Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen
|Issue 3||Summer 2002|
The state of Virginia produces a wide variety of foods across the state, and Virginia's food festivals bring people together to celebrate many of these foods. These festivals give the community a chance to come together and learn about their common heritage, because food festivals are regional events, and honor a specific food produced in that part of Virginia. A celebration of food is a celebration of life, because food sustains every other aspect of life. "Eating is a social custom as well as a physiological necessity." (Rose 1940) Virginia's food festivals allow us to come together to eat and celebrate the importance of food to our bodies and our society.
Introduction: Food Festivals
The Highland County maple festival in Virginia gives tours of how maple syrup is produced and the festival brochure says that the "sugar camp tours provide a unique and educational glimpse of a rapidly vanishing way of American life." (HCMF 2002) As this quote indicates, food festivals can teach us about the unique qualities of a region and community. They can also teach us about how our country's food culture has changed in recent years. The state of Virginia has a variety of different festivals that are centered on different foods and celebrate the uniqueness of Virginia's geography, agriculture, and culture. These festivals also portray a part of America's history that is currently under Transition. Fewer people are required to produce food today and foods are no longer consumed only locally, but are shipped around the world in our global society.
Why do we celebrate food? Humans need food to survive, and as Mary Swartz Rose writes in her book, Feeding the Family, "while many things contribute to health-sleep, fresh air and exercise, for instance-the most fundamental consideration is food." (Rose 1940) Today food can be easy to find, cheap, and quick. Yet it is also just as essential to our health as it has always been, so we celebrate food. Today's festivals honor local foods and traditions of the past. They can teach, entertain, and bring communities together.
Food festivals are usually "regional events... calling attention to seafood, produce, or preparation techniques special to a particular area." (Geffen 1988) They are a time when a community can come together to have fun, socialize, and eat good food. The festivals usually offer a variety of foods, music and crafts; they also allow the attendees to celebrate the uniqueness of local customs. Today to help celebrate these foods, the festivals often have beauty pageants, live music, and crafts. Of course, the focus of the festival is usually on "freshness and flavor" of the special foods. (Geffen 1988)
Virginia's Food Festivals
Food production (usually in the form of agriculture or livestock) is dependent on environmental conditions, which means that a region's climate and soils determine what foods are produced. For example, maple trees can only produce syrup at elevations above 2,300 feet; so celebrating maple syrup production is celebrating the local physical geography as well.
In the past, when people were more involved with the food that they produced and consumed than we are today, festivals coincided with the planting and harvesting of popular staple foods. Some of these foods achieved a "super-cultural" position in communities that have been producing these special foods for many generations. (Garine 1987) Many foods have achieved this super-cultural position because they are unique to a specific region and representative of local agricultural practices. For example, the Cherokee Indians who lived in the southeastern part of the U.S. had many ceremonies related to agriculture. In fact "most ceremonies were related to agriculture" and their most important ceremony was the green corn ceremony, which celebrated the harvest of the first edible corn. The ceremony was so important to the Cherokee that the corn could not be eaten until the ceremony took place. (Sutton 2000)
Sabine O'Hara compares today's system of food production and consumption with food systems of traditional, indigenous populations in her article about our current global food market. She writes "while food production and consumption in the traditional food system took place within a given location," today the two (production and consumption) are becoming more and more independent. (O'Hara 2001) Today communities still celebrate the foods produced around Virginia, even though these foods may not be consumed locally today as they were in the past. They are still important to the region today because of their historical and economic contributions to a community.
Virginia agriculture produces several crops that rank in the top ten nationally on the basis of production. Fresh tomatoes, peanuts, apples, snap beans, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, summer potatoes, and tobacco are some of Virginia's crops that rank among the top ten states in the country in total production. (Horsely 2001) Virginia's agriculture leads to celebrations by its citizens, and these celebrations give the people a chance to come together to share recipes and their common heritage.
The state of Virginia can produce a variety of foods in its different physical regions. The mountains, piedmont, and the coastal areas all have the potential to produce foods that bring nourishment, income, and pride to the people who live in that region. Table 1 highlights forty-one of Virginia's food festivals and provides information about where/when these festivals take place. It also displays the variety in foods and cooking methods that are celebrated at the festivals. This paper highlights the Highland County Maple Festival as a specific example of what a Virginia food festival represents, and what to expect at a Virginia food festival.
Table 1: Forty Selected Food Festivals in Virginia
Time of year
Highland Maple Festival
Whitetop Mtn. Maple Festival
King William Ruritan Club Fish Fry
Virginia Beef Expo
Wakefield Ruritan Club Shad Planking
Annual Seafood Festival
Annual Strawberry Festival
Heart of Virginia Festival
Virginia Wine and Mushroom Festival
Annual Strawberry Festival
Pungo Strawberry Festival
Nelson Farmer’s Market grand opening
Ashland Strawberry Faire
Virginia Pork Festival
Virginia Chicken Festival
Virginia Cantaloupe Festival
Annual Deborah Blueberry and Craft Festival
Pork, Peanut, and Pine Festival
Amelia Beef Festival
Blackberry Harvest Festival
Virginia Food Festival
Virginia Peach Festival
Meadows of Dan
Taste of the Mountain Main Street Festival
Annual Church of God Seafood Festival
Bay Seafood Festival
Virginia Peanut Festival
Apple Harvest and Apple Butter Making Festival
Apple Butter Making Festival
Suffolk Peanut Festival
Virginia Garlic Festival
Graves Mountain Apple Harvest Festival
Central Virginia Pork Festival
Poquoson Seafood Festival
Town Point Virginia Wine Festival
Urbanna Oyster Festival
Highland Maple Festival
After attending the Highland County maple festival, I discovered a new sense of Virginia pride with regard to local Virginia foods. I also learned about how a region's physical geography affects its food choices and culture. The festival is in its forty-fourth year, and takes place all over Highland County, which is located on the West Virginia border, thirty-five miles west of Staunton. Maple syrup and maple sugar are made from tree sap that is collected from maple trees and then boiled to evaporate the water and leave behind a thick, sweet liquid. Maple trees can only grow where the altitude is above 2,300 feet, and they need a good frost followed by warm weather to produce maple syrup. This means that the trees can only thrive in certain parts of the country, and Highland County is one of the few regions that can provide the proper environment to produce good syrup.
