Nine Midwest food fests you don’t want to miss
BY LORI RACKL Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org May 2, 2012 6:18PM
Dig into some juicy fruit at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich.
Updated: June 4, 2012 10:56AM
From asparagus and morels to potatoes and pierogies, get a taste of the Midwest’s best food fests this spring and summer. These nine events will leave you hungry for more.
National Morel Mushroom Festival
May 17-21, Boyne City, Mich.
A couple of guys in northern Michigan walk into a bar and start bragging about who is the better morel mushroom picker. From that war of words sprouted the National Morel Mushroom Festival, an annual fungus fete honoring this fleeting springtime treat.
A tradition for the past 52 years, the fest drew more than 6,000 morel fans last year, including one from as far away as Greece. (Over in Wisconsin, the town of Muscoda celebrates the morel with its own festival, May 19-20.)
Register for guided hunts to learn how to forage for the delicacy that sells for up to $80 an ounce when supplies are scarce. The main event — Saturday morning’s national mushroom hunt — has several bus loads of contestants scouring state-owned land in a bid to collect the most morels in 90 minutes. Past winners have plucked up to 900 of the ’shrooms.
Chefs will be selling morel-inspired dishes, and local expert Anthony Williams delivers his popular morel seminar at 4 p.m. May 18; morelfest.com.
Empire Asparagus Festival
May 18-20, Empire, Mich.
This wee village, population 373, is tucked in the middle of one of Chicagoans’ favorite summer destinations: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Its funky festival started nine years ago as a way to kick-start the busy vacation season and support local farming.
“Half of Chicago is up here come July 4,” said festival organizer Paul Skinner. “Prior to that it was always very quite here.”
The festival draws about 2,500 people to this hamlet perched on the shores of Lake Michigan. The schedule includes an “ode to asparagus” poetry competition, a fun run and green parade (no motorized vehicles). “Sometimes we make them go around twice because it’s so short,” Skinner said.
The Friday night pig roast always is a big draw. On Front Street, 14 food vendors sell asparagus dishes for no more than $5 a plate.
Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery concocts a special asparagus brew in honor of the event.
“We sold out in record time last year,” Skinner said; empirechamber.com.
Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival
June 1-3, Little Chute, Wis.
When a national cheese museum went up in Rome, N.Y., a Wisconsin senator raised a stink, saying the Dairy State deserved the honor.
The citizens of Little Chute, a village on the Fox River between Appleton and Green Bay, offered to have a contest pitting Wisconsin cheese against New York’s. Rome’s mayor showed up at Little Chute’s inaugural festival, and he was undoubtedly cheesed off when Wisconsin won in a blind taste test.
The fest, held in the town’s Doyle Park, has been going for nearly a quarter century.
In addition to the usual entertainment, parade and amusement park rides, opportunities abound to dig into Wisconsin’s tastiest export. The $5 admission fee (free on Sunday) lets you sample more than 20 cheeses. A “big cheese breakfast” will be held at the civic center Sunday, too.
Contests include a cheesecake bake-off and a race to see who can scarf down a half-pound of cheese curds the fastest.
Professional cheese carver Troy Landwehr, who got his start at the festival as a young boy and went on to be featured on “Late Night With David Letterman,” will be among those sculpting blocks of cheese into works of art; www.littlechutewi.org/cheesefest.
June 23-24, Cedarburg, Wis.
Most of Cedarburg’s nine-block historic district — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — is devoted to the town’s biggest festival of the year. Roughly 100,000 people pour into this charming Milwaukee suburb for its annual berry bash.
The ubiquitous strawberry pops up in everything from savory bratwursts to crepes and ice cream, and you can wash it all down with Cedar Creek Winery’s strawberry blush wine. Feeling competitive? Put your skills to the test at the strawberry shortcake eating and strawberry bubblegum blowing contests.
Radio Disney will put on a show from 1 to 3 p.m. on June 23. Stroll the streets shopping for art or try your luck in the rubber duck races down Cedar Creek. Plenty of Schmit’s Berry Farm’s juicy fruit will be for sale by the quart; cedarburgfestivals.org/strawberryfestival.html.
