Each year, hundreds of festivals throughout Tennessee celebrate the state’s diverse culture. Festivals provide economic opportunities and offer a venue for people to express the distinctive character of their town or city. Many Tennessee festivals are based on food, reflecting an area’s dominant industry or defining agricultural product.
Collierville was home to one of the first Tennessee food festivals. After boll weevils crippled cotton crops in the 1920s, dairy replaced cotton as Collierville’s main industry. In 1933, Swift & Company opened a hoop-cheese plant in the town, and the Rotary Club held the first Cheese Carnival to support the emerging trade. Each year, a new Cheese Carnival queen presided over the festivities. Other festival queens were her guests, and she was an honored guest at other events, like the Strawberry Festival in Humbolt, Tennessee. America’s entrance into World War II and new ownership of Swift brought an end to the carnival after 1940.
Some of the most popular festivals are strawberry festivals. East, Middle, and West Tennessee all host their own version of this sweet celebration. The state’s oldest is the annual West Tennessee Strawberry Festival, founded in 1934. The week-long festival is in Humbolt, which is also the home of the Strawberry Festival Historical Museum. Middle Tennessee has hosted the Portland Strawberry Festival each year since 1942. A recent addition to this event is the Highway 52 Yard Sale, which covers almost eighty miles. In East Tennessee, the town of Dayton holds the annual Tennessee Strawberry Festival to honor the berry that used to provide for one of Rhea County’s primary industries. Starting out small in 1947, the event has since grown from a modest one-day happening to a ten-day celebration. All three strawberry festivals are held in May and feature cooking contests, beauty pageants, parades, carnivals, arts and crafts, golf tournaments, runs or walks, live music, food, and events with local officials.
Other fruits and vegetables have also inspired festivals. The town of Gleason has held the Tater Town Special annually on Labor Day since 1974 in honor of the sweet potato in the area’s economy. In orchard-filled Unicoi County, the town of Erwin hosts the two-day Unicoi County Apple Festival. Started in 1977, this fall festival features art, crafts, live music, and apple recipe contests. It often serves as a setting for family, high-school, and church reunions. Martin, Tennessee, started its annual Soybean Festival in 1994 to celebrate this agricultural staple in a week-long event during September. Several communities host tomato festivals. The annual Lauderdale County Tomato Festival is in downtown Ripley each July, while Rutledge hosts the Grainger County Tomato Festival. Both include food, live music, a five-kilometer run, and arts and crafts. The Grainger County Tomato Festival, however, is distinguished by its “Tomato Wars” where registered participants pelt each other with ripe tomatoes.
Giles County celebrates blackberries at its annual Lynneville Blackberry Festival, which boasts “the World’s Largest Blackberry Pie.” Oversized food also draws tourists and farmers from across the nation to the town of Allardt for the annual Pumpkin Festival and Weigh-Off, which started in 1992. This fall festival includes the weighing of giant pumpkins and other extra-large vegetables, in addition to parades, a quilt show, crafts, food, and a car and antique tractor show.
Some of the more distinctive food festivals celebrate the ramp, or wild leek, an edible plant that is part of the onion family and grows in the Appalachian Mountains. The Cosby Ruritan Club held the first ramp festival in Cocke County in 1954 as a way to participate in the tourism industry generated by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cosby Ramp Festival features a variety of ramp dishes, live music, crafts, and the Maid of Ramps Contest. The town of Flag Pond in Unicoi County also serves specialty ramp dishes at the Flag Pond Ramp Festival each May. Benton holds the Polk County Ramp Tramp Festival, a three-day event where participants dig ramps, prepare them, and enjoy their cuisine while listening to bluegrass music.
Another wild plant, the pokeweed, has become an icon for some Tennessee food festivals. The pokeweed is native to eastern North America and is characterized by its dark berries. Poke salads hold a special place in the American imagination since parts of the plant are poisonous to humans, and therefore, dishes made from pokeweed must be prepared in a very specific manner. In May 1977, the town of Gainesboro held its first annual Poke Sallet Festival. Among other festival activities are poke-eating contests and an “outhouse race.” In 2004, Harriman inaugurated its own Polk Salad Festival. The festival’s organizers chose the spelling “polk” after the 1969 Tony Joe White song, “Polk Salad Annie,” which Elvis Presley later covered.
A more recent phenomenon is festivals that celebrate prepared foods. Each year since 1997, South Pittsburg has held the National Cornbread Festival. For two days in April, this festival blends traditional festival activities with cornbread eating and cornbread cook-offs. The town of Winfield pays tribute to a southern favorite with its annual Appalachian Dumplin’ Festival. The festival originated in 1986 as part of the Tennessee Homecoming ’86 celebrations, but within five years, it evolved into an independent festival. A variety of dumplin’ dishes add to the bluegrass music, art, crafts, and contests. Each year, the town of Bradford in Gibson County reclaims its title as “Doodle Soup Capital of the World” with Doodle Soup Days, a two-day event held in September. The spicy soup made of broth and vinegar is a local favorite. The festival originated in the mid-1970s as a fundraising dinner for the Lions Club but has grown to include a Doodle Soup cook-off, flea market, beauty pageant, arts and crafts shows, a five-kilometer run, and a parade.
Many festivals highlight southern cuisine. Henry County honors Tennessee’s most popular fish, the catfish, with the World’s Biggest Fish Fry held annually in Paris. The festival dates back to 1953 when the local Chamber of Commerce sought to replace the Paris Mule Day event that had occurred annually since 1938. The fish fry festival nods to its Mule Day roots with events like a horse and mule pull. Vendors serve large amounts of catfish to festival-goers attending the fishing rodeo, parades, beauty pageants, and carnival that make up the week-long event. Bell Buckle celebrates two of the South’s quintessential foods in its annual RC and Moon Pie Festival. Since 1995, people have attended the festival to see “the World’s Largest Moon Pie” and participate in games and contests like “synchronized wading,” hog calling, watermelon seed-spitting, and a Moon Pie toss. The one-day festival also features country and bluegrass music along with clogging and southern food, including deep-fried Moon Pies.
The many festivals exemplify the unique form of cultural expression that food offers. An area’s cuisine reflects its natural resources, agricultural practices, ideas about health and body, and social traditions. People assign value to certain foods that contain personal significance for them as symbols of family tradition or connections to place. These values are celebrated in festivals that highlight edible items, bringing people together around foods that stand for something much larger than mere necessity.