Call me an elitist, but as far as I'm concern the only way to mix food and recreation is at a food festival, where local harvest or homegrown recipes are celebrated.
My kind of travelers are those who willingly backtrack 30 miles for the strawberry shortcake social advertised on the church sign they spotted after breakfast. And now a new road map has arrived for those who love exploring these gastronomic byways of America.
Writers Alice M. Geffen and Carole Berglie have compiled "Food Festival" (Pantheon, $9.95), which lives up to its billing as "The Ultimate Guidebook to America's Best Regional Food Celebrations."
First of all, the authors have done their homework. Don't feel cheated that there are only 58 festivals included in the book, because each one is described entertainingly and completely, with good instructions on prices and how to write for tickets, navigate the crowds and enjoy the festival more than the unprepared visitor.
There are some fairly well-known favorites included, such as California's Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Delmarva Chicken Festival. But most are wonderfully obscure, like Sorghum Sopping Days in Waldo, Ala.; the Strange Seafood Exhibition in Beaufort, N.C.; and the Yambilee in Opelousas, La. At the latter you can find one of America's most inventive food combinations, a yam in a bowl with rich gumbo poured on top.
I am fascinated by our country's crazy culinary combos, and "Food Festival" has given me wanderlust for Warren, Ark., and the tomato toss at its Pink Tomato Festival. I am also propelled toward the Spencer, W.Va., black walnut festival, in no small part because I know how difficult it is to shell those special nutmeats.
Geffen and Berglie have arranged the book by season, moving from catfish and swamp cabbage in the spring to persimmons, burgoo and cranberries in the fall and wild rice and pecans in-between. Don't you want to spend October in Irmo, S.C., at the Okra Strut? You can watch the annual shoot-out at the OKra Corral, which in plain English means nine contestants vie to eat the most boiled okra.
The book includes a geographical listing of festivals -- most of which have been in existence for at least five to 10 years -- and a useful map. For the armchair traveler, there are several recipes from each festival.
Most of the festivals focus on a raw ingredient, such as apples, but a few selections involve prepared products, like sausages or barbeque. "A great many have eating contests . . . and zany events like bed races of crazy costumes," the authors wrote. "We've also seen our share of tractor pulls, mud hops and tugs-of-war."
As the authors acknowledge, food festivals "are America letting loose for a party." That's my kind of party.
Margaret Engel is the coauthor, with her twin sister Allison, of "Food Finds: America's Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them."