FOOD FESTIVAL U.S.A.

This cookbook review was originally written in July, 2002.

It was the greatest delight to discover “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” in a recent cookbook catalog—the title and the author’s name, Becky Mercuri, jumped right off the page—for I knew that this was our very own Becky Mercuri, with whom I have occasionally corresponded and talked with on the telephone. (Becky used to be a columnist for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, for which I also wrote articles and did cookbook review).

I had known for quite some time that Becky was writing “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” –food festivals interest me, also, so it was doubly delightful to have Becky’s brand-new cookbook to read and write about.  For, of course, this is a combination cookbook and food festival directory. There are, in “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” 250 “Red, White & Blue Ribbon Recipes from all 50 States”.  As a Californian, I turned first to the section devoted to the Pacific, to see which California food festivals had caught Becky’s attention.  The choices are good ones, ranging from Mendocino California’s Abalone Festival to Castroville’s Artichoke Festival. Also included is the Strawberry Festival in Oxnard, California, which I have attended; Oxnard is just a short drive up the 101 freeway and attracts a great deal of attention in the local press every year.  When we drive to Ventura for a weekend getaway, we drive through the backroads that lead to Oxnard and Ventura, through vast farmlands that include the strawberry fields.  Becky notes, in “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” that “Over 148,000 tons, or  about 20 percent of California’s strawberries, are produced in the Oxnard area.  The annual Strawberry Festival pays tribute to the industry while providing affordance entertainment, great food, and support for a host of local charities…”

This year, when my aunt was visiting from Florida, we took her on a day trip to Ventura, stopping at an Oxnard produce stand on our way home to buy a flat of strawberries, which I converted into preserves.  The strawberry festival in Oxnard, Becky observes, “features more than 270 arts and craft booths, three concert stages, Strawberryland for Kids and wacky contests (such as the Strawberry Shortcake Eating Contest).

And, although I knew about the Gilroy Garlic Festival which Becky Mercuri notes is world-renowned, I confess I didn’t know about The Borrego Springs Grapefruit Festival, the California Dried Plum Festival in Yuba City, the California Dry Bean Festival in Tracy, California, or the Goleta Lemon Festival in Goleta, California.  And that’s not all!  There’s a Carrot Festival in Holtville, California, and the Indio International Tamale Festival, in Indio, California—there is even an Eggplant Festival in Loomis, California!

I think it might be fun, if money and time were no object, to travel the width and breadth of the United States, just to attend some of these festivals.  Who wouldn’t want to check out Louisiana’s Sugarcane Festival, Crab Days and Oysterfest in St. Michael’s, Maryland, or the World Catfish Festival, in Belzoni, Mississippi?  Vidalia onion lovers might want to head for the Vidalia Onion Festival in Vidalia, Georgia, while New Yorkers might be interested in the Phelps Sauerkraut Festival in Phelps, New York, or their own Hudson Valley Garlic Festival in Saugerties, New York.

As one might expect, there is a Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, Maine, every year (that would surely be a great festival to attend!) – and while one might expect  blueberry and maple syrup festivals on the East Coast, would you be surprised to discover the Marshall County Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, Indiana, or the Parke County Maple Syrup Festival in Rockville, Indiana? And although I was born and raised in Ohio and knew about the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio, I was astonished to learn about an Asian Festival held in Columbus, Ohio, and a chocolate festival in Lorain, Ohio! (There’s also a Chocolate Fest in Burlington, Wisconsin.

Becky Mercuri has done her homework well for, along with an intriguing assortment of recipes which range from Double Chocolate Raspberry Marble Cheesecake (Central Maine Egg Festival) to Best Restaurant Manhattan Clam Chowder (Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cook-Off and Festival, Santa Cruz, California), you will also find well-written, interesting capsule descriptions of each festival

In the Introduction, Becky writes, “Street food, carnival food, festival food—by whatever name, this is food that draws Americans together.  Thousands of food festivals are held annually throughout the United States, attracting millions of visitors…”

John T. Edge, who wrote the Foreword to “FOOD FESTIVALS, U.S.A.” notes, “In FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A., Becky Mercuri sings a paean to the diversity of America’s food heritage.  Along the way, she manages to convey a few lessons in culinary history.  So dive in. By the time you hit page 320, you’ll be out the door, stomach rumbling, car keys in hand, hell-bent for the Prairie Dog Chili Cook Off and World Championship Pickled Quail Egg Eating….”   John says “Look for me. I’ll be there, too.  I’ll be the guy surrounded by spent chili bowls, napping under the bough of an oak…”

Becky says that, in writing this book she had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of Americans who work hard to produce the food festivals and ethnic celebrations that make up such a rich part of our collective culture.  She quotes food writer Ronni Lundi, who she interviewed a few years ago, who told her “Music and cooking are my passions.  They provide windows to look at culture.”  Becky adds, “Indeed.  Nearly every festival in this book boasts of that same basic combination of music and food and gives us a peek into the very essence of life in a particular region or ethnic group….”  And perhaps that explains why, after collecting “regional” cookbooks for over thirty years, I find food festivals equally fascinating.  And a cookbook about food festivals?  My cup runneth over!

If you find the food history of the United States as fascinating as I do, I think you will enjoy “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” – you may want to take it along with you on your next vacation, and search out some of these absolutely unique regional tributes to our culinary heritage. There is even a Directory of Festivals by Month, and a Directory of Festivals by State.  Amusing illustrations have been provided by artist Tom Klare.

Becky Mercuri began collecting recipes at the same age as I, (nine years old) and her cookbook collection contains over 7,000 volumes (quite a few more than mine, I think, although we quit counting at 3,000 books over ten years ago).  We also share an interest in cookie cutters but while Becky has over 3,000 cookie cutters and molds, I have no idea how many I’ve accumulated over the years—I can only tell you, they fill 3 large boxes packed in a closet. She has three dogs and a dozen cats, and is donating a portion of the proceeds of this book to the cause of animal welfare.  Along with writing for the CCE, Becky was food editor of the Wellsville Daily Reporter for three years.  She is also currently working on a comprehensive bibliography of all English language cookbooks published between 1940 and 1949.

I’ve been out of touch with Becky Mercuri, every so often attempting to find her through the internet.

“FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” by Becky Mercuri, was originally priced at   $24.95 when published in 2002. Amazon.com has copies, 3.67 for a new copy or a pre-owned copy from 05 cents.  Alibris.com has copies for 99c or new at $3.66.

Becky Mercuri is also the author of the Great American Hot Dog Book, published in 2007. American Sandwich published in 2004, and Sandwiches You will Like, in 2002.

Other suggested reading: The Festival Cookbok by Phyllis Pellman Good,  A Feast of Festivals BY Joann Taylor Hane and Catherine L. Holshouser,  California Festivals, Carl Landau and Katie Landau with Kathy Kincade, THE FESTIVAL COOKBOOK by Phyllis Pellman Good, FOOD FESTIVAL, by Alice M. Geffer and Carole Berglie, FOODS FROM HARVEST FESTIVALS AND FOLK FAIRS.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!

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