The region's success in producing a good quantity of maple syrup (which is a very profitable product) creates a feeling of local pride within the community. The festival had remarkable attendance, even though it went on for over two weeks. The festival consisted of a sugar tour, which included stops at maple orchards, sugarhouses, and country stores. Many people came out to visit the maple orchards, socialize, and of course sample all of the tasty foods served throughout the county.
The most popular food at the festival was the maple doughnuts, which were sold by the dozen, and almost everyone attending the festival carried around at least one box filled with these sweet maple frosted treats. Several sites in the county served up buckwheat pancakes with butter and maple syrup. Other popular foods served at the festival include country ham sandwiches, fried pork skins, maple fudge, maple candy, and even maple flavored funnel cakes. Also served at the festival were the familiar festival foods such as hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy, popcorn and sausages. These festival foods are well known to most Americans and "suggest a festive orientation". These foods are "held and eaten without utensils or dishes and suggest both familiarity and festivity." (Adler 1988) Even though the focus of a festival is on a local food, these foods are familiar to those attending the festival, and can be called "comfort foods" because they allow people to feel comfortable to eat a familiar food and have a good time.
After eating all of the food you can stand, and watching how they actually make the syrup from tree sap, even more events took place at the festival. There was a maple queen contest, a maple hoedown, clogging, and lots of live music. Another key element to the festival was all of the crafts that were displayed and sold all along the sugar tour.
This festival provided a glimpse into how a unique Virginia food is produced, consumed, and even celebrated within a community. Everyone who attended the festival learned about how syrup is produced both today, as well as how it was produced in the past by Native Americans and early American settlers. The festival attendees also tasted many different ways to prepare maple-infused dishes, and the food was definitely at the very heart of this festival. Everyone attending the festival also had a chance to simply get outside, mingle with their neighbors, and celebrate their region's heritage.
A vanishing way of American life
When Virginia, and the rest of the United States was settled by Europeans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the settlers brought with them their "old world" values from Europe, but often found that "new world" crops were more successful. (Mitchell 2000) Barbara Carlson writes in her book Food Festivals that the food culture of Virginia and America emerged from many cultures and these different cuisines have been "synergized into a marvelous whole." (Carlson 1997)
This combination of old and new came together to form Virginia's culture and food customs. In the olden days, the foods were celebrated because it was these foods that kept the settlers alive, and they had to work very hard to produce these foods. Patricia Mitchell writes in her book, Mountain Foodways, that today "the traditions themselves still linger at the edge of consciousness, but to an ever greater extent they are childhood memories of the old folks' rather than personal experience." (Mitchell 2000) These days, most families rarely consume food that they produce; yet the celebrations of local food continues because these festivals teach about what life was like for previous generations, and also helps to celebrate and praise local farmers.
Why do we celebrate foods produced in Virginia? As mentioned earlier, food festivals teach us about the unique qualities of a region. They also bring people together to learn about their region's heritage, because most festivals honor foods that have been produced for generations in a specific region. Food festivals and ceremonies have existed in many cultures throughout time because food sustains life. Coming together to feast is therefore a celebration of life.
We gather together to feast and celebrate because "eating is a social custom as well as a physiological necessity." (Rose 1940) We need to eat to sustain life, but eating together also allows us to reaffirm our cultural identity. In Virginia today, you can find a food-centered festival somewhere in the state from March to November. You may find a celebration of fruit, vegetables, peanuts, pork, apples, strawberries, seafood, or some other unique Virginia food. These festivals are best when "the music gets people moving, the parades bring cheers from the sidelines, and the produce and cooking contests make heroes of local gardeners and chefs." (Geffen 1988)
- Adler, T. A. "Bluegrass Music and Meal Fried Potatoes: Food, Festival, Community" in We Gather Together: Food and Festival in American Life, 1988, ed. Humphrey and Humphrey, UMI Press, Michigan.
- Carlson, B. Food Cestivals: Eating Your Way from Coast to Coast, 1997, Visible Ink Press, Detroit.
- Garine, I. "Food, Culture, and Society" in UNESCO Courier, May 1987, p.4-8.
- Geffen, A. M. "Harvest Festivals" in Organic Gardening, 1988, V.35 (8), p.28-33.
- Highland Maple Festival brochure, 2002 Highland County Chamber of Commerce; Monterey, VA.
- Horsley, M. "Virginia Agriculture: What's It to You?" Virginia Dept. of Agriculture News Releases: March 14, 2001.
- Mitchell, P. B. Mountain Foodways: Flavors of Od Europe on the Southern Frontier, 2000, Chatham, VA.
- O'Hara, S.U., Stagl, S. "Global Food Markets and their Local Alternatives: A Socio-ecological Economic Perspective" in Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 2001, V.22 (6), p533-551.
- Rose, M.S., Feeding the Family, 1940, 4th ed., Macmillan Company, USA.
- Sutton, M. Introduction to Native North America, 2000, p.348.