More than an onslaught of mosquitoes or the season's first roller coaster mishap, nothing announces the arrival of summer like a food festival.
It's at these events that you can find barbecued lima beans (the Lima Bean Festival in West Cape May, N.J.), garlic ice cream (the Gilroy, Calif., Garlic Festival) or flash-frozen popcorn balls on a stick ( Taste of Chicago).
Beyond the food are the rides, games, petting zoos, vendors, live music and carneys. It's easy to see how a person can get overwhelmed.
"If you're going to a festival, by all means first go to the Web site and check it out and get a list of things on there," said Mary Lu Gregor, executive director of the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the Whiting, Ind., Pierogi Festival every July (she's also crowd favorite Ms. Paczki).
"If you're coming as a group — family or people from work — sit down and say, 'These are things we know we want to hit.'"
That way, she said, you can determine if four hours is enough time, or if you need to make it a two-day visit.
"In our case," said Joyce Godbold, executive director of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, NOWFE, "we have 120 wineries and 50 dishes to taste (at the festival's Grand Tastings). And in the same room, you've got everyone you ever knew — New Orleans is a big social city — so you get trapped in a conversation that you want to be in. And there's 50 dishes calling your name or 120 wines begging to be tasted."
You can't just march into the Oakdale, Calif., Testicle Festival and expect to have a good time. No, you need to think ahead.
So we asked around, did a little meandering ourselves at NOWFE, and tried to come up with a few tips for navigating these summertime food and drink extravaganzas.
Some people attend food fests hoping to discover the best barbecue sauce or to sample new wines. Others go for the carnival atmosphere. Still others are there for the awesome activities (we're thinking of the scrapple-carving competition at the Apple Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville, Del.).
Sometimes, it's just the thing to do.
"People know what it is," said Andy Wilson, spokesman for the four-day Rib America Festivals held in St. Louis (Memorial Day weekend) and Indianapolis ( Labor Day weekend). "We're in the 15th year in Indianapolis and the 11th year in St. Louis. It's a unique thing to that holiday weekend in both those cities. Once you're around 10 years you become a tradition. It's, hey, it's Memorial Day weekend, you know what that means: Rib America is back."
Take care of yourself. Stay hydrated, avoid standing in long lines in the sun, remain sober.
"I would say wear comfortable shoes," Godbold added.
Be well-rested for your adventure.
"Everyone else is going and they worked the midnight shift," Gregor said. "They're going to end up laying under a tree. They're not going to be able to make it."
No such problems at the Rib America Festivals, which are held in shady parks, where visitors are allowed to bring lawn chairs, making for a comfy way to spend a day. Even better, admission is free before certain hours.
"Come early, bring a chair, that's what I would like if I was a patron," Wilson said.
Use your time wisely
Godbold suggested you check the festival's program in advance and determine what you absolutely have to do. After that, play it by ear.
"Pick out your top things you want to taste and make it your mission to go to those," she said. "Then the rest of it, just let it happen."
At the St. Louis Rib America event, Wilson — obviously a pro — plotted his weekend so he could hit all the rib vendors on hand.
"All the ribs are different, all the sauces are different. One guy's sandwich isn't the same as the next guy's. It truly is a different experience each time you go."
At the Pierogi Festival, it pays to call ahead to ask about things such as what's the best entrance to use, which stop should be first, and what else is going on.
"This year, our International Polka Parade, is our biggest event," Gregor said. "You will have the most people per inch on the sidewalks. That's not a time you can just walk around and stop at the food vendors. It's good to know that."
At NOWFE's Royal Street Stroll, every minute I spent wandering through an antique gallery on Royal Street was a minute I could have spent in line waiting for a treat from the kitchen of GW Fins. And really, what matters more, a $19,000 chandelier or a blue crab pot sticker?
The health benefits
Ha! . . . OK, you walk a lot. It's a hike from the french fry booth to the beer tent.
The little ones?
A wine festival is no place for a kid. Heck, some children shouldn't be allowed at "family-oriented" events.
Then again, these things are an educational opportunity. Imagine the sparkle in little Johnny's eyes when he sees the world's largest frying pan in action at the Delmarva Chicken Festival.
These outings also introduce them to the idea of summer festivals, which isn't such a bad thing to expose kids to.
Don't be timid
A food festival is not the time to play it safe. Be bold. Take chances. That explains the oyster shooters one afternoon in New Orleans.
Also, this bit of dialog with my wife as we walked down Royal Street. I was sipping something blue.
Me: "This tastes like paint thinner."
Her: "Well, get rid of it."
Me: "I like it."
Off you go now.
The line is forming for the deep-fried butter balls. Get over there and enjoy.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun