Food festivals celebrate the flavors of the South

Nosh on watermelon, cornbread, crawfish, grits and more at these culinary festivities.
Celebrate the Vidalia onion harvest at the Vidalia Onions Festival April 20-23 in Vidalia, Georgia. / Courtesy of the Vidalia Onion Festival

Credit: Courtesy of the Vidalia Onion Festival

Credit: Courtesy of the Vidalia Onion Festival

Celebrate the Vidalia onion harvest at the Vidalia Onions Festival April 20-23 in Vidalia, Georgia. / Courtesy of the Vidalia Onion Festival

Nearly 50 years ago, the members of the Vidalia chapter of Lions Club International and the Vidalia Womens Club came together to put together an event with an unlikely object of celebration: Onions.

The Vidalia Onion Festival, which promotes the sweet yellow Vidalia onion that the Georgia town of roughly 10,000 is best known for, drew a small crowd in 1977 with a 5K run and vendors selling arts and crafts.

The festival has grown over the years, with last year’s slate of activities including appearances by country music star Lee Brice and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, attracting more than 25,000 people.

“Things have come and gone, but there are still those core events that happen every year,” said Alexa Britton, the marketing chairperson for the festival and executive director of the Vidalia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can look back and see the variety that we’ve had over the years. It’s definitely evolved.”

The same can be said of many of the food and drink festivals, both big and small, across the Southeast, as they try to attract more people while maintaining traditions that go back years or even decades.

To get a taste of what the region has to offer this spring and summer, gas up your car and get these food festivals on your calendar.

A boy gets weighed after entering the Grits Pit during the National Grits Festival in Warwick. / Courtesy of the National Grits Festival

Credit: Courtesy of the National Grits Festival

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Credit: Courtesy of the National Grits Festival

National Grits Festival

In 2003, Sonny Perdue, then the governor of Georgia, proclaimed the city of Warwick “Grits Capital of the World.” The town has leaned into its reputation with the National Grits Fest, which brings together more than 1,000 people over a weekend to honor the Southern staple. Other than a grits cook off, which in the past has showcased recipes for chocolate grits cake and white chicken grit chili, the most anticipated event of the weekend is the Grits Pit. Whoever emerges from a giant trough filled with hundreds of pounds of prepared grits with the most boiled cornmeal on their bodies — participants are weighed before and after — goes home with cash prizes.

April 7-9. Free. Downtown Warwick.

Vidalia Onion Festival

Peel back the layers of this multi-day festival celebrating the harvest of Georgia’s official state vegetable with activities including an onion ring tent that in years past has fried up more than 500 pounds of onions; an onion eating contest; a blessing of the harvest by a local clergy person; an onion painting class with mimosas; and a Vidalia onion recipe contest with a public tasting.

April 20-23. Free, $40-$175 for concerts. 100 Vidalia Sweet Onion Drive, Vidalia.

South Walton Beaches Food & Wine Festival

For more than 10 years, Florida’s South Walton has been home to this four-day festival, which welcomes a roster of dozens of celebrity winemakers, distillers, chefs and mixologists at the Grand Boulevard mixed-use development. Events include the Winemakers and Shakers dinner; a Craft Beer and Spirits Jam; and the Grand Tasting, which offers sips of more than 500 wines; food tastings at the Savor South Walton Culinary Village; tasting seminars; chef demos; and the Nashville Songwriters Showcase.

April 27-30. $40-$450. Grand Boulevard at Sandestin, 495 Grand Blvd., Miramar Beach, Florida.

National Cornbread Festival

Head to this festival’s Cornbread Alley to sample nine different kinds of cornbread, including Flavors of the South varieties that are new this year. Or show off your cooking skills in the cornbread cook-off. There’s also a bike race, live music, a carnival and art and crafts vendors to keep you busy in between bites.

April 29-30. $10-$15. South Pittsburg, Tennessee.

West Alabama Food and Wine Festival

Wash down more than 25 bites from some of West Alabama’s top chefs with wine, beer and spirits from local purveyors. This year’s participating restaurants include Evangeline’s, Half Shell Oyster House, Avenue Pub and Central Mesa, with beer coming from local breweries like Tallulah Brewing Co. and spirits from Alabama’s Clyde May’s distillery. Proceeds benefit the West Alabama Food Bank.

4:30-7:30 p.m. April 30. $85. Downtown Northport, Alabama.

Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival

The crawfish gets its due during this three-day festival, which has attracted thousands of guests annually since 1960. Sample dishes including crawfish étouffée, fried crawfish, crawfish boudin, crawfish po’boys and boiled crawfish; show off your cooking skills in the crawfish étouffée cook-off; race your little red guy in the crawfish races; and enter the crawfish eating contest. (You’ll have to eat more than 55 pounds to break the record.) The festival is also one of the largest gatherings of Cajun musicians, and you can show off your moves during the Cajun and Zydeco dance contests.

May 5-7. $5-$15. Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. This barbecue competition, which dubs itself “the largest pork barbecue contest in the world,” returns for the 45th year with teams vying for the coveted World Championship crown. Events include the BBQ Alley by Big Green Egg & Friends tasting experience with food from four barbecue restaurants and Big Green Egg and the Kingsford Tour of Champions, which gives guests the chance to judge and sample barbecue and listen to teams explain their craft. Purchase the VIP ticket for access to events on all four days of the festival.

May 17-20. $15-$549. Tom Lee Park, Riverside Drive, Memphis.

Vendors serve up fresh, local seafood at the Blue Crab Festival in Little River, South Carolina. / Courtesy of the Blue Crab Festival

Credit: Courtesy of the Blue Crab Festival

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Credit: Courtesy of the Blue Crab Festival

Blue Crab Festival

What began in 1981 as a small waterfront gathering aimed at drawing visitors to the historic Little River Waterfront is now one of the largest street festivals in the Southeast, with more than 250 vendors. Try the blue crabs Little River is known for or other kinds of fresh seafood while listening to live music, perusing arts and crafts and attending a car show.

May 20-21. $7, free for children 12 and under. Little River, South Carolina.

New Orleans Food & Wine Experience. Head to the Crescent City for this festival that hosts a variety of events and dinners over five days. Learn about Japan’s fermented rice beverage at Journey to Japan and Beyond: An Exploration of Sake’s Past, Present, and Future, or bake up some fun at Cake Decorating with Edible Flowers led by Bronwen Wyatt of Bayou Saint Cake. Main stage events include the Tournament of Rosés, which offers tastes of still and sparkling rosés from France, Spain, Italy, United States and the Southern Hemisphere, and the Grand Tasting, which showcases wines from around the world and food served by some of New Orleans’ best chefs.

June 7-11. $75-$1,000. Multiple locations.

Cordele Watermelon Days Festival celebrates the juiciest of summer fruit. / Courtesy of Cordele Watermelon Days

Credit: Courtesy of Cordele Watermelon Days

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Credit: Courtesy of Cordele Watermelon Days

Cordele Watermelon Days Festival

One of the oldest festivals in Georgia, the Cordele Watermelon Days Festival, has been celebrating the melon since 1949, when the town of Cordele shipped and grew more watermelons than anywhere around. The town defended its title of Watermelon Capital of the World in taste tests against melons grown in Hope, Arkansas, and Hempstead, Texas. “Ours were voted the juiciest, crispiest and sweetest,” says Monica Simmons, president of the Cordele-Crisp Chamber of Commerce. Today, the town hosts more than 30 events including a watermelon parade; contests in watermelon throwing, watermelon eating and seed spitting; an arts and crafts fair; and food vendors offering watermelon-flavored smoothies, ice cream, cupcakes and other juicy items.

June 24. Free. Downtown Cordele.

Natchez Food & Wine Festival

Find out what Natchez has to offer by way of this three-day festival that returns in 2023 after a five-year hiatus. The Friday night Tastings Along the River event will include participants from the Jackson area, Delta region and Memphis, along with regional wine and craft beer vendors. Saturday’s events include cooking demonstrations using local produce at the farmers market and a wine and cheese tasting. In the evening, choose between the casual Bocce, Blues and Brews event at Natchez Brewing Company or dress up for a formal five-course meal with wine pairings presented at historic homes around town.

July 27-29. Prices vary. Downtown Natchez, Mississippi.

More festivals to check out:

South Carolina Strawberry Festival. Fort Mill, South Carolina. April 14-May 2.

Asheville Bread Festival. April 22-23. Asheville, North Carolina.

North Carolina Pickle Festival. Mount Olive, North Carolina. April 29.

Georgia Blueberry Festival. Alma. June 2-3.

Georgia Peach Festival. Fort Valley. June 2-3 and June 10.

North Carolina Peach Festival. Candor, North Carolina. July 13-15.