The custom of celebrating the first crop of vegetable or fruit is age-old. In California, where the harvest season is long and varied, there are plenty of ways to celebrate the bounty of edibles. Stockton celebrates asparagus every April; Santa Cruz has a fungus festival to showcase all the wild mushrooms that abound there; for over a decade Sonoma has been celebrating the olive and its oil; Castroville, the center of artichoke growing in the state, serves up that delicious thistle as many ways as possible. Everything from dry beans (Tracy) to corn (La Habra) to apples (Fortuna and Paradise), pears (Kelseyville), and many other delicious crops are featured throughout the state. For links to many of them, go to californiafairsandfestivals.com/FoodFestivals.htm.
Dates are an ancient crop, having originated in the Middle East. They were brought to California by the Spaniards and very often planted in the mission gardens in Southern California. One of the oldest food festivals in the state is the date festival in Indio that is now paired up with the county fair for a week or so in February. The usual fair attractions are open for a modest entrance fee, and there is also the “blessing of the dates” to ensure a good harvest in the years to come. But a highlight (if date exhibits aren’t enough) are the camel races. Alpacas, llamas, and ostriches also step out to provide exotic flair by powering chariot races.
The stinking bulb, garlic, is celebrated in Gilroy, the center of its production, every July. This is a foodie’s dream with a garlic cook-off featuring the aromatic ingredient, gourmet chefs demonstrating their garlic chops, and free garlic ice cream. The usual festival flair abounds with live music, craft vendors, and even a wine pavilion.
Locally, it is easy to tell what the cash crops are, or at least have been. The Goleta Lemon Festival is somewhat of a holdover from the days when lemons were one of the most prolific crops being shipped out of the area (no local market could possibly use that many sour fruits). The first lemon orchards were planted in the late 1800s when Sherman Stow put 600 acres into production. These days, the lemon orchards are mostly condos and shopping malls, but the tradition lives on, and in late September the tart fruit is turned into pies (featured in the pie eating contest) and more.
Strawberries have become a nearly year-round crop, and there are several festivals that feature the succulent, tasty fruits. The California Strawberry Festival is held annually in Oxnard (a center of strawberry production) in May. This year it happens on May 18 and 19. Strawberry recipes, hats, and dressed-up babies will all be judged in a series of contests with nice prizes.
Carpinteria has become the spokes-town for avocados, and the first weekend of October finds Linden Street closed off to accommodate the largest vat of guacamole (served up out of a kiddie swimming pool by high school cheerleaders) and more. Avocados are a tasty ingredient in salads and a perfect topping for tacos, but they are also featured in smoothies and even ice cream—a food lover’s delight.
More than half of the nation’s fruit, nuts, and vegetables come from California, so celebrate the good harvest by indulging in one or more of these fun and delicious food festivals.