Thankfully, autumn is more than just endless iterations of pumpkins and apples. For every local Oktoberfest and Heritage Fest, there’s a small town aching for outsiders to know about their non-seasonal fall food activities. Since it’ll be getting colder, fall’s the best time to take a weekend warm-weather trip, or to visit a foliage-heavy destination of the Midwest. And it’s time to gear up for fall’s best treasures, food-wise. These festivals run the gamut, food-wise, and are eagerly anticipated by thousands every year.
West Virginia Autumn Harvest Festival and Roadkill Cook-Off, September 26, Marlinton, West Virginia
Okay, the name of the festival is quite off-putting, but to elucidate, the food ingredients involve animals that could be roadkill but not necessarily have been scraped off the side of the road and boiled in a vat. In the context of this festival, at least, they consider these unlucky rodents and animals to be “roadkill”: deer, groundhog, opossum, rabbit, bears (is that legal?), crow, squirrel, snake, cows, chickens, pigs—you get the idea. The fest wouldn’t be what it is without the cook-off. Last year’s second place winner named their dish “Chunks and More,” and the third place winner won with braised venison. Cook-off rules specify that the dish must be made with at least 25 percent game, and cooks are not allowed to gut or skin the animal on-site. If literally eating crow isn’t your thing, participate in the beauty pageant, dog show (probably non-dead dogs), or a biscuit bake-off.
18th Annual Nekoosa Giant Pumpkin Fest, October 3-4, Nekoosa, Wisconsin
Held in Riverside Park, the fest caters to both those who love looking at sizable examples of everyone’s favorite orange winter squash, and those who love pumpkin everything: pumpkin pie, pumpkin butter, pumpkin cake, and pumpkin mousse brownies. The Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off features farmers lugging their pumpkins to the fest to see whose pumpkin will break the scale. Last year, the winning pumpkin weighed an unprecedented 1,644.5 pounds (GMOs?). The main event, though, entails dropping a large pumpkin from atop a 100-foot crane. If impoverished children in Africa knew about this, they would probably say, “Why are Americans wasting food for entertainment purposes?” But, yunno, it looks cool. Besides watching a pumpkin explode in a field, attendees can ride the Ferris wheel, carve some pumpkins, buy some produce from the Farmers’ Market, roll pumpkins down the street, and enter the pumpkin pie eating contest.
46th Annual Ohio Sauerkraut Festival, October 10-11, Waynesville, Ohio
A whole festival dedicated to “sour cabbage” seems a bit much, but the fest’s more than just kraut. With over 450 booths, vendors come from 25 states to sell their wares. All of the food booths are community driven non-profit organizations—schools, churches, civic groups—and the booths pocket 100 percent of the proceeds. When the fest started in 1970, 1,500 visitors feasted on 528 pounds of kraut; today, seven tons of kraut is served to 350,000 visitors over the fall weekend. Sauerkraut appears on pizza, in fudge, in pies, in cabbage rolls, in the beloved Ohio fried delicacy called sauerkraut balls, in Reuben sandwiches, and in what’s called a German sundae (mashed potatoes, bacon bits, cheese, and an olive acting as a cherry), but vendors also sell kraut-free foodstuffs such as mozzarella sticks and corn dogs. One caveat, though: The festival doesn’t sell booze, so don’t expect kraut-infused German beer.
Cincinnati Chocolate Festival, October 11, Cincinnati, Ohio
Founded in 2010, the Chocolate Festival has been satisfying sweet tooths for a few years. Xavier University hosts local chocolatiers such as the local Chocolats Latour, Dayton, Ohio’s Esther Price, Graeter’s superpremium ice cream, Cincy’s only bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers Maverick (try their hot chocolate, and Taft’s Ale House Maverick Chocolate Porter, made with their cocoa nibs), Macaron Bar, and cupcake makers. For an extra $15, you get admission to the Maverick Chocolate Lounge, where chocolate gets paired with wine. Besides the opportunity to stuff your maw with chocolate, the fest will have a cooking demo with Food Network chef Ben Vaughn. Proceeds from the festival support the Isaac M. Wise Temple Sisterhood.
Circleville Pumpkin Show, Oct 21-Oct 24, Circleville, Ohio
Yet another pumpkin-themed festival, the Pumpkin Show’s been going on since 1903 and brings in about 400,000 tourists over the four days. No pumpkin drops here, but they offer the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-In (last year’s couple set a record with a 1,964-pound pumpkin. Suck it, Wisconsin!), seven parades, and a 6-foot wide pumpkin pie weighing over 400 pounds. As for other foods, the festival offers a good combination of sweet (pumpkin milkshakes, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin donuts) and savory dishes (pumpkin soup, pumpkin burgers).
Cincinnati Cheese Festival, November 6, Cincinnati, Ohio
You had us at “cheese.”Gourmet Foods International, Kroger, and Murray’s Cheese are throwing the inaugural festival, which will take place at Moerlein Brewing Company. Over 60 cheese vendors and cheesemongers will give out samples of 300 cheeses from all over the world. Part of the proceeds go toward the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, so you can eat cheese for a cause. There will be stinky cheeses, possibly beer cheese, and maybe vegan cheeses (for those who are lactose intolerant), orange cheeses, and sweeter cheeses. For the $40 general admission, you get to taste cheeses and get two drink tickets for beer and wine. If you roll V.I.P. ($55), you get to show up half an hour earlier than those non-V.I.P. plebeians, and you get a swag bag, four drink tickets, and a cheese and beer pairing seminar. The website says “unlimited tastings”—they better mean it. Can you OD on cheese?
The 12th Annual Pecan Festival, November 7, Florence, South Carolina
Pecans (pronounced pee-khans in South) grow in the Palmetto State, which is why the city of Florence puts on an 11-block pun-worthy festival surrounding the nut that’s high in fiber and manganese. What matches better with pecans than Three Dog Night? Because the classic rock band is one of the many nutty musical acts performing throughout the day. (Last year, the fest snagged Average White Band.) Highlights include 250 arts, crafts, and food vendors; “Run Like A Nut” and “Bike Like A Nut” races; a pecan coo- off with prizes for best desserts, appetizers, and entrees made with—what else—pecans. And there’s also a car show, an antique tractor show, a cornhole competition, and a sidewalk chalk drawing contest in which the winner gets a $250 Visa gift card.
50th Annual Chitlin Strut, November 28, Salley, South Carolina
What began in 1966 as a way for the townspeople to raise money for Christmas lights has transformed into a huge deal. Only around 400 people live in the small Southern town, but 50,000 folks visit for the one-day fest, which celebrates the acquired-taste delicacy of small intestines, a.k.a. chitlins or chitterlings. This year, the Strut will honor their golden anniversary, and since its inception, over a half-million pounds of chitlins have been consumed. Besides camping out and cooking chitlins, the fest puts on a baby to teenager-aged beauty pageant, a parade, a carnival, helicopter rides, a hog calling contest, and a Strut dance contest. In April, the House of Representatives named November 28, 2015 Chitlin Strut Day in the state. Poor, poor, pigs.
Garin Pirnia, who has a weird, made-up name, is a freelance arts and culture writer and has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, Mental Floss, and many other publications. Twitter: @gpirnia