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Food Festivals of Tennessee (From Doodle Soup to Cornbread Salad)

Jo loves to share information about her state with readers from across the globe.

The Humboldt strawberry festival occurs in Tennessee each May, but that's just one of the great state's many annual food festivals.

The Humboldt strawberry festival occurs in Tennessee each May, but that's just one of the great state's many annual food festivals.

Eat Your Way Across Tennessee

Every year across Tennessee, communities come together with fairs and festivals to celebrate their town’s unique culture and beauty. As is fitting in the South, many of these include a celebration of food, with specialties that reflect the agriculture or industry of the town. These festivals provide economic opportunities and allow the community to come together.

One of the first food festivals in Tennessee was in Collierville, which was once a trade center for cotton. When the boll weevil crippled the cotton crop in the 1920s, dairy replaced cotton as the main industry here. When Swift and Company opened a hoop cheese plant in the town in 1933, the town held the first Cheese Carnival. This festival lasted until the start of World War II. Though this event ended, many other festivals were to follow across the state which still exist today. Strawberry festivals are one of the most popular.

Strawberry Festivals in Tennessee

Strawberries ripen in May in Tennessee, so each year, from Dayton in the east and Portland in the middle to Humboldt in the west, Tennesseans celebrate the strawberry with food and fun.


The State’s oldest strawberry festival was first held in Humboldt in 1934. This Tennessee town still hosts the festival every year and this year celebrated its 76th year. Festivals include everything from art exhibitions to checkers contests—and, of course, a recipe contest to showcase strawberry delicacies.


Just across the Kentucky border in Tennessee is the small town of Portland. Strawberries were once the main cash crop in Portland, and it was a hub for other areas in the surrounding area to sell their strawberry crop.

Strawberries are no longer an economic mainstay in Portland, but it is still possible during strawberry season to buy locally from farmers in the Portland area. And every year in May, since 1942, the town still holds the strawberry festival, often beginning with a pancake breakfast. There are events happening all week in Portland.


In East Tennessee, the small town of Dayton, located about 30 miles north of Chattanooga, also hosts a strawberry festival each year. In 1925, Dayton was the site of the infamous Scopes Trial when local high school teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. Pitting Clarence Darrow against politician William Jennings Bryant, the trial drew national attention and created a carnival-like atmosphere in Dayton, much like the strawberry festivals of today.

If you visit the festival in Dayton, you will be able to visit the courthouse where the trial took place. It looks much the same as it did in 1925, and there is a museum about the trial in the basement.

Other Fruit Festivals Across Tennessee

Besides strawberries, Tennessee also grows many other fruits and several towns celebrate their local agriculture industry with a festival.

Ervin's Unicoi Apple Festival

The little town of Ervin, located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, has hosted the Unicoi Apple Festival since 1978. Each year in October, this festival is held in conjunction with the Haunted Historic Ervin Ghost Walk. This walk combines the rich history of the area with true ghost stories for an entertaining and edifying experience.

Allardt's Great Pumpkin Festival and Weigh-Off

Another fall fruit festival is held in Allardt on the Cumberland Plateau celebrating the pumpkin with the Great Pumpkin Festival and Weigh-Off. One year’s winning pumpkin weighed 657 pounds! This festival is also held in October.

Lynnville Blackberry Festival

Located south of Nashville in Giles County, Lynnville holds an annual Blackberry Festival. Wild blackberries are abundant in Tennessee, and blackberry cobblers are very popular here when the berries are ripening. This festival boasts the "World's Best Homemade Blackberry Pie." This festival is held in the summer, usually late June, when blackberries are ripening.

Ramp and Poke Sallet Festivals

Cosby, Flag Pond, and Polk County all host Ramp Festivals in Tennessee. The ramp, or wild leek, can be found in cove forests and northern hardwood forests throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains. They are quite adaptable to recipes and can be used just like onions and garlic in soups, salads, puddings, and sandwiches.

The ramp festivals are held in the spring. In addition to music and other activities, ramp meals are served to visitors. The traditional ramp meal in Polk County includes ramps, fried eggs, streaked meat, fried potatoes, white beans, and cornbread.

These areas are also some of the most beautiful areas of the state. Polk County was the site of the kayaking events in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and one of my favorite places in Tennessee.

