The line snaking toward Cornbread Alley grows longer as hungry festival-goers take turns sampling the treats. Shuffling past buffet-style booths, they hold out their plates for spoonfuls of applesauce raisin cornbread, jalapeno-laced hushpuppies and more. Some folks take the eat-as-you-go approach; others politely resist temptation and wait till the end of the line to devour the savory samples. Held each spring in South Pittsburg, Tenn., the National Cornbread Festival pays tribute to one of the South’s favorite foods.
The mouth-watering event was born when a group of locals, worried that a new highway bypass would divert too much traffic away from their picturesque valley town, got together to brainstorm. Why not capitalize on the town’s best-known business, Lodge Manufacturing, where most of the nation’s cast-iron cookware is made? And what better theme than the king of all skillet-baked staples?
The National Cornbread Festival draws 50,000 attendees annually to this town of 3,000. “We receive so many e-mails from all over the world from people telling us about the cornbread someone in their family used to make and that their cast iron skillets have been handed down from generation to generation,” says festival organizer Teena Hewgley.
In addition to the ever-popular “Alley” and vendors who sell everything from salsa cornbread to cornbread salad, the festival features buttermilk-chugging contests, regional crafts and tours of South Pittsburg’s circa-1900 neighborhoods.
A highlight is the Saturday cook-off, which draws contestants from as far as California. Past entries include bug bread (thankfully, black beans were substituted for the real thing) and shrimp Creole cornbread. “One of the former cook-off champions was being interviewed by a TV station in her hometown,” Hewgley recalls. “When he asked her what was so neat about the National Cornbread Festival, she stated, ‘When you get there from the East you must set your clock back one hour and your attitude back about 30 years.’”
For more information about the event, go to nationalcornbread.com or call (423) 837-0022.
By Nancy Henderson, a food writer in Chattanooga, Tenn.