Fresh from America... Food Capitals, Festivals and Related Fun
From hot buttered lobsters to marinated artichoke hearts to creamy key lime pie, the promise of tasting regional cookery is one of travel’s best benefits. Here’s a cross-country sampler of ‘capital’ locales that gained their claim to fame with signature crops and catches, memorable hometown recipes, and spirited food festivals.
Rockland, Maine – Lobster Capital of the World
In a hearty tribute to the bounties of the sea, Rockland serves up just-caught crustaceans at its annual Maine Lobster Festival each August. The ‘Lobster Capital of the World’ is on the state’s rugged coast at the edge of iridescent Penobscot Bay. Craggy shorelines, quaint lighthouses, and tiny islands with nesting black and white puffins set the stage for a terrific ‘Pine Tree State’ getaway.
You might lace up your running shoes to enter the 10K Road Race, dance and sing with performing musicians, or exercise your culinary skills at the Seafood Cooking Contest.
Thanks to ample seafood harvests hauled in on local trawlers, fresh-steamed lobsters, clams, and mussels are the primary attractions. But there is much more to see and do at the Maine Lobster Festival. Visitors can cheer the newly crowned Maine Sea Goddess and King Neptune amid a line-up of rainbow-colored floats at the Big Parade. As an entrant in the Lobster Crate Race, you can discover how many floating crates you can run (or stumble) across without slip-sliding into frosty Atlantic waters. You might lace up your running shoes to enter the 10K Road Race, dance and sing with performing musicians, or exercise your culinary skills at the Seafood Cooking Contest. You can wave to the children as they strut their stuff in the Cod Fish Carry challenge; and don’t forget to shop for Maine-made treasures like watercolor art, handcrafted pottery, fine photography, and woven baskets.
Vidalia, Georgia - ‘Sweet Onion Capital of the World’
Vidalia’s mild, sweet onions originally sprouted on Mose Coleman’s farm back in 1931, but their fame wasn’t widespread until the following decade when the state of Georgia opened Vidalia’s first Farmer’s Market.
By the 1970’s, the South’s favorite onions were distributed nationwide, and in 1986, the ‘Vidalia Onion’ moniker earned exclusive legal status.
If you’re ready for a scenic excursion, hop aboard the ‘Heart of Georgia Railroad’ or choose a Farm Tour hayride and amble though a field while picking a basketful of sweet onions to carry home.
Each April, Vidalia’s Onion Festival salutes the superiority of Georgia’s ‘Official State Vegetable’ with a whole host of sweet-themed events. Visitors watch closely as contestants in the Vidalia Onion Chef’s Team Competition receive a five-pound sack of sweet onions and a ‘theme’ ingredient. Their challenge is to spontaneously produce two entrees and an appetizer, and they manage to do it in good taste. If you’re ready for a scenic excursion, hop aboard the ‘Heart of Georgia Railroad’ or choose a Farm Tour hayride and amble though a field while picking a basketful of sweet onions to carry home. You might marvel at the wild exploits of barrel racing cowgirls and rough n’ tumble bull riders at the rodeo. In addition, keep your eyes on the sky to see the incredible aerial stunts of the Blue Angels Navy Flight Demo Squadron. Vidalia’s Onion Festival… how sweet it is!
Key West, Florida - Home of the Key Lime Pie
A visit to balmy Key West, the island city at the southernmost tip of Florida’s sun-kissed Keys, is not complete without a cool, smooth wedge of Key lime pie. No matter how it’s sliced or prepared, Florida’s official ‘State Pie’ is a must-have among tropical daydreamers.
In the interest of progressiveness, it’s probably a good idea to sample at least one slice of each pie variation before you leave town.
For the record, an aromatic Key lime differs from the more common Persian lime in its size (smaller), shape (round like a ball) and juice color (pale yellow instead of green). Key lime pie ingredients vary too, depending on bakers’ preferences, and there’s no shortage of inventive chefs producing such pies in the city of Key West. Assorted combinations of sweetened condensed milk, eggs, fluffy whipped cream, golden-brown meringue, graham cracker crumbs, and/or flaky crust are employed to complement the pie’s essential Key lime juice.
