From Doodle Soup to Cornbread Salad: Food Festivals of Tennessee
Eat Your Way across Tennessee
Every year across Tennessee, communities come together with fairs and festivals to celebrate their town’s unique culture and beauty. As is fitting in the South, many of these include a celebration of food, with specialties that reflect the agriculture or industry of the town. These festivals provide economic opportunities and allow the community to come together.
One of the first food festivals in Tennessee was in Collierville which was once a trade center for cotton. When the boll weevil crippled the cotton crop in the 1920’s, dairy replaced cotton as the main industry here. When Swift and Company opened a hoop cheese plant in the town in 1933, the town held the first Cheese Carnival. This festival lasted until the advent of World War II. Though this event ended, many other festivals were to follow across the state and still exist today. Strawberry festivals are one of the most popular.
Strawberry Festivals across Tennessee
Portland Strawberry Festival
Strawberries ripen in May in Tennessee, so each year, from Dayton in the east, Portland in the middle, and Humboldt in the west, Tennesseans celebrate the strawberry with food and fun.
- Humboldt. The State’s oldest strawberry festival was first held in Humboldt in 1934. This Tennessee town still hosts the festival every year and this year celebrated its 76th year. This year’s festival included everything from an art exhibition to a checker contest—and, of course, a recipe contest to showcase strawberry delicacies.
- Portland. Just across the Kentucky border in Tennessee is the small town of Portland. Strawberries were once the main cash crop in Portland, and it was a hub for other areas in the surrounding area to sell their strawberry crop.
- Strawberries are no longer an economic mainstay in Portland, but it is still possible during strawberry season to buy locally from farmers in the Portland area. And every year in May, since 1942, the town still holds the strawberry festival, often beginning with a pancake breakfast. There are events happening all week in Portland.
- Dayton. In East Tennessee the small town of Dayton, located about 30 miles north of Chattanooga, also hosts a strawberry festival each year. In 1925, Dayton was the site of the infamous Scopes Trial when local high school teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. Pitting Clarence Darrow against politician William Jennings Bryant, the trial drew national attention and created a carnival-like atmosphere in Dayton, much like the strawberry festivals of today. If you visit the festival in Dayton you will be able to visit the courthouse where the trial took place. It looks much the same as in did in 1925, and there is a museum about the trial in the basement.
Map of other fruit festivals
Other Fruit Festivals
Besides strawberries, Tennessee also grows many other fruits and several towns celebrate their local agriculture industry with a festival.
- Ervin. The little town of Ervin, located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, has hosted the Unicoi Apple Festival since 1978. Each year in October, this festival is held in conjunction with the Haunted Historic Ervin Ghost Walk. This walk combines the rich history of the area with true ghost stories for an entertaining and edifying experience.
- Another fall fruit festival is held in Allardt on the Cumberland Plateau celebrating the pumpkin with the Great Pumpkin Festival and Weigh-Off. One year’s winning pumpkin weighed 657 lbs. This festival is also held in October.
- Lynnville, Tennessee, which is south of Nashville in Giles County, annually holds a Blackberry Festival. Wild blackberries are abundant in Tennessee, and blackberry cobblers are very popular in Tennessee when the berries are ripening. This festival boasts the "World's Best Homemade Blackberry Pie." This festival is held in the summer, usually late June, when blackberries are ripening
Ramp and Poke Sallet Festivals
Ramp and Poke Sallet Festivals
Cosby, Flag Pond, and Polk County all host Ramp Festivals in Tennessee. The ramp, or wild leek, can be found in cove forests and northern hardwood forests throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains. They are quite adaptable to recipes, and can be used just like onions and garlic in soups, salads, puddings, and sandwiches.
The ramp festivals are held in the spring. In addition to music and other activities, ramp meals are served to visitors. The traditional ramp meal in Polk County includes ramps, fried eggs, streaked meat, fried potatoes, white beans and cornbread.
These areas are also some of the most beautiful areas of the state. Polk County was the site of the kayaking events in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and one of my favorite places in Tennessee.
