For many travelers, a vacation is about seeing the world's great sights and attractions, a perfectly respectable reason to get out of the house. For others, trips are for de-stressing the mind or working the bod. If, however, you're the type who's inclined to work your incisors, know that you can plot an entire year's travels around eating well -- particularly if you're in the hunt for seasonal foodstuffs that are: freshly harvested and at their taste-bursting peak, and/or local seasonal specialties that have been crafted with love and a native sensibility.
Indeed, many of the world's most beloved foods are invested with a soul-stirring sense of place, inextricably tied to a locale either by tradition or serendipitous growing conditions. Entire celebrations have been designed around seasonal foods with deep community connections -- and for food lovers, they make perfect weekend getaways. Brunswick, Georgia's October Stewbilee (www.brunswickstewbilee.com), for example, celebrates the many nuances of Brunswick stew, the classic recipe created, oh, a long time ago either here or in Brunswick County, Virginia -- both claim it with a passion. The Gilroy Garlic Festival (www.gilroygarlicfestival.com), held in Gilroy, California, in July, was created some 30 years ago to bolster local officials' claims that the town is the garlic capital of the world. (By the time you get to the garlic ice cream, you may be convinced). And oyster festivals too numerous to list (Milford, CT; Shelton, WA; Chincoteague, VA; Charleston, SC, among them) celebrate those months when the local bivalve is at its fattest and tastiest.
But food festivals are only one way to celebrate a seasonal treat or a local specialty. Sometimes it's just a matter of being in the right place in the right season. Here are some favorite seasonal food moments and memories from the editors at Frommer's.
February-March: Sweet Maine Shrimp
- Into the doldrums of a Northeast winter comes a miraculous flash of pure, briny flavor: fresh Maine shrimp. "Flash" is the operative word here, for the season for these small, intensely sweet shrimp drawn from the icy waters of the Gulf of Maine lasts in terms of weeks. The fishery for Maine, or northern shrimp, can be considered artisanal: It's a small harvest, but a highly anticipated one for seafood aficionados who prefer the taste of fresh-off-the-boat shrimp to the frozen imported varieties flooding the American market. If you're traveling along Maine's coastline in the late winter, you can find the shrimp in seafood markets and restaurants. They're particularly prized in their raw state in sushi bars -- and you can also snag them in better seafood markets in urban areas along the Northeast Corridor. -- Alexis Lipsitz Flippin
April: Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival
- Bluebonnets aren't the only topic of conversation in the Texas Hill Country in springtime. Come April, on the lips of food lovers everywhere is the Saveu Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival (www.texaswineandfood.org). Headquartered at the Four Seasons Hotel on Town Lake in downtown Austin, the festival -- in 2006 it celebrates its 21st year -- boasts more than 30 events, including cooking classes (from Texas barbecue and grits 'n' gravy to Hawaiian fusion), a fine wine auction, luncheons at local wineries, wine seminars, and the Stars Across Texas grand tasting. Local venues, each with its own unique Texas flavor, host these events, which range from down-home to black-tie affairs. Of course, no event in Austin would be complete without live music, which fills the air at the culminating Sunday Fair. Local wineries, restaurants, craft brewers, and Texas food producers are among the tasting-tent purveyors on the last day of the festival.
Note: While the 2006 dates have been set (Apr. 6-9), prices have not. Check the festival's website for more information in the weeks ahead. -- Cate Latting
May: Nantucket Wine Festival
- I'll admit it: I got a little tipsy at the Nantucket Wine Festival. But it was all in the name of research for this annual 5-day extravaganza, which brings together international winemakers, oenophiles, and curious amateurs alike. My liver was most sorely tested at the popular Grand Tasting, held over the weekend under a tent near Jetties Beach, where, for $80, you have a two-hour pass to sample wines from more than 150 international vineyards. It sounds overwhelming, but this is a great place to taste some fantastic wines in a fun, casual setting, and the friendly winemakers are happy to answer questions. My tips: Ask for small samples, drink water, and stick with one or two grape varietals so you can taste for discrepancies. (I was on a zinfandel kick for almost an hour). Other festival events range from the more intimate Wine & Food Seminars ($50-$100 each) to lavish moneybag galas like the Celebrity Chef & Winemaker Auction Dinner ($175), which brings out the real Thurston Howell III types. Foodies should not miss the lavishly gourmet Charity Gala ($125), a buffet of everything from foie-gras crème brûlée to frog-leg-and-escargot sausage -- each paired with an appropriate wine, of course. Log onto www.nantucketwinefestival.com for details and package deals. -- Stephen Bassman
May: Derby Pie
- A few years ago, I visited a friend from Louisville, Kentucky, during the first week of May, just as the Kentucky Derby was about to start. Unfortunately, I had to leave Louisville before the annual triple-crown horse race officially kicked off, and was heartbroken about missing the famous event. As consolation, my friend baked me what she claimed is the best thing about the Kentucky Derby: Derby Pie. Sure enough, I took one bite of the rich, sugary custard pie, stuffed with chocolate chips and walnuts and topped with whipped cream, and instantly forgot the race.
