Humans have a strange relationship with food. This seems to be a global truth that is perhaps best evidenced by the array of unusual food festivals the world over. We don't merely celebrate food, we wrestle in it, wage war with it, idolize it, and, in Gloucestershire, England, race it down a steep hill.
No matter what your favorite food is, chances are somewhere, large gatherings of aficionados have found some outlandish way to commemorate it. Even Spam has found a place of honor.
"Hawaii is one of the biggest consumers of Spam in the world," explains Karen Winpenny, an organizer of the annual Waikiki Spam Jam, which last year had 25,000 visitors. Hormel Foods sells more product in Hawaii per person than in any other U.S. state. According to the Spam Jam website, almost seven million cans of the stuff are eaten in Hawaii every year.
The festival's dozen or so vendors demonstrate the meat-product's unexpected versatility.
"This year, we had Spam cheesecake and Spam ice cream. In the past, we've had Spam ravioli, Spam kotsu, Spam poki, Spam French fries -- pretty much everything can be made with Spam," says Winpenny.
Foods represented at festivals can range from the more mundane -- melons, pumpkins, potatoes -- to the downright daring. In West Virginia, locals are keen to celebrate a local delicacy -- road kill. Last week saw the kick off of Clinton, MT's Testy Festy, a celebration of Rocky Mountain Oysters, aka bull testicles. Next month, adventurous eaters can sample scorpions at Bugfest in North Carolina.
However, there are times when imbibing our favorite foods is not enough. Sometimes, it seems, making a mess is the only way to do it justice. Several festivals demand participants get dirty. La Tomatina -- where thousands travel to Spain to engage in a bustling tomato fight -- is perhaps the most famous of these, though there are many instances in which festival-goers feel the need to rollick around in grub.
On August 23, Barnesville, Minnesota, will celebrate Potato Days, an annual two-day festival dedicated to the humble tuber. No matter how many activities the organizers introduce, however, the most popular remains the mashed potato wrestling competition.
"It's quite a sight to watch people wrestling around in mashed potatoes," admits Theresa Olson, the festival's executive director. "Afterward, they find mashed potato everywhere."
The festival started in 1951 as a source of post-harvest entertainment. Back then, the activities were limited to a potato picking contest for the men, and a peeling competition for the women. Since then, it's matured, and events include a cook-off, a mashed potato sculpting contest and a potato sack fashion show.
"It's often voted one of the best festivals in America, partly because it's family friendly, and it's free," says Olson.
In some instances, culinary celebrations act as a historic link. In Bessieres, France, the townspeople make a giant omelet every Easter to feed the poor, a tradition that supposedly started when Napoleon and his army stopped in the town for the night. Legend has it that The Little Corporal ordered the villagers to gather all their eggs to make an omelet for his army.
The celebration has since spread to French-speaking communities across the globe. In Abbeville, Los Angeles, the town launched their own version of the tradition (albeit with a Creole twist).
"It's grown to seven cities throughout the world, and we each add a local ingredient," says Arlene White, the third Grand Maitre of Abbeville's Giant Omelette Celebration. The town uses 5,000 eggs, and adds Tabasco and crayfish to make it their own.
While there are many who would argue that food is art, some regions take this line of thinking to a new level. At the Räbechilbi Turnip Festival in Sweden, for instance, locals create elaborate floats using 40 tons of hallowed out turnips. In the past, they've created replicas of panthers, windmills, ships, whales -- even Amy Winehouse. Though the tiny town of Richterswil houses a meager 12,000 residents, the festival attracts 20,000 visitors each year.
"We're a small village, so you can imagine how crowded it gets," says Michèle Fasler, a spokeswoman for Räbechilbi.
Fasler describes the atmosphere as warm and peaceful. Just don't eat the turnips, she warns.
"It's not good for your stomach," she says. "It's like eating too much beans."