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One of my favorite warm-weather activities (when I’m not spending time in my garden) is learning about and celebrating regional culinary customs that feature ingredients traditionally grown in my area. Local foods are special. They have deep roots and are essential elements that help bind diverse groups of people together with a unique shared edible heritage. One of the most popular and fun ways to enjoy local vegetables and fruits is at small, regional food festivals. Over the last few years, I’ve attended a number of local events dedicated to diverse produce like okra, strawberries, sweet potatoes, peanuts, peaches and heirloom tomatoes.
I spent part of last Saturday at the Tasty Tomato Festival here in South Carolina. Put on by a local nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting sustainable farming methods in central South Carolina, the festival helps raise funds for their important mission. Well-planned events like this provide growers and foodies alike a chance to talk to gardeners, farmers, chefs and other knowledgeable folks about growing and consuming tomatoes and other local produce.
An afternoon spent at a typical festival will also involve live music, samples of the featured ingredients, foods that highlight produce from local chefs and community organizations, and a variety of other activities. And as a fun aside, many of these events even include a competitive angle, like the old county or state fairs, where you can enter produce that you grew to be judged for best taste, greatest size or perfect appearance. At the Tasty Tomato Festival one of our family friends took first place in a tomato photo contest with a great picture of an heirloom tomato glistening in the morning dew at their suburban micro-farm.
Sadly, some of the food based festivals have outgrown their local roots and have become more like large carnivals with amusement rides, midway games and non-local concession stands that have nothing to do with the professed theme of the event. An okra celebration here in South Carolina has nearly reached this sad status. Of the dozens of food stands, only one or two of the venders offered edible okra snacks. Instead, visitors are treated to the usual fare: fried Oreos, massive turkey legs, funnel cakes and ribbon fries. While I am sure the larger festivals help bring in more money for the worthy local organizations that put on the events, they should not lose their focus on education and consumption of wonderful local ingredients that make every town or region special and unique.