My friend and I ended up sampling a number of other Derby pies at parties during my visit, and I learned that most folks from Kentucky consider the weeklong celebrations leading up to the Derby to be as important as the race itself. (The words "rite of spring" and "Derby Pie" are often mentioned in the same breath). Ever since, I've made it a tradition to observe the start of spring by baking my own chocolate concoction, though nothing comes close to the pies down south.
Derby Pie was invented over 50 years ago by Alan Rupp, who still churns out 100,000 of the pies annually at Kern's Kitchen (tel. 502/499-0285; www.derbypie.com), just east of Louisville. But if you're lucky enough to land in Louisville during the Kentucky Derby, I recommend getting tickets to the race and sampling one of the pies at Churchill Downs. (Check out www.kentuckyderby.com for information). Race or not, just be sure to order a mint julep to sip on while you eat, to get the genuine, comfort-food experience. --Jennifer Reilly
July-August: The Butterbean
- At any other time of year, the lima bean is the dull solid citizen of foodstuffs, offering itself up as a reliable meat-and-potatoes side dish unceremoniously plucked from the frozen-food section of the supermarket (it's also ubiquitous canned or pureed into taste-challenged infant food). But as part of summer's lineup of fresh-off-the-vine produce, this Rotary Club old reliable throws off its glasses and lets down its hair -- and in the South, becomes the voluptuous butterbean. Butterbeans are as Southern as fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and sweet iced tea, and pair beautifully with their summer counterpart, fresh corn, in that old favorite, succotash.
Full disclosure: I love butterbeans. I would eat butterbeans for every meal if I could, but that may be part of the butterbean's appeal: its hard-to-get status. Fresh butterbeans are only available during a small window of summer, usually after a long spell of hot, dry weather in mid- to late July and lasting through August -- are and rarely found in any other part of the country other than the South, from Virginia down to Mississippi.
Alas, I know of no festival celebrating the butterbean's elusive charms. So where do you find fresh butterbeans? Any late-summer roadside vegetable stand in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi should have them, and if they're already shelled, grab 'em, cause they're gold. Then simply wash them and place in a pot filled with water, a pinch of sugar, a sprinkling of pepper, and a dollop of either butter or bacon grease (oh, quit your kvetching -- butterbeans are loaded with B vitamins and fiber). Cook until they're soft and pliant, not al dente (about 45 min.). Ladle yourself a bowlful, and sit back and savor summer in the South. -- Alexis Lipsitz Flippin
September: Okra Strut, Irmo, South Carolina
- Well, I can't believe I missed the Okra Strut again this year! If you've never been to Irmo, South Carolina (where I attended high school and also wrote for the local newspaper), you have never strutted okra. From a joke by a radio disc jockey more than 30 years ago to a 3-day festival, the Okra Strut has taken on a life of its own, illuminating a small corner of Lexington County (not far from Columbia in the Midlands of the Palmetto State) and a vegetable some find delectable (me! me!) and others find, well...slimy. You can keep your Elgin Catfish Stomp, your Salley Chitlin Strut, and Loris Bog-Off Festival (for that admittedly excellent concoction, chicken bog); give me okra, preferably fried, with ketchup.
Once the hamlet of Frog Level, Irmo acquired its current name to honor a Mr. Irwin and a Mr. Mosely in an effort to get the railroad to run through town. When the Strut began, Irmo was rapidly morphing from farming community to high-end suburb. Some wag had named the hardware store in the tiny town "Ancient Irmese General Store." A local radio personality opined that the Ancient Irmese were probably short people, a farming tribe who lived off okra. The local women's club, which was starting to raise funds for the area's first library, seized on the idea and held the first Okra Strut (an arts & craft fair) in the mid-'70s.