Another native plant that is celebrated in Tennessee is the Poke Sallet. Native Americans used this plant for, among other things, one of the main ingredients of their love potions. Civil War soldiers used the berries as an ink to write letters home. It is considered part of traditional southern cuisine, where it is cooked three times in three changes of water to remove some of the harmful components. I have lived in the South all of my life and have never eaten this food, but have heard of others that do. The dark purple berries, once used as ink, are poisonous and are not to be eaten. There are still debates about whether other parts of the plant should be eaten.
Gainesboro, located in the Upper Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee, celebrates the poke week plant each year on Mother’s Day weekend.
Poke Sallet Festival in Gainesboro, TN
Other Plant Celebrations
- Gleason, Tennessee also known as Tater Town, is the home of the Tater Town Special that celebrates the place that the sweet potato once held in this community.This community affair, held on Labor Day weekend, is often the occasion for homecomings and high school reunions as former residents and other guest return to this town in upper West Tennessee.
- Martin, Tennessee, also located in Upper West Tennessee, is home of one of the newer food festival, the Soybean Festival, celebrating this tiny vegetable that is one of this county’s biggest cash crops.
- Lauderdale County, in West Tennessee, and Grainger County in East Tennessee both hosts tomato festivals.Both of these festivals include entertainment, food, and fun activities for all ages to celebrate this cash crop for these counties.The Grainger County Festival also includes a Tomato War. Both of these festivals are held in July.
Calendar of Festivals
Here is a list of the months festivals are held:
- April: Paris World's Biggest Fish Fry, and South Pittsburgh Cornbread Festival
- May: Strawberry Festivals in Humboldt, Portland, and Dayton. Ramp Festivals in Cosby, Flag Pond, and Polk County, and Poke Sallet Festival in Gainesboro
- June: Blackberry Festival in Lynnville, and RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival in Bell Buckle.
- July: Tomato Festivals in Lauderdale County and Grainger County
- September: Tater Town Festival in Gleason on Labor Day weekend, a Soybean Festival in Martin in September, and, of course, the Doodle Soup Festival in Bradford
- October: Pumpkin Festival in Allardt and Apple Festival in Ervin
Other Foods to Celebrate Across Tennessee
- Paris, TN hosts what is billed as the World’s Biggest Fish Fry every year the last week of April. Paris is located in West Tennessee near Kentucky Lake and Paris Landing State Park. This event started with “Mule Day” when farmers came to town to trade their mules. As tractors replaced mules, the event evolved into today’s festival. The fish of choice seems to be catfish and for $12.00 you can enjoy a plate piled with all-you-can-eat catfish, hush puppies, French fries, coleslaw and white beans.
- In 1917 a bakery in Chattanooga, TN began producing Moon Pies.When RC Cola was produced in 1934 these two items became a legendary go-together in the South.Bill Lister wrote a song about the pair called RC Cola and Moon Pie.Now, the small town of Bell Buckle, TN celebrates this food pairing with a festival held each year in June. Bell Buckle is a delightful little town in Middle TN., between Nashville and Chattanooga. It dates back to 1852, has a thriving arts community, and is home to the Webb School, a renowned preparatory school.
- In a small town outside of Chattanooga called South Pittsburgh is the oldest cookware manufacturer in the United States, the Lodge Cast Iron Cookware Company, in existence since 1896.When a group of citizens became concerned about the economic future of this small town, they came up with the idea of a Cornbread Festival to celebrate southern cooking and cast iron cookware.
- At this festival you can enjoy a plateful of cornbread dishes for $4.00, which might include lemon coffee cake, Tuscan cornbread, or apple cinnamon cornbread.The festival is held the last weekend in April.
Pick your Favorite
Which of these festivals sounds most appealing to you?
In Conclusion--Where Do We Begin
In doing research for this article I have found numerous events in Tennessee that I was not familiar with, and would like to spend many weekends this year exploring more of my state. But the most interesting festival I’ve come across has got to be the Doodle Soup Festival in Bradford, TN.
Doodle Soup is a unique dish made from the drippings of chicken, vinegar, salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, and a small amount of flour. It is served over crackers and can be eaten with a fork. Though there are many stories about the derivation of the name doodle soup, none of them can be verified, and the recipes vary. But I plan to visit Bradford, Tennessee this September to taste this soup for the first time.
Why not join me there—or at any of the other festivals across Tennessee.