April 23, 2016, South Pittsburgh, Tennessee
What began, 20 years ago in South Pittsburgh, Tenn., as a modest small-town street festival associated with the National Cornbread Cook-Off, has become a major regional event, pushing the town’s capacity for crowds and traffic to its limit—and beyond. While no definitive numbers have been published, attendance must have been at least 30,000 people, perhaps more.
Veteran festival goers know to arrive early—first to get in-town parking spots and beat the growing crowds. At $5.00 per day, this also has to be one of the best festival values in the area.
The cornbread cook-off is truly national in scope. The contest begins with mail-in recipes from across the country. From the recipes, a group of finalists are selected to come to the festival for the final cook-off. Expect to see cornbread recipes such as “Southern Croque Monsieur* on Poppy Seed Cornbread,” “Cornbread-Topped Cordon Bleu* Skillet” and “Bayou Smoky Shrimp* and Fried Cornbread Green Tomato Arepas,” just to name a few.
Contestants are competing for significant prizes and awards. As described on the Festival website, the Cook-Off Champion will receive, “…the coveted cast iron skillet crown, a $5,000 cash prize and a 30-inch stainless steel gas range (a $3,250 value) from FiveStar® Professional Cooking Equipment, and special gifts from Martha White and Lodge® Cast Iron, principal sponsors of the event.”
The Lodge® Cast Iron factory and store are located in South Pittsburgh.
Cornbread may be the reason, but a busy street fair is the result, complete with crafts, food, and service vendors; displays and demonstrations; street performers; a carnival midway; and four non-stop music venues.
In addition to several free cornbread stations, there were at least 30 independent food vendors, from church-sponsored cornbread tasting to all manner of carnival food vendors. There were lines for every vendor with an average wait of 15 to 30 minutes during the mid-day.
This could easily be a music festival, with four stages and a Jam Tent and more than 40 professional acts scheduled during the festival, from Friday evening through Sunday. Headlining the list of performers this year was Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder who played Saturday evening. The Jam Tent is open to anyone who wants to bring an instrument and sit in with a group of local musicians.
There is something for everyone at the annual April event, especially along what I am calling the midway, a collection of carny games for all levels of skill and rides for all ages—and levels of courage.
For several years now, Sisters on the Fly (SOTF) assemble several small restored vintage campers at the fair. In addition to enjoying the fair, they open the campers to the public for tours and collect contributions for local charities. SOTF is the nation’s largest all-women travel and adventure group with more than 5,000 members.
For those attending the fair in the future, my recommendation is to arrive early. I turned off of I-24 at 11:00 in the morning. By then all of the in-town parking was full (apparently) because the road into South Pittsburgh from I-24 was already closed. Traffic was slow—at a crawl—stop-and-go, and there was little signage and few officials directing traffic to alternate parking. The result was that beginning a mile before the exit to South Pittsburgh, and all along bypass Route 72, vehicles were parked on the shoulder of the highway. Finally, at about 12:30, I was able to park on the shoulder a half mile beyond the next nearest street into town—which was blocked by police. The result was a mile walk to the nearest entry gate to the festival.
In retrospect, I have walked similar distances for many other attractions, but never had to park on the shoulder of a busy public highway before.
*Even a basic description of any one of these dishes would take a full paragraph. For more information, search for the part of the recipe name that does NOT include “cornbread.”
Photographs and Text Copyrighted, 2016, Jeff Richmond
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