Fall into nation’s festivals

Just when I feared it was time to stow my suitcase and bid farewell to great summer getaways, I received an invitationto attend the annualLima Bean Festival in West Cape May, N.J.

Held on Columbus Day weekend, this tribute to the pale green lima is one of many fall fairs celebrating seasonal and some not-so-seasonal foods. Come autumn, festivals extolling the joys of okra, pears and rutabaga sprout up across the United States. I can think of no better excuse for heading back out than to explore America’s countryside and cuisines.

Living in the Northeast, I don’t have to travel far to find a culinary happening. In September, I can hit the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, the McClure Bean Soup Festival and the New Bethlehem Peanut Butter Festival without leaving Pennsylvania.

Driving a bit farther north, I can enjoy the Saugerties, N.Y., homage to homegrown garlic at the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival. Heading south, I can participate in the Long Beach Island, N.J., Chowderfest Weekend, a celebration of local clams and clam chowder held the Saturday and Sunday before Columbus Day weekend.

Eager to experience a quirkier kind of food fest, I blocked off Labor Day weekend for a trip to the Midwest and the Ligonier, Ind., Marshmallow Festival. Each year, the three-day event attracts about 25,000 visitors to the northern Indiana town of 4,400.

Ligonier may lay claim to the 15-year-old jubilee, but credit goes to the ancient Egyptians for creating the marshmallow. To craft the confection, they combined honey with sap from marsh mallow plants. Hence the name marshmallow.

Despite the marshmallow’s ancient past, Ligonier’s gala includes an array of modern-day activities. Along with carnival rides, live music, a marshmallow dessert contest and massive marshmallow roast, the festival also has the world’s largest marshmallow, according to Glenn Longardner, Ligonier City Council member and treasurer of the Marshmallow Festival.

“I used to tell people we had a 207-pound marshmallow downtown and it wasn’t the new mayor,” said Mr. Longardner, who served as mayor during the festival’s early years. He added that Ligonier’s heftiest marshmallow, constructed in 1995, weighed more than 2,900 pounds.

Also claiming to have the world’s largest something, the Whole Enchilada Fiesta in Las Cruces, N.M., features mankind’s ultimate flat enchilada. Assembled on site and dished out to the hungry masses, the mammoth three-layer corn tortilla measures 10 feet in diameter. It tips the scale at more than 1,000 pounds, including 175 pounds of grated cheese and 50 pounds of chopped onion. The fiesta takes place the last weekend of September.

My passion for peanut butter may draw me to the South in fall. Plains, Ga., the birthplace and home of President Jimmy Carter, holds its annual salute to peanut production on the fourth weekend in September. Suffolk, Va., recognizes its agricultural history with a four-day fair and peanut-butter-sculpting contest Oct. 11 through 14. The Brundidge, Ala., Peanut Butter Festival, billed as a tribute to the farmers of the area, takes place on the last Saturday in October.

“We have peanut-butter finger sandwiches with peanut butter and pickles, banana, apple, honey, marshmallow and even baloney. The festival favorite, though, is fried peanuts. They are delicious,” said Delatha Mobley, chairman of the Brundidge peanut-butter recipe contest.

Along with the requisite baking contest, the festival includes peanut boiling and roasting, grinding your own peanut butter and Alabama’s largest peanut-butter-and jelly sandwich.

Along the West Coast, fairs honor everything from sausage in Everett, Wash., to abalone in Mendocino, Calif. In California in early September, you can eat your way through celebrations of chocolate in San Francisco and lemons in Ventura on Sept. 8; tomatoes in Carmel, lobsters in San Pedro or wine in San Jose on Sept. 15; and Danish food in Solvang from Sept. 21 through 23. Granted, you may return looking like Jabba the Hutt, but that may be a risk worth taking.

To end the feasting on a healthier note, you could stop by the Kelseyville Pear Festival. Begun 15 years ago as a nod to California pear farmers, the festival includes pear cooking demonstrations, a 4-course pear dinner, pear tastings and a pear packing competition, according to festival chairman Marilyn Holdenried.

Though food remains the main and obvious attraction of these events, historical exhibits and tours of farms, orchards and vineyards may be an enticement to some tourists. Of her trip to last year’s mushroom festival, Connie Ritchey of the Norristown, Pa., St. John’s Soup Kitchen said, “I particularly enjoyed the tour of the mushroom growing factory, complete with lecture and nifty surgical caps.”

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