In the interest of progressiveness, it’s probably a good idea to sample at least one slice of each pie variation before you leave town. Where better to entertain a dessert-related daydream than in Caribbean-styled Key West, where sea captain’s cottages, swaying palms, sunset celebrations, and leafy Key lime trees are everyday delights?
Monroe, Wisconsin – Swiss Cheese Capital of the U.S.
When you pass through Green County, Wisconsin, you might meet more cows than people, and in the midst of all the mooing, you’re likely to hear the song of an expert yodeler. Yes, yodeler! Yodeling is just one of many ways that area residents rekindle their Swiss heritage. In fact, Green County’s city of Monroe has such a strong and long-standing Swiss influence that it’s the official ‘Swiss Cheese Capital of the U.S.’ and the happy home of ‘Cheese Days,’ a biannual September festival.
Monroe’s ‘Cheese Days’ celebrates everything cheesy with colorful parades, Swiss accordion tunes, polka dancing, and the ceremonial crooning of the official Cheese Days song.
Monroe’s ‘Cheese Days’ celebrates everything cheesy with colorful parades, Swiss accordion tunes, polka dancing, and the ceremonial crooning of the official Cheese Days song. Festival contestants focus on cow milking, cheese n’ beer bread recipes, comparative cheesecake flavors, and the Great Wisconsin Cheese Challenge game show. Whatever you do, don’t miss the big Cheese Fondue Party, Gingerbread House Decorating, and sampling events with specialties such as Smoked Habanera and Cherry Cheddar.
If you want to take part in informative tours at dairy farms and cheese factories, plan to rise with the birds so you can see and hear the whole story. A real-life cheese maker’s day begins before dawn as fresh milk is trucked in from local dairies. When in Monroe, you might as well do as the cheese-lovin’ Monroeans do… Wake up early and get ready to yodel!
Castroville, California – Artichoke Center of the World
Green Globe Artichokes have awed the small farming community of Castroville since the spiky veggies first appeared in local fields during the 1920’s. Why else would the ‘Artichoke Center of the World’ claim a 20-foot-tall green concrete artichoke sculpture as its premiere landmark? Since its 1963 arrival, the unique green edifice has been recognized as the planet’s largest artichoke. And in keeping with the singular focus of its town theme, Castroville is located just three breezy miles from the Pacific Ocean in Monterey County where the ‘ Official Vegetable’ is (you guessed it) the artichoke.
Visitors can watch the gala Parade on Merritt Street with its vibrant floats, bands, drum corps, equestrian teams, and vintage vehicles. They can taste wines from legendary California vineyards or walk through artichoke fields with local growers.
Castroville’s fields produce three-quarters of California’s abundant commercial artichoke crop, so it is the perfect home base for the ‘Artichoke Festival’ that’s scheduled there each May. Back in 1947, young Marilyn Monroe rose to agricultural stardom as Castroville’s first ‘Artichoke Queen’ and the annual festivities have been flying high ever since. Be sure to attend the offbeat Agro Art Competition, where creative types construct plant-based sculptures from the likes of cauliflower heads, broccoli bunches, lettuce leaves, (and of course) artichokes. Visitors can watch the gala Parade on Merritt Street with its vibrant floats, bands, drum corps, equestrian teams, and vintage vehicles. They can taste wines from legendary California vineyards, walk through artichoke fields with local growers, and catch musical performances from mariachi to country to rock and roll. As a lucky spectator (and taste-tester) at the festival’s Cooking Demonstrations, learn about versatile artichokes in all their glory – marinated, grilled, steamed, fried, pickled, or folded into savory soups. So many artichokes, so little time!
On the far-flung highways and byways of America, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of foods, flavors, and festivals that await one indispensable accompaniment – you!
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"Fresh from America... Food Capitals, Festivals and Related Fun"
Paula Loehr, R.N., B.A., worked in the fields of community health and nursing education, and was a school health nurse at the elementary, secondary and collegiate levels before becoming a fulltime journalist. Her writing specialties include family tr...