Spring food festivals beckon travelers across the Southeast

Tacos, barbecue, seafood, wine and more are on the menu from New Orleans to the Space Coast.
Soul food is the cuisine of choice at Athens' Hot Corner Festival the second weekend of June.
(Courtesy of Hot Corner Festival)

Credit: Jessica Brooks

Credit: Jessica Brooks

Soul food is the cuisine of choice at Athens' Hot Corner Festival the second weekend of June. (Courtesy of Hot Corner Festival)

With festival season fully upon us, foodies rejoice. Between now and mid-June there are plenty of reasons to hit the road for culinary-themed festivities in the South. These fests range from large multi-day events to smaller celebrations, some providing an unexpected take on destinations such as Memphis and Kentucky.

Vidalia Onion Festival

One of the most famous agricultural products of the Peach State, the Vidalia onion hails from the Coastal Plain region around its namesake city. Naturally, there’s a festival in town each year to celebrate all things related to this delectable sweet-tasting root vegetable with plenty of tasting opportunities over four days of festivities spread throughout town. A big one is the recipe contest at the Dahlia Event Center downtown where contestants compete in three categories — appetizer, side dish and miscellaneous. A public tasting of the dishes occurs at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. The biggest non-food related event, on Saturday and Sunday, is the air show featuring the celebrated U.S. Navy precision flight team the Blue Angels.

April 25-28. $5 admission; $20 and up for special events. 100 Vidalia Sweet Onion Drive, Vidalia. 912-538-8687, vidaliaonionfestival.com.

The Blue Crab Festival is held in the historic waterfront district of Little River, the northernmost community along South Carolina's Grand Strand.
(Courtesy of Visit Myrtle Beach)

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

Blue Crab Festival

Held in the historic waterfront district of Little River — the northernmost community along South Carolina’s Grand Strand — the Blue Crab Festival began in 1981 and has grown into a highly anticipated event each May drawing upwards of 50,000 people. Fresh local seafood is the main draw with a spotlight on the delicacy that gives the festival its name, as well as many other catches. Seafood restaurants Hurricane Juel’s, Crab Catchers, Seabrisa’s and others within the festival grounds will serve select delicacies from booths outside their buildings in addition to offering regular dining service inside. This section of Little River offers unspoiled maritime vistas from its dockside venues. Besides all the seafood, expect live music, a kids’ activities, and arts and crafts vendors.

May 18-19. $10. 4468 Mineola Ave., Little River, South Carolina. 843-249-6604, bluecrabfestival.org.

Space Coast Burger Battle

This is the third year for the Space Coast Burger Battle in Melbourne along Florida’s Space Coast south of Cape Canaveral. No rocket launches are scheduled from the Cape during the weekend of the fest held in Wickham Park, but multiple vendors and local restaurants will shoot for the moon in the Best Burger competition decided in a blind taste test by a panel of vetted judges. The public also gets to vote in the People’s Choice competition. Venders will offer an a la carte tasting menu for $1-$5 per item, including many dessert options. Also on deck: a craft fair, axe throwing, gem mining, a foam party and live music from top local bands.

May 18-19. $7 single-day admission, $10 weekend pass. 2500 Parkway Drive, Melbourne, Florida. spacecoastburgerbattle.com.

Birmingham Taco Fest

Taquerias, food trucks and local markets from around the Birmingham area vie for the best taco prize at this festival held at Sloss Furnaces, a former industrial site that’s now a National Historic Landmark. In its afterlife, Sloss has become a photogenic roadside attraction, concert venue and home to many annual events such as the Taco Fest, now in its seventh year. Judges will pick Birmingham’s best tacos in the pork, beef, chicken and specialty categories, with a people’s choice award chosen by attendees. Aside from all the tortilla-folded goodness, check out the handmade crafts in the Artist Village, enjoy sipping on margaritas and cervezas at the bar area underneath the train shed, and explore as much of the haunting ruins of Sloss as possible.

May 19. $10 advance tickets, $15 day of event. 20 32nd St. N., Birmingham, Alabama. birminghamtacofest.com.

N.C. Sugar Rush

Indulge your sweet tooth at this dessert-only festival in downtown Raleigh. Twenty-plus vendors will set up in City Plaza to serve all manner of sugary delights including Italian ice, Belgian waffles, beignets, smoothies, ice cream, cake, lemonade, craft soda, cookies, donuts, peach cobbler and more, including that perennial festival favorite — funnel cake. Dogs are welcome and doggie treat vendors will be on hand, too. Beyond all the confectionery, expect a live performance from a dance crew with a DJ spinning tunes, arts and crafts vendors, and axe-throwing.

May 26. Admission free. 443 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, North Carolina. ncsugarrush.com.

