I love my state this time of the year! You can tell you’re in Tennessee when the days begin to warm and the trees change from dark brown to colorful pastels, as well as by the number of festivals being held across our Volunteer State. Spring is a wonderful time to celebrate the changing of the season after Ol’ Man Winter ran us all indoors for the past several months. It also gives us rural types a good reason to get out and enjoy a lot of celebrations that relate to numerous things.
Those of us who are native Tennesseans have the unique desire to want to hold festivals to honor food, animals, or some type of produce. It must be in our nature because if you check the coming events section of most of our reading materials, you’ll find the majority of our festivals support those three areas of our culture. We honor the mule, bird dog, fainting goat, bee, horse, cornbread, strawberry, poke sallet, soybean, cotton, catfish, apple, peach, molasses, kudzu, pig, and many others too numerous to mention in this limited space.
Being one who really enjoys this time of the year, I’m glad these festivals urge people to pull on their favorite tee shirt and head out to see some type of Tennessee festival at its best.
Being somewhat of a specialist in good country cooking and also a bit on the unusual side, I was invited for a number of years to be a judge at the Annual National Cornbread Festival for the 4-H Division Cook-off in South Pittsburg, Tenn. Due to a few tummy surgeries, I turned that job over to a very capable coworker, and now stick to judging my own cooking, which is pretty good if I do say so myself. If you’ve never attended the National Cornbread Festival, then you had better plan to be there the last weekend of April because it’s the event of a lifetime.
For a cornbread lover like me, just to savor the smells and tastes of everything cornbread in one day’s visit was almost more than I could stand. And then to have the opportunity to taste the ten best recipes of cornbread out of more than 100 entries from 4-H members from all parts of the country and this state, you had to know was in “country cookin’ heaven.”
I got VIP parking, a large rosette judge’s ribbon, and several goodies from festival cook-off sponsors Lodge Cast Iron Cookware and Martha White. For a southern fat boy, what more could you ask for? But the greatest part of the day was meeting and judging the contest for 10 of the most charming 4-H members you would ever want to meet.
They were elementary students, but they all had just as much determination and skill as the adults, who would bake their goods during the afternoon national contest.
The contest is held early in the morning, and each contestant has to prepare his or her own recipe on a stage before hundreds of watching festival goers. After mixing their ingredients, they bake their cornbread creation on stage for the judges. They’re then judged on appearance, creativity, presentation, cooking techniques, product color, shape, crust, texture, and, most important of all, flavor. They must also prepare their recipe in cast iron cookware. As I always say, “Anytime you encounter cornbread made in a cake pan, you’re dealing with imposters.”
The cornbread dishes I’ve tasted those past years were all really good, and trying to pick a winner was tough. I ate enough cornbread on those judging days that all I had to do for supper at night was drink water and swell.
It’s a treat to see these kids put their all into being the best. Lodge and Martha White are to be congratulated for promoting the town of South Pittsburg, but most of all for getting these young people a chance to “make the best better.”
During the festival, you can tour the lodge plant located in South Pittsburg, see hundreds of arts and crafts, watch the cook-off, go down Cornbread Alley, and basically have a really good time.
Maybe someday they’ll let me judge the big contest, or even enter the Celebrity Cook-off. Just don’t put me up against those 4-Hers. They’re good at what they do.
Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.