The rest is slimy, green history. By 2005, the festival had become a 3-day event (Sept. 22-24), with a golf tournament, musical performances, a street dance, and the largest festival parade in South Carolina, where they take their festivals seriously. For more information on the festival, see www.irmookrastrut.com; for other festivals celebrating food and towns in South Carolina, see www.festivalsandevents.com/festival.php?state=SC. -- Kathleen Warnock
September-October: The Big E: West Springfield, Massachusetts
- I never missed the Big E -- the Eastern States Exposition, that is -- from the time I was two until I went off to college. Nothing deterred me. As much as I loved rides -- the fair has an amazing Midway -- and animals (Holstein contests to sheep-grooming shows), it was the food that drew me to West Springfield, Massachusetts, every September. Founded in 1916, the Big E is the ninth largest fair in the country and the only one to feature more than one state. The fair's creator came up with the idea of an "Avenue of the States." Each New England state built a life-size replica of its original state capitol; the states even own the land these buildings sit on. History aside, every year I strolled down the Avenue of the States in a very particular order: sampling the best crispy clamcakes from the Rhode Island building, baked potato and blueberries (not together!) from Maine, apples from Massachusetts, and milk from Connecticut. I saved the best for last: Vermont's spun maple, a maple-sugar-based variation on cotton candy. The fair's "Better Living" building, which originally held Vitamix demonstrations, with salesmen handing out little paper cups of blended vegetables and fruits, is now equipped with a kitchen "theater" that last year hosted Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis. Can't wait to go back! The fair runs for 17 days in late September to early October, on 1305 Memorial Avenue, West Springfield, Massachusetts. Gates open at 8am, and most exhibits stay open until 10pm; the state buildings shut their doors at 9pm. The Midway hours: daily 11am to 10pm, Saturday and Sunday to 11pm (except the last Sat, which closes down earlier). For info, call tel. 413/205-5115 or 413/737-2443. -- Naomi Black
September/October: Apple Picking in New England
- Autumn is full of moments that titillate the senses: wrapping a wool scarf around your neck and inhaling crisp, cool air; stomping booted feet on crunchy dried leaves; running the tips of your fingers along smooth and bumpy orange pumpkin skins; biting into a hot, sugar-coated apple-cider donut--and then washing it down with apple cider. For me, none of these moments compare to being handed a paper bag and dropping into it smooth, shiny, green and yellow and red apples plucked from a tree branch. Admittedly, part of the fun is also the sneaky taste test--a stolen Macoun or Macintosh straight from tree to mouth.
As a kid growing up in New York's Westchester County, my mom, dad, sister, and I would officially welcome fall by piling into the station wagon and heading to Salingers Orchard (230 Guinea Rd., Brewster, NY; tel. 845/277-3521; www.salingersorchard.com). Here, my sister and I would pet the goats at the petting zoo, peruse the pumpkin patch to find our jack-o-lanterns, and pick up delicious autumn goodies from the orchard's farm market and bakery. But Salingers doesn't offer apple picking. For that, we'd head to nearby Outhouse Orchards (Hard Scrabble Rd., Croton Falls NY; tel. 914/277-3188). At Outhouse, a hayride delivers you to the apple trees. More recently, I discovered the apple-picking charms of Barlett's Orchard (575 Swamp Rd., Richmond, MA; tel. 413/698-2559; www.bartlettsorchard.com) in the Berkshires. A good friend who grew up near New Haven, CT, recommends Hickory Hills Orchards (351 South Meriden Rd., Cheshire, CT 06410; tel. 203/272-3824). For more listings of places to pick apples in Connecticut, go to www.ct.gov/doag/cwp/view.asp?a=1368&q=259886; for more in New York, go to www.nyapplecountry.com/cidersellers.php?county=Westchester; and for more in the wider New England region, go to www.gonewengland.about.com/cs/farmersmarkets/a/aaappleharvest.htm. -- Jennifer Anmuth
November: New York's Annual Chocolate Show
- Catch me daydreaming anytime in autumn, and I'm likely thinking about New York's Annual Chocolate Show, a 4-day festival held just a few subway stops from the Frommer's office each November. This show is every chocoholic's fantasy: More than 75 booths, spread out over 40,000 square feet in Chelsea's chic Metropolitan Pavilion and Altman Building, offer samples of everything from milk and dark chocolate to green tea chocolate, chipotle chile chocolate, ginger chocolate, and black pepper chocolate. But just eating chocolate is apparently passé. Here you can get chocolate-infused spa treatments at the Chocolate Spa, then sip a chocolate martini in the Chocolate Lounge while junior makes chocolate crafts in the Kid's Corner. It all resembles a Parisian Wonka factory for adults, with a sense of high fashion and creativity that peaks at the opening night fashion show ($150); models wear the latest in chocolate couture (hello, chocolate pasties!), which are then displayed on mannequins during the festival. Even if you don't eat chocolate, this festival is an invigorating jolt. Prices are $25 for adults, free for your first two kids under 12, and $8 for additional kids. Larger samples cost $1-$4 extra. Visit www.chocolateshow.com. -- Stephen Bassman
December: Vermicel & GlÂ¿hwein (Switzerland, Germany & Austria)
- Many tourists visiting Switzerland in the winter walk into a confiseries (pastry shops) looking for a slice of pie and come away perplexed by the bowls of gray spaghetti sitting next to apple tarts. The confection is actually a Swiss dessert called Vermicel: Chestnut puree is mixed with heavy cream, and the firm mixture is then pressed through a contraption with small holes at the end. When the mixture is pressed through the holes, the puree emerges in long strands of vermicelli-like noodles. The "noodles" are placed in a bowl, in layers between crumbled meringue bits and dollops of fresh whipped cream.
Glühwein, a hot mulled-wine concoction with red wine, brandy, or rum, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and slices of lemon and orange, is often found at the typical German Christkindlmärkte (Christmas markets) in December. You can also find the warm alcoholic brew for sale in restaurants and in GlÂ¿hwein huts perched on ski slopes in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland throughout the ski season, generally December through April. -- Caroline Sieg
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