When Jay Leno sends a crew to film an obscure midwinter fishing contest for his show, it's a reason for the whole state to celebrate and to stage a press campaign as well. Hence, 2012 is the year of the media blitz for the International Eelpout Festival. This Minnesota lake-fishing, eel-loving tradition is actually in its 33rd annual run this Feb. 16 to 19, and draws about 10,000 people. Even if you don't want to kiss an eel for luck or jump into an iced-over lake, you might enjoy the "frozen" wet T-shirt contest or the ice bar on the lake.
Bacon has been the hip flip side to veganism for several years now, but even when it was still at the top of the goody-two-shoe caution lists five years ago, the Midwest still considered it a food group. Founded in 2008 by a group of friends who love bacon (calling themselves the Iowa Bacon Board), the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival is a down-home, turf-kicking party at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Iowa Select Farms is the presenting sponsor. They have 10 bacons and 23 restaurants participating this year. Ticket purchasers get a commemorative koozie, and Coors is the main beer sponsor (for something a little harder, Templeton Rye is the sponsoring liquor). Last year, tickets sold out so quickly that this year, there's a maximum of two General Admission tickets per purchaser. This event takes place Feb. 18, 2012.
There are many fruit festivals in the world, but Thailand, a country where exotic fruits appear in every meal, ranks up at the top for variety, size, and pageantry when it comes to celebrating the fruit harvest. Certain months are better for experiencing city-wide celebrations of fruit, from the delicious and juicy (the Lumpoon Lamyai Festival in August, the Pomelo Fair in Nakhon Pathom normally in September) to stinky but culturally colorful ones like the Durian World Expo in Chantaburi in May.
Though its roots are religious, Spain's Tomatina festival doesn't have a particularly pious claim to fame. It's known for being the messiest food fight in the world. Millions of tons of ripe tomatoes meet their doom in the town of Bunol, Spain, on the last Wednesday of August, when townsfolk and 15,000 visitors from all around go wild in the streets for an hour. Tomato sludge covers the town by the end, and is up to a foot deep in places. Participants hurl the tomatoes at each other with such force that they often wind up flat on their backs in it. The main rules are A) no weapons more harmful than tomatoes are allowed; B) participants must "squish" the tomatoes before throwing them; and C) no ripping or tearing of clothes. The last one is generally ignored.
The traditional food of Jolly Old England is the source of great sport in its home country, not just in the sense that people make fun of it (though they do), but also literally. Of numerous annual competitions, Lancashire's World Black Pudding Throwing Championship might win the "Quirkiest in the Land" badge because the rules require that black puddings be wrapped in a pair of women's stockings before being thrown not just into the distance, but at a target comprised of other puddings.
Other competitions like the Olney Pancake Race (which has an international satellite in Kansas) and the Gloucestershire Cheese Roll have just as big a following. Most of these events originated in Medieval times, giving us further proof that yes, people were much more resourceful in entertaining themselves before the days of radio and TV.
British Columbia loves its seafood, and a walk through Vancouver's markets will reveal a daily bounty of salmon, crab, trout, lingcod, oysters, and more. However, when wild spot prawn season comes each May, the whole city goes crazy for the delicious little crustacean, which Vancouver Magazine named Ingredient of the Year in 2008. If you're a seafood fan with a conscience, keep your calendar clear in early May and keep scanning Northwest culinary blogs for the dates of the sixth annual Spot Prawn Festival.
Rainy green home of the renegade farmers and original hippie holdouts, Mendocino County is a great place for foragers and explorers. Every November at the opening of mushroom season, it celebrates Mushroom Madness, with special menus at the restaurants, cooking classes, foraging walks, and other fun activities inside and outdoors.