Growing up in a small Kentucky town, food festivals were an inescapable part of life. Each April, the annual Mountain Mushroom Festival celebrated the morel mushroom, a longtime favorite of Appalachian foragers. In the fall, I could count on the next town over to wow me with seriously competitive eating contests at the Berea Spoonbread Festival. Year after year, I played plenty of carnival games and ate copious snacks at these events, but I never got to live out my loftiest dream: becoming a food festival queen.
My one brush with royalty came when I served as a Cherry Blossom Princess representing Kentucky at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. The annual event celebrates the friendship between the United States and Japan, bringing together one lucky princess from each state (and Guam) to meet and mingle for a week with the Japanese festival queen and her court. (It also ends with a wildly over-the-top sushi party.) While I never quite reached festival-queen status, I still hold a special place in my heart for the pomp and circumstance of culinary coronation.
The majority of food festivals that crown royalty are located in a particularly agriculturally rich swath of the Midwest and South, where farming communities continue to thrive, and tight-knit neighbors keep a firm hold on tradition.
Food festivals became beacons of small-town pride following World War II, and continued their growth during a 20-year period when the blossoming of fairs, festivals, and new annual traditions brought vitality to often remote farming communities. Much like Rotary Club-crafted community cookbooks and recipe cards handed down at church potlucks, food festivals have long been a way to preserve heirloom recipes and cheer on regionally important foods that may have otherwise been left in the historical dust.
The cherry on top of these food festivals is often the selection of culinary royalty, which typically consists of a queen and her “royal court” of princesses. Serving as queen is a rite of passage for many young women—most of whom range between the ages of 18-21—who have followed in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers in a longline of food-festival royalty.
The competition often functions like any traditional country-fair beauty pageant—participants are judged on poise, sparkly gowns, and their answers to a series of mundane questions—but the “talent” portion is centered around the food in question, from baking with pecans, to crafting the spiciest chili. (A little bit less baton twirling, a little bit more baguette twirling.) While the pageant process may read as sexist or largely antiquated to some (the pageants rarely select young, male royalty), the amount of pride and trust placed in these tiara-wearing women is the stuff of hometown legend.
One of the perks of being a small-town food queen is traveling to other statewide fairs as an ambassador—not only of the festival, but also of your now-signature food. Queens must learn a great deal about the agricultural background and history of their crop or dish, and may be asked to rattle off these “fun facts” at any given point. A reign as queen can also prove to be a fairly cumbersome gig physically, with potential activities ranging from royal waving on behalf of Mississippi sweet potatoes at the neighboring Mississippi Watermelon Festival (light lifting), to a catfish-eating contest hosted by the Des Allmandes Catfish Festival in Louisiana, where queens are asked to dive in face-first with their hands tied behind their backs (a serious endeavor).
While eating contests are common at food festivals for the royalty, it’s the elaborate, food-themed crowns that really steal the show. The Breaux Bridge, Louisiana Crawfish Festival crown is far and away one of the nation’s most impressive, presented as a towering display of ruby-red crustacean-shaped jewels that encircle the queen’s head like a fantasy from The Little Mermaid.
If you’re hungry for more food-festival queen insights, the festivals below are some of the country’s finest examples:
Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival
Where: Burras, LA
When: December 4–6, 2015
Louisiana is renowned for its citrus fruits, and the state celebrates its prolific production of kumquats, oranges, and satsumas each December with the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival. The Orange Festival queen is presented with a glittering tangerine-and-emerald crown fashioned to look like (what else?) oranges, and she participates in a number of citrus-themed events during the weekend-long event.
“We have queens that come from all over the state to promote their festivals. After they are presented on the main stage, we have contests for them, the biggest of which is the kumquat-stuffing contest,” explains Orange Festival President Kim Turlich-Vaughan. “We will give each of the visiting queens a container of kumquats and they see how many they can stuff in their mouth. We’ve gone up to 38 and 40. The girls thoroughly enjoy that and it’s a cute event.” (Photo: NOLA.com)
Warrens Cranberry Festival
Where: Warrens, WI
When: September 25–27, 2015
While one might surmise that Maine would be home to the country’s biggest cranberry festival, the honor actually belongs to Wisconsin. The fruit-centered event takes place in Warrens the last weekend of September, offering cranberry marsh tours and a number of cranberry-themed competitions, including a “biggest berry” showdown and pie-eating contest.
All contestants in the race for Cranberry Festival queen must live within 30 miles of Warren and are required to give a five minute cooking demonstration featuring cranberries. The queen and her two princesses eventually don elaborate, burgundy velvet frocks with matching capes for their ride in the Cranberry Festival parade. Interested ladies, take note: The reigning queen not only must be single, but isn’t allowed to marry during her one-year tenure as cranberry royalty. (Photo: cranfest.com)
International Biscuit Festival
Where: Knoxville, TN
When: May 14–16, 2015
This celebration of all things fluffy, buttery, and ready-made for a Southern breakfast is a little bit more tongue-in-cheek than other festivals, but it retains a reverence for its namesake food that’s unmatched. Founded in 2009, the festival has expanded to include a biscuit songwriting competition, biscuit art projects, and biscuit cook-offs.
The main event remains the Miss Biscuit competition, which pits biscuit-loving entrants in a contest built around “biscuit making fashion, aprons, poise, and a biscuit-related talent.” In 2014, a Mr. Biscuit competition was added into the mix, with the winning contestant sealing the deal with a dramatic spoken-word piece about his adoration for all things biscuit. (Photo: ohtheplaceswesee.com)
North Hudson Pepper Festival
Where: North Hudson, WI
When: August 14–16, 2015
While peppers usually aren’t associated with Midwestern cuisine, this annual festival has been using the spicy cultivars as a conduit for celebrating the city of North Hudson’s Italian heritage for 50-plus years. The festival began as a fundraiser for a local elementary school, and has expanded into an all-out red, white, and green blitz—including a tractor pull, hot-pepper-eating contest, and beer garden.
The Pepper Festival queen and her princesses all wear shades of satiny scarlet, and participate in a robust spaghetti-eating contest. “At our festival, we’re really big on homemade Italian food and bringing out the Italian heritage of North Hudson,” said 2014 Pepper Festival queen Elizabeth Denning. “We have a spaghetti-eating contest for all the royalty, and compete for best times in the contest to see who can eat it the fastest. There are 25 or 30 other royalties that come and form spaghetti-eating teams. The courts really practice for it. It’s kind of a big deal if you win the spaghetti-eating contest. It’s a big mental game.” (Photo: pepperfest.org)