By PETTUS READ
I love my state this time of the year! You can tell you are in Tennessee when the days begin to warm and the trees change from dark brown to colorful pastels, as well as by the number of festivals being held across our volunteer state. Spring, along with fall, is a wonderful time to celebrate the changing of the season after "Ole Man Winter" ran us all indoors for the past several months. It also gives us rural types a real good reason to get out and enjoy a whole lot of celebrations that relate to numerous things.
Those of us who are native Tennesseans have the unique desire to want to hold festivals to honor food, animals or some type of produce. It must be in our nature, because if you check the coming events section of most of our reading materials you will find the majority of our festivals support those three areas of our culture. We honor the mule, bird dog, fainting goat, bee, horse, cornbread, strawberry, poke sallet, soybean, cotton, catfish, apple, peach, molasses, kudzu, pig, and many others too numerous to mention in this limited space.
Being one who really enjoys this time of the year, I'm glad all these festivals occur and urge others to pull on their favorite tee shirt (which the majority look better on the item being celebrated) and head out this weekend to see some type of Tennessee festival at its best.
Being somewhat of a specialist in good country cooking and also a bit on the unusual side, I was invited for a number of years to be a judge at the Annual National Cornbread Festival for the 4-H Division Cook-off in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Due to a few tummy surgeries I turned that job over to a very capable coworker, and now stick to judging my own cooking, which is pretty good if I do say so myself. If you have never attended the National Cornbread Festival, then you had better plan to be there the last weekend of April, because it is the event of a lifetime.
For a cornbread lover like me, just to savor the smells and tastes of everything cornbread in one day's visit was almost more than I could stand. And then to have the opportunity to taste the ten best recipes of cornbread out of more than 100 entries from 4-H members from all parts of the country and this state, you had to know that I was in "country cook'n heaven."
I got VIP parking, a large rosette judge's ribbon and several goodies from festival cook-off sponsors Lodge Cast Iron Cookware and Martha White. For a southern fat boy, what more could you ask for? But the greatest part of the day was meeting and judging the contest for 10 of the most charming 4-H members you would ever want to meet.
They were elementary students, but they all had just as much determination and skill to compete as the adults, who would bake their goods during the afternoon national contest.
The contest is held early in the morning and each contestant has to prepare their own recipe on a stage before hundreds of watching festival goers. After mixing their ingredients, they bake their cornbread creation on stage for the judges. They are judged on appearance, creativity, presentation, cooking techniques, product color, shape, crust, texture and most importantly of all, flavor. And by the way, they must prepare their recipe in cast iron cookware. As I always say, "Anytime you encounter cornbread made in a cake pan, you're dealing with imposters."
The cornbread dishes I've tasted those past years were all really good and trying to pick a winner was tough. I ate enough cornbread on those judging days that all I had to do for supper at night was drink water and swell.
It is a treat to see these kids put all their efforts into being the best. Lodge and Martha White are to be congratulated for promoting the town of South Pittsburg, but most of all getting these young people a chance to "make the best better."
During the festival you can tour the Lodge plant located in South Pittsburg, see hundreds of arts and crafts, watch the cook-off, go down Cornbread Alley and basically have a really good time.
Maybe someday they will let me judge the big contest or even enter the Celebrity Cook-off. Just don't put me up against those 4-Hers. They are good at what they do.
Hope you are packing your t-shirt right now and heading to South Pittsburg.
-Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org