July 27-29, Whiting, Ind.
This popular bash has boasted more food vendors than the Taste of Chicago for the past two years. Seventeen booths alone are devoted to pierogies, those pillows of dough stuffed with everything from savory meat and potatoes to sweet fruit.
More than 200,000 people flock to this Indiana town, just across the Illinois border, for this fun-loving celebration of Eastern European heritage.
A highlight is the International Polka Parade on Friday night, when the Precision Lawnmower Drill Team and the Twirling Babushka Brigade, among others, march down 119th Street.
“Nothing really makes a lot of sense, and that’s how it’s supposed to be,” said Sarah Hildebranski, executive director of the Whiting Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce.
There’s a pierogi toss and pierogi-eating contest, along with four stages filled with entertainment.
Mr. Pierogi and Ms. Paczki will be there working the crowd, posing for photos and judging the Polka Dance Off; pierogifest.net.
Aug. 4, Seymour, Wis.
This Wisconsin town insists it’s the home of the hamburger, thanks to a young entrepreneur named Charles Nagreen who started selling ground beef patties in a bun at the town fair in 1885.
Other places beg to differ, but the Wisconsin state legislature has Seymour’s back. It passed a resolution that dubs this town 15 miles west of Green Bay the birthplace of the burger — a claim to fame that’s celebrated with an annual event that includes the World’s Largest Hamburger Parade.
Is there another hamburger parade?
“Not that we know of,” confesses James Campbell, president of the group that organizes the fest.
A 5K bun run takes place that Saturday. Those who don’t mind getting a little dirty can take a turn on the ketchup slide. Hot air balloon rallies sandwich the fest on Friday night and Sunday morning. This year, the BBC will be on hand to film the wacky festivities, which include cooking a 190-pound burger that everyone gets a bite of; homeofthehamburger.org.
National Cherry Festival
July 7-14, Traverse City, Mich.
About three out of four tart cherries in this country come from Michigan, where fruit farmers in the Traverse Bay area have held a “blessing of the blossoms” ceremony each spring since the early 20th century.
This humble cherry growers’ tradition has blossomed into a massive, week-long festival packed with 150-plus events, including a cherry pit spit competition, an air show and, for golfers who like to gamble, a $1 million hole-in-one contest.
For a juicy look at the cherry business, shuttles take people to and from a 100-acre research farm in the heart of picturesque Leelanau County’s cherry country. There you can get a guided orchard tour, sample the newest cherry products and keep the kids busy with a petting zoo and hands-on experiments; cherryfestival.org.
Mendota Sweet Corn Festival
Aug. 9-12, Mendota, Ill.
The line usually stretches down the block for the free sweet corn doled out during the final day of this annual fest, which turns 65 this year.
This small town, about a 90-minute drive west of Chicago and on the Amtrak line, has long been home to a Del Monte plant. The compnay donates the 50 tons of buttery corn cooked in front of fest-goers by an antique steam engine.
This village of 7,300 swells to 60,000 people during the event, which offers live music, a craft show, flea market, carnival rides and — new this year — a bags tournament.
The sweetest souvenir: a big bag of corn; sweetcornfestival.com.
Aug. 24-25, Barnesville, Minn.
During the Great Depression, the Barnesville area was booming when it came to potato farming. These days, the town of 2,200 no longer revolves around spuds — except for one weekend in August.
Just about anything you can do to a potato — peel it, cook it, toss it — takes place during the event, where a crowd favorite is Friday night wrestling in a pit of mashed potatoes.
Other popular pursuits are potato picking and peeling contests and a potato sack fashion show.
It’s all about starch at the food court, where you can dig into potato dumplings, pancakes, soup, sausage and Norwegian lefse, a potato tortilla slathered in butter and sugar.
Keep your eyes peeled for the hidden golden potato, worth $100 in Barnesville Bucks; potatodays.com.