From the Last Supper to the Feast of Tabernacles, people have been gathering around food for eons. Harvest festivals are as old as agriculture, but Spam festivals? That's a more recent phenomenon.
While there’s still a time and a place for traditional food-focused gatherings, today's festival-goers are often looking for something on the unusual side. As the attendance levels at these funky food fests indicate, people turn up in droves for mashed potato wrestling, tomato throwing and garlic ice cream.
We all Scream... for Garlic Ice Cream?
At the Gilroy Garlic Festival, sponsors sometimes give away mouthwash at the exit gates, says Katherine Filice, who handles media relations for the event.
But who needs to worry when 99,999 other attendees have been struck with the same allium-induced temporary halitosis? "Everyone at the Garlic Festival has garlic breath,” Filice admits.
The stinky allium is a big deal in the rural community of Gilroy, Calif., nicknamed "The Garlic Capital of the World." In 1979, Gilroy community leaders decided to pay homage to garlic with a big block party.
“Since that time, the Gilroy Garlic Festival has grown into the summer’s ultimate food fair, welcoming over 100,000 guests each year on the last full weekend in July," says Filice. That's more than twice the city's population. That’s also a lot of garlic breath.
Festival highlights include the crowning of a Miss Gilroy Garlic, an Elvis tribute band and garlic-centric cook-offs. But one of the most popular festival attractions is the Olam Spices and Vegetable booth, where visitors line up for garlic soft-serve ice cream.
“It tastes like regular vanilla at first, but then has a distinct garlicky kick,” says Filice. “It’s something you’ve got to try at least once in your life.”
You Say Potato...
Mashed potato sculptures aren't just for communing with aliens. They're also part of the culture of Potato Days, a Barnesville, Minn. festival created in the 1930s to celebrate the area's remarkable spud production. The festival draws up to 22,000 potato fans annually.
Have a close encounter with a mashed potato-sculpting contest, get stuffed with a mashed potato eating contest, or practice your princess wave at the Miss Tater Tot pageant. There's also a popular potato-peeling competition, and, the highlight of the event per Potato Days organizers: mashed potato wrestling.
"The list goes on and on with potato events," says organizer Theresa Olson, also known as the Spud Lady.
There's haute couture, too. The Potato Sack Fashion Show is inspired by Potato Days past, when business owners caught without their sack vests during festival times would be fined.
...I Say La Tomatina
La Tomatina is one of the world's biggest food fights. Held in late-summer in the Spanish town of Buñol,
30,000-plus people — more than three times the town's year-round
population — spend an entire week hurling overripe tomatoes at each
This being a festival, there's also music, dancing and even a paella-cooking contest.
But the big deal is the food fight, which begins with quite a bang. Organizers spear a ham on the top of a greased pole, which is (eventually) knocked down by the most dexterous of festival goers.
Then the chaos begins. After the battle, the mess is so great that fire trucks are dispatched to hose the streets down with water drawn from an aqueduct.
Who would throw a festival devoted entirely to lettuce? That would be Yuma, Ariz., a land of extremes. It's one of the hottest and — with 90 percent of its days without precipitation — sunniest places on the planet.
Accordingly, the city supplies about 90 percent of North America's vegetables during the winter, according to Ann Walker, a coordinator of one of the town's biggest yearly events, Yuma Lettuce Days.
Though the town is mostly obsessed with lettuce, its output is not limited to greens. "Yuma is also a major producer of citrus and one of the largest producers in the world for Medjool dates — yes, we even export them to the Middle East," says Walker.
To celebrate all of that abundance, Yuma Lettuce Days features "a ginormous salad bar," lettuce bowling, lettuce carving and vegetable-centric cooking demonstrations from former Top Chef contestants.
Do the Spam Jam
In most of the U.S., "spam" is a word that conjures images of unwanted emails, as annoyingly common as houseflies. But in Hawaii, where locals consume approximately 16 tins of the processed-pork product annually, per capita, Spam is mostly a delicacy which knows no economic boundaries.
In Hawaii, Burger King serves Spam for breakfast. You can even find it at the 7-Eleven, bound to a cube of rice with a strip of nori. That's would be musubi, one of Hawaii's most popular snacks.
Karen Winpenny, an organizer of the Wakiki Spam Jam, says the Spam-centric fest draws 20,000 to 25,000 each year.
Why such love for the canned meat?
World War II saw Spam, a cheap source of protein that doesn't require refrigeration, shipped to the military men on the island in great numbers. "And it became a staple here on the islands," Winpenny says. "Because we have such a multitude of ethnicities, we’ve all taken pieces of each culture to come up with dishes everyone loves."
Spam takes well to savory dishes, particularly stir-fries. At the annual Spam Jam, you can also find Spam street tacos and burritos, Spam pizza, pad Thai and burgers. But there's plenty on the sweet side, too, including candied Spam creme brulee and Spam cheesecake.
"There’s all kinds of recipes for Spam, and our chefs get really creative," said Winpenny, who adds that the Spam Jam is popular for the same reason that many other funky food fests are: "It’s quirky and unusual, and brings locals and visitors together," she says.