Memphis Italian Festival

Try something in Memphis that isn’t barbecue at the Memphis Italian Festival. The festival celebrates the city’s rich Italian-American culture the weekend after Memorial Day at Marquette Park, an 8.5-acre neighborhood park in East Memphis. Along with dozens of food vendors, the festival includes cooking demos from Italian chefs, a wine and cheese tasting, grape stomping, a beer garden, cafes on site serving full sit-down meals and an Italian market for supplies to take home or for a picnic in the park. Teams will offer up their homemade wine, spaghetti gravy (don’t call it sauce here) and other Italian dishes for judging by a panel of experts. Attendees become judges, too, in the Peoples Choice contest on Saturday. Other activities are bocce ball, cornhole and volleyball tournaments and a kids’ play area called Luigi Land with carnival games and rides.

May 30-June 1. $15 admission. 4946 Alrose Ave., Memphis. memphisitalianfestival.org.

The New Orleans Food and Wine Experience has become a go-to event for foodies and wine lovers from around the U.S.
(Courtesy of NOFWE)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

New Orleans Food & Wine Experience

Now in its 32nd year, the New Orleans Food and Wine Experience has become a go-to culinary event for gourmands and oenophiles from around the U.S. Don’t expect funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos here, this is a high-end event with ticketed culinary experiences spread out over five days. One of the biggest is the Grand Tasting at the New Orleans Convention Center on June 8 when attendees get to sip wines from around the globe, meet the winemakers and sample cuisine from NOLA’s top chefs. There’s also the Coffee Roasting Experience where guests learn how to roast coffee and get to take their roast home; Italian Fare with New Orleans Flair, a pizza-making class with wine pairings; and Tempranillo & Tapas, a tasting of Spanish wines and tapas at Plates Restaurant and Bar.

June 5-9. $75 and up for experiences and events. Various venues, New Orleans. 504-655-5158, nowfe.com.

Hot Corner Festival

Get a soul food fix and more at this festival honoring the heritage of Athens’ Hot Corner. Hot Corner refers to the historic Black business district on the west side of downtown centered around the Morton Theatre, built, owned and operated by African American businessman Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton in the early 20th century. Each June since 2000, the Hot Corner Association has thrown a block party that draws a diverse crowd with the majority of the vendors being Black and Latino-owned businesses serving a wide variety of cuisine. Local pitmasters compete for bragging rights in a barbecue cook-off. There’s also a car show and live music from a stage set up in the middle of Hull Street. Saturday is the main day for the fest, but things get started on Friday night with the Gospel Kickoff at First AME Church, another important anchor of the Hot Corner district.

June 7-8. Admission free. Intersection of Hull and Washington streets in downtown Athens, Georgia. hotcornerathens.weebly.com.

Beer Cheese Festival

Bourbon and bluegrass might spring to mind when it comes to Kentucky, but the birthplace of Lincoln is also officially recognized as the home of beer cheese. This spicy, tangy treat commonly served as a spread or a dip was birthed in Winchester, a fact the town celebrates each June with the Beer Cheese Festival. Stroll Main Street, a portion of which has been renamed Beer Cheese Boulevard, to sample from professional and amateur cheesemakers competing in separate competitions. Purchase a sampling ticket packet and vote for your favorite vendor in the People’s Choice Award. Beyond the festival, sign up for the new Beer Cheese Digital Passport to get deals and discounts at 15 stops along the Beer Cheese Trail.

June 8. Admission free, $10 for 10 sampling tickets. Main Street, Winchester, Kentucky. 859-744-0556, beercheesefestival.com.

The inaugural Southeastern BBQ Showdown takes place inside Segra Park, a 9,100-seat baseball stadium in Columbia, S.C.
(Courtesy of Capital City/Lake Murray Country)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Southeastern BBQ Showdown

This marks the inaugural year for the Southeastern BBQ Showdown in Columbia, South Carolina. The two-day event will be held at Segra Park, a 9,100-seat baseball stadium that’s home to the Columbia Fireflies minor league team. Organizers are calling it “the first food sport competition to grace a sports stadium in the United States.” The culinary sport is a chicken wing competition on Friday hosted by the South Carolina Barbecue Association with the main competition occurring on Saturday when 25 barbecue teams from around the nation duke it out for a $10,000 grand prize. Attendees will be able to sample the teams’ offerings, explore interactive exhibits about the art and science of ‘cue, shag dance to the Band of Oz, and take in the fireworks finale on Saturday after a performance by the legendary country group Alabama.

June 14-15. $75 and up. 1640 Freed St., Columbia, South Carolina. 803-781-5940, southeasternbbqshowdown.com.