the Civil War, so sorghum became a popular substitute. Like sugarcane, sorghum grows in stalks that are pressed to produce a juice that is cooked to make rich syrup that’s milder than molasses. There are two mills on the festival grounds where you can watch mules turning the machines that grind the juice from the cane and then watch as the juice is cooked into syrup.
Located just across the road at the Lee County Historical Society Fair, you’ll also find a mix of dulcimer and banjo music, local foods and demonstrations by blacksmiths, weavers and other artisans.
At the first of the year, check syrupsopping.org for the 2013 festival date in October or November.
Alabama Chicken and Egg Festival
Come hungry to the Alabama Chicken and Egg Festival in Moulton and be ready to eat chicken. It may be chicken stew, chicken tacos, pulled barbecue chicken or grilled chicken sausage po’boys—but it will be chicken, the only meat served.
The Alabama Tourism Department named this festival one of the 25 top food events in celebration of the 2012 Year of Alabama Food.
Alabama ranks second in the nation for broilers (chickens bred for meat) and for eggs used in hatcheries, and Lawrence County is eighth in the state for producing broilers. “We’re not the largest poultry producer in the state, but we want to celebrate our state farmers who produce chicken and eggs, ” says event coordinator Vicki Morese. Proceeds fund the Lawrence County Arts Council.
The celebration includes chicken wing and hardboiled egg eating contests, an egg toss, chicken clucking contest, egg roulette and a Little Chick pageant. Alabama schools compete at packing eggs so they won’t break when dropped. And the “Chicken Whisperer” gives tips on raising backyard chickens, a growing trend. Featured musicians at the 2013 festival will include several who have recorded at Muscle Shoals.
More than 100 birds are expected for the Fancy Poultry Show, sanctioned by the American Poultry Association. “It’s actually similar to the Westminster Dog Show, ” Morese says. “The chickens are so unique, one looks like a little fuzzy dog.”
The 2013 festival is April 12-14. For more information, visit alabamachickenandeggfestival.com
Alabama’s parched summer of 2000 was tough on crops, and few survived except okra. That’s the year Barbara Evans and her Burkville neighbors started the Okra Festival as a tribute to the hardy, flowering plant. The festival also was a way to promote the food, music and art of Lowndes County. “Around here okra grows in everyone’s garden, ” says Evans, “and some say it’s sweetest in Lowndes.”
It started as a neighborhood party and still is, even though last year’s festival attracted nearly 5, 000 people. The festival is held on Evans’ property and her neighbor’s across the street. “Its charm is that it’s so intimate, ” Evans says. “I’ve been told it feels like a family picnic.”
Only residents of Lowndes County are allowed to sell food at the event. The festival is free, and there are no vendor fees “to give the little guys confidence to sell their items, ” Evans adds. Okra stars in food booths, with gumbo, okra pie, okra casseroles, cornbread with okra, okra wrapped in bacon and the ever popular pickled okra are available. You also can sample fruit preserves, pig ear sandwiches, succotash, fried fish, fried chicken, sweet potato pie and homemade ice cream.
Being in the heart of the Black Belt region, Evans hires local blues musicians to perform. The arts and craft items sold also are true to the region like dried sweet potato jewelry, dried okra Christmas ornaments and wisteria vine baskets.
The 2013 Okra Festival will be Aug. 31. For more information visit okrafestival.org
Wine Festival at Five Rivers
If your idea of a delightful evening is sipping a fine tawny port and nibbling on cheese truffles as the sun sets over the Delta, then keep Mobile’s Wine Festival at Five Rivers in mind next year.
Held at Five Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, proceeds fund the agency’s service center, which provides emergency aid to individuals in need. General admission is $50, or pay $75 and get a one-hour premium tasting of wines priced at $50 and up. General admission provides a tasting of 60 to 70 domestic and international wines — from Napa Valley and Martha’s Vineyard to France and the Andes Mountains.
Food, provided by local, independent restaurants, may be a specialty of the house, like Chappy’s crab bisque, or it may be chosen for its wine-pairing character, like Naman’s feta cheese truffles rolled in pistachios.
Cruises are available to enjoy the Delta from the water. Local musician Phil Proctor provides acoustic guitar. The 2013 Wine Festival at Five Rivers is tentatively set for Oct. 17. Check winefestivalat5rivers.com and learn more about the festival.
Peanut Butter Festival
Peanut butter and jelly may be the classic combo, but if you’re game for crazier pairings, the Peanut Butter Festival in downtown Brundidge is just the place. Try your peanut butter with pimento cheese, baloney or dill pickles. For something sweet there’s peanut butter pie, cakes, cookies, brittle and cupcakes.
For more than two decades, the small south Alabama community has been honoring its peanut butter processing heritage with its Peanut Butter Festival. The first peanut butter mill opened in Brundidge in 1929, said to be the first commercial peanut butter mill in the Southeast, and once shipping more than 2 million jars annually.
Although the town no longer produces peanut butter, one of the mills is now a museum.
What’s considered the world’s largest peanut butter and jelly sandwich is constructed at the festival. It’s 55-feet long, but to be eligible for the Guinness World Record it must be made from a single piece of bread. Festival organizers say they’re working on it.
There’s a peanut butter recipe contest (with samples of the entries given out), a Nutter Butter Parade, bluegrass music, nighttime square dancing and exhibits of farm equipment.
The 2013 Peanut Butter Festival is Oct. 26. For more information, visit piddle.org
National Shrimp Festival
Shrimp is America’s favorite seafood, and we like it grilled, boiled, sautéed, fried and any other way we can serve up the delectable crustacean. One of Alabama’s largest and longest running food festivals is the National Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores, which celebrates coastal Alabama’s prized Gulf shrimp.
The festival’s food boardwalk is a shrimp lover’s paradise. Sample coconut shrimp, basil shrimp, shrimp kabob, shrimp tacos, shrimp pistolette, shrimp étouffée and blackened shrimp, or try conch fritters, crab cakes, soft shell crab, calamari, scallops, muscles, grouper, lobster and crawfish.
After you’ve filled up on shrimp, wander over to the two stages to hear continuous live music. Take your kids to the children’s activity area and get creative at the sand sculpture contest, which is open to all ages. Chefs from area restaurants participate in a recipe competition, creating a dish using Alabama wild Gulf shrimp.
About 250, 000 people attend the four-day event, organized by the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce, and supporting the chamber and local public schools. The 42nd National Shrimp Festival will be Oct. 10-13, 2013. Admission is free. For more information, visit nationalshrimpfestival.com
Click here to download a comprehensive list of upcoming Alabama Food Festivals.
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.