Food Festivals Offer Tasty Trips to Tennessee River

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The food festivals of the Tennessee River Valley offer delicious opportunities to explore how food has shaped local culture. From the pungent ramps of the Appalachian Mountains to the delectable country ham in the western region, visitors have a lip smacking, good time discovering the historic specialties of these charming, small towns.

The word “cuisine” may seem a little uppity for affairs that tout foods such as cornbread, ramps, catfish or ham, but these storied staples of the Appalachian Mountains have paid their dues.

Food Festivals offer Tasty Trips to Tennessee River

It’s festival time in the Tennessee River Valley, and nothing offers a more lip smacking, traditional experience than events that celebrate local cuisine, many of which are featured online on TennesseeRiverValleyGeotourism.org, a site dedicated to authentic experiences along the Tennessee River.

The word “cuisine” may seem a little uppity for affairs that tout foods such as cornbread, ramps, catfish or ham, but these storied staples of the Appalachian Mountains have paid their dues. They now appear in the kitchens of celebrity chefs from New York City to Los Angeles. Their beginnings, however, were less than glamorous.

Long before European settlers sought farming advice from Native Americans, these indigenous people were cultivating, preserving and cooking with vegetables such as corn, beans and squash. As time passed, these foods were adopted by the colonists and pioneers. Many of the recipes were adapted as these individuals moved west into the Appalachian Mountains, which border the eastern edge of the Tennessee River Valley.

Early settlers probably thought they had created something special when they came up with johnnycakes, a mixture of corn flour, water and eggs, but Native Americans had been making similar bread recipes for millennia. If these two groups could take part in the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, they would see how far their humble creations have come. The 2017 winning recipe, Cornbread Cuban Sandwiches with Mojo Sauce is a far cry from a johnnycake. Still, it includes corn, buttermilk and a few other items that would have been familiar to mountain dwellers.

Cornbread isn’t the only cuisine that residents of the Valley put on a pedestal. For generations, spring in the mountains has signaled ramp gathering, another food that was highly prized by Native Americans. Later, settlers survived, in large part by what the mountain forests offered, from fruits to nuts to ramps. Sometimes described as a cross between a spring onion and a garlic clove, ramps were the first plant to produce in the spring and were thought to help thin the blood after the cold winter months. Eaten both raw and fried, they are a delectable addition to beans, salads, eggs, potatoes and more. Attendees of Ball Play Ruitan Ramp Festival in Tellico Plains, Tennessee or the Polk County Ramp Tramp Festival in Reliance, Tennessee can enjoy plenty of ramps along with their traditional companions of soup beans or pinto beans, fried potatoes, streaked meat and cornbread. Visitors are lured by the delicious dinners, but the live mountain music and local crafts are as enticing as the food.

As good as ramps and cornbread are, for some folks it takes a tasty mess of fish to complete a dinner. The Cherokee of the Valley used several methods to catch their meals, including the fishing weir, a trap constructed of stones that channeled fish downstream into a basket. Today, most fishing is not for subsistence, but rather for recreational purposes, and its devotees are passionate.

The Tennessee River offers anglers everything from bass to crappie to bream and more, but in Paris, Tennessee, catfish is king. To illustrate their enthusiasm for this whiskered species, locals serve more than six tons of tasty, fried fillets during the World's Biggest Fish Fry. A grand parade, rodeo, catfish races and other activities create non-stop fun throughout the last full week in April.

Fast forward to autumn, and the folks of Trigg County, Kentucky shine with their swine during one of the final food festivals of the year. The northern portions of the Tennessee Valley, including Kentucky are part of The Pork Belt, where the weather is especially conducive to curing country hams. Kentuckians wear that designation with great pride.

At the Trigg County Ham Festival, excited visitors stand in line for a serving of the Largest Country Ham and Biscuit in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Favorite contests include pig races and hog calling, but the most coveted prizes are first place in the country ham and country ham biscuit competitions. With a large midway, music stages, rows of vendors and more, there’s plenty of excitement, and if visitors get hungry, there’s always more ham.

These are just a few of the festivals that celebrate regional food ways along the historic, scenic Tennessee River. Mark that calendar and enjoy a food festival in 2018…. and bring an appetite!

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