Another native plant that is celebrated in Tennessee is the Poke Sallet. Native Americans used this plant for, among other things, one of the main ingredients of their love potions. Civil War soldiers used the berries as an ink to write letters home. It is considered part of traditional southern cuisine, where it is cooked three times in three changes of water to remove some of the harmful components. I have lived in the South all of my life and have never eaten this food, but have heard of others that do. The dark purple berries, once used as ink, are poisonous and are not to be eaten. There are still debates about whether other parts of the plant should be eaten.

Gainesboro, located in the Upper Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee, celebrates the poke plant each year on Mother’s Day weekend.

Other Plant Celebrations in Tennessee

Tater Town Special in Gleason

Gleason, also known as Tater Town, is the home of the Tater Town Special that celebrates the place that the sweet potato once held in this community. This community affair, held on Labor Day weekend, is often the occasion for homecomings and high school reunions as former residents and other guests return to this town in upper West Tennessee.

Soybean Festival in Martin

Also located in Upper West Tennessee, Martin is home to one of the newer food festivals, the Soybean Festival, celebrating this tiny vegetable that is one of this county’s biggest cash crops.

Tomato Festivals in Lauderdale County and Grainger County

Located in West and East Tennessee, respectively, both of these counties host an annual tomato festival. These festivals include entertainment, food, and fun activities for all ages to celebrate this cash crop for these counties. The Grainger County Festival also includes a Tomato War. Both of these festivals are held in July.

Other Foods to Celebrate Across Tennessee

World's Biggest Fish Fry in Paris

The "World’s Biggest Fish Fry" is held every year in the last week of April. Paris is located in West Tennessee near Kentucky Lake and Paris Landing State Park.

This event started with “Mule Day” when farmers came to town to trade their mules. As tractors replaced mules, the event evolved into today’s festival. The fish of choice seems to be catfish, and for $12.00 you can enjoy a plate piled with all-you-can-eat catfish, hush puppies, French fries, coleslaw, and white beans.

RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival in Bell Buckle

In 1917 a bakery in Chattanooga began producing Moon Pies. When RC Cola was produced in 1934, these two items became a legendary go-together in the South. Bill Lister wrote a song about the pair called "RC Cola and Moon Pie." Now, the small town of Bell Buckle celebrates this food pairing with a festival held each year in June.

Bell Buckle is a delightful little town in Middle Tennessee between Nashville and Chattanooga. It dates back to 1852, has a thriving arts community, and is home to the Webb School, a renowned preparatory school.

Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburgh

A small town outside of Chattanooga called South Pittsburgh is the oldest cookware manufacturer in the United States, the Lodge Cast Iron Cookware Company, in existence since 1896. When a group of citizens became concerned about the economic future of this small town, they came up with the idea of a Cornbread Festival to celebrate southern cooking and cast iron cookware.

At this festival, you can enjoy a plateful of cornbread dishes for $4.00, which might include lemon coffee cake, Tuscan cornbread, or apple cinnamon cornbread. The festival is held the last weekend in April.

Calendar of Tennessee Festivals

Here is a list of the months festivals are held:

  • April: World's Biggest Fish Fry (Paris) and Cornbread Festival (South Pittsburgh)
  • May: Strawberry Festivals (Humboldt, Portland, and Dayton); Ramp Festivals (Cosby, Flag Pond, and Polk County); and Poke Sallet Festival (Gainesboro)
  • June: Blackberry Festival (Lynnville) and RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival (Bell Buckle)
  • July: Tomato Festivals (Lauderdale County and Grainger County)
  • September: Tater Town Festival (Gleason); Soybean Festival (Martin); and Doodle Soup Festival (Bradford)
  • October: Pumpkin Festival (Allardt) and Apple Festival in (Ervin)

So Much Good Food, So Little Time!

In doing research for this article, I have found numerous events in Tennessee that I was not familiar with, and would like to spend many weekends exploring more of my state. But the most interesting festival I’ve come across has got to be the Doodle Soup Festival in Bradford, TN.

Doodle Soup is a unique dish made from the drippings of chicken, vinegar, salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, and a small amount of flour. It is served over crackers and can be eaten with a fork. Though there are many stories about the derivation of the name doodle soup, none of them can be verified, and the recipes vary.

Why not join me there—or at any of the other festivals across Tennessee?

© 2014 Jo Miller