To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.
Food festivals are about community, cultural heritage, and putting copious amounts of tasty things in our mouths. From a chile festival in the Chile Capital of the World to a crawfish festival in the Crawfish Capital of the World, these fests are as notable for their vibes and photographability as they are for their food.
Allow me to present America’s best food festivals to look forward to in 2023. Roll up your sleeves and prepare to dig in. If anyone calls for me, I will be dressed as a cheese curd at the Cheese Curd Festival in Wisconsin.
Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
The world-famous Crawfish Festival began in 1960 as a spin-off of the Breaux Bridge Centennial Celebration. The Louisiana Legislature had just named Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959. The festival is now known around the country and even the world. Every May, thousands of hungry people flock to Breaux Bridge to be part of the festivities.
The Crawfish Festival has also become one of the largest gatherings of world-famous Cajun musicians. All weekend long you can hear the sound of authentic Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop music rising from the festival. Whether your musical taste is Cajun or Creole, you can witness over 30 bands perform over the three-day event if you think you have the stamina. It’s a perfect opportunity to see our musical tradition passed from generation to generation. Watch the Cajun dance contests, and if you’re brave, join in. There’s no better way to learn. There are even Cajun music workshops held in the heritage tent.
Cheese Curd Festival
Of course, Wisconsin would be the only place appropriate for a cheese curd festival. Here in America’s Dairyland, these small squeaky bits of unaged baby cheddar are a ubiquitous snack, as magical as snowflakes with no two alike. And at the cheese curd festival in Ellsworth—the Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin, mind you—there are 6,000 pounds of cheese curds in every batch: fried, dipped, melted on tacos, slathered on poutine, served sweet in a cinnamon dessert curd, or smothered in marinara sauce, pizza-style. Pair them with hard cider, take in a classic car show, or show off your skills at the cheese curd-eating contest. There’s nothing cheesy about it.
Hatch Chile Festival
Hatch, New Mexico
September 1-3 (51st annual)
The Hatch Chile Festival, held annually in the Chile Capital of the World over Labor Day weekend includes chile roasting, food and craft vendors, contests and fun for the kids, a carnival, and entertainment provided by local businesses along with volleyball, soccer, and softball tournaments.
World Chicken Festival
You may not think you need to see the world’s largest steel skillet but what if it was attached to a chicken festival? That’s what you’ll find in Laurel County, the birthplace of both Kentucky Fried Chicken and the World Chicken Festival—four days of egg-ceptional activities like a Colonel Sanders motorcycle ride, a Rooster tail mullet contest, and plenty of cook-offs. While you’re there, make sure to check out the Sanders Café & Museum in Corbin where the original roadside restaurant has been restored to its 1940s layout and also where the magical 11 herbs and spices making up KFC’s original recipe were perfected. You still won’t find out what they are, though.
American Royal World Series of Barbecue
Kansas City, Kansas
September 27–October 1
America is not lacking in meaty barbecue festivals. From the Barbecue Festival (October 28; 38th annual) in Lexington, North Carolina specializing in the vinegar-dipped Lexington-style to Nevada’s Rib Cookoff (Nugget Casino, Sparks) to the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest (November 4-5; 14th annual) in Lockhart (the Barbecue Capital of Texas) and Jack Daniel’s World Championship Barbecue Invitational (October 13-14) in Lynchburg, Tennessee, you can get your meats dry-rubbed, slathered, whole-hog, boozy, smoked, ketchup- or mustard-based, and really, any other way you can dream up in all corners of the country.
But for the biggest barbecue bash—in the world, they say—head to the Kansas Speedway for four days of the region’s signature thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce, and western-style entertainment including a rodeo, equine events, and a livestock show. There’s a barbecue hall of fame ceremony and both an invitational and open competition where over 500 teams compete for meat supremacy. If that’s overwhelming then just maybe stop by the Kids Que where contestants aged 11 to 15 compete with steaks and little ones aged 6 to 10 go head to head with burgers.
Urbanna Oyster Festival
November 3-4 (67th annual)
An evolution of Urbanna Days that began in 1957, the Urbanna Oyster Festival as we know it today hosts over 50,000 people in the square mile town over two days. Visitors flock from all over to celebrate the oyster!
In 1988 it was designated as the “official” oyster festival of the Commonwealth of Virginia and maintains that title today.
Come by BOAT or come by LAND! The charming Town of Urbanna closes its streets for this big celebration of everything OYSTER! It’s foodie heaven with over 50 food vendors and every kind of OYSTER! Raw, steamed, roasted, Rockefeller, fried, stewed, oysters in a pot pie and festival food fare like BBQ and crab bisque!
Arts and crafts, antique auto shows, children’s activities, and live bands are spread throughout the town. The town marina offers historical boats and exhibits on the conservation of the Chesapeake Bay, watermen, and the oyster industry.
National Peanut Festival
Alabama just goes nuts for nuts, it seems. Over in Mobile, you can hit up the Alabama Pecan Festival (November 4–6) to down pies and see the annual crowning of the Pecan Queen.
But if peanuts are more your speed, it’s about a three-hour journey to the National Peanut Festival which promises a week’s worth of legume-themed activities. Located in the southeast corner of Alabama, Dothan is known as the Peanut Capital of the World and is a prime location for growing peanuts. If you’re in Dothan you’re in the heart of peanut country, considering the majority of all the peanuts grown in the United States are grown within a 100-mile radius of Dothan.
Come for the nutty fare and carnival foods and stay for the chainsaw art, sea lion splash, racing pigs, circus entertainers, and live concerts. Dothan, too, hosts a Peanut Queen parade alongside a raucous demolition derby.
Port Barre Cracklin Festival
Port Barre, Louisiana
November 9–12 (37th annual)
It’s gratons galore at this festival, a fundraiser for the Port Barre Lions Club that also benefits all who love fried pork skins. And they definitely get into it: Not only is there a Cracklin Cookoff but a Cracklin Festival Queen will be crowned, complete with a court.
There’s also a parade, carnival rides, music, and food to let you know you’re in Cajun Country, in case the zydeco wasn’t enough. Besides your cracklins (of course), you’ve got your regular boudin, boudin balls and egg rolls, sweet dough pies, crawfish bisque and fettucini, jambalaya, shrimp po-boys, meats on sticks, and cowboy stew, a simple and hearty concoction stocked with enough meat to fill up a herd of cowboys. And cowgirls.
Indio International Tamale Festival
December 1-3 (30th annual)
The Indio International Tamale Festival taking place every December is the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to the steamed savory treat. Visitors will see over 300 tamale vendors as well as live entertainment, interactive art spaces, beer gardens, craft stalls and, of course, the largest ever tamale. There is also a competition for the best tasting tamale.
Other bites available at the event include tacos, nachos, carne asada fries, funnel cake, ice cream and kettle corn. The festival is also known for its carnival rides and—since last year—the World’s Biggest Bounce House for kids and adults alike.
Live every day as if it is a festival. Turn your life into a celebration.
—Shri Radhe Maa