I was invited by the organizers of the Spoonbread Festival to attend and write about my experience. All views and opinions expressed in this post are my own.
There are two things in life that bring me great joy: food, and discovering local treasures that are unique to an area. If you can marry those two concepts together, then you’ve piqued my interest. Luckily, we have plenty of local food and traditions here in Kentucky that make me proud to call this state home. I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend an event that celebrates one of our special foods: the Spoonbread Festival in Berea.
Now, having never been to Berea before, I only knew a few things about the area. One, it’s in central Kentucky, which is a beautiful place to be. Two, it’s well-known for Berea College, which is a work college that offers a tuition-free degree to students in exchange for labor on behalf of the college. The alternative style of the college attracts a diverse student body, and the vibrant arts scene gives the town a quirky feel. Beyond this reputation, I hadn’t the slightest clue what my experience was going to be like.
I am happy to report that not only is Berea an absolute gem of a town worth visiting, but the Spoonbread Festival is one of the best times to do so. While Berea has a number of festivals throughout the year, Spoonbread is placed perfectly at the end of summer to allow for great weather and one last chance to grab the all-important fair food (check out my recap of the State Fair to see how much I absolutely adore things that are terrible for me).
Besides being perfectly timed, Spoonbread brings together the entire Berean community and serves as a snapshot of the spirit of the town. Everyone from artisans to churches to political campaigns wants a booth at this festival – it’s one of the best ways to get your name out. It’s not even just limited to Bereans; I saw vendors from as far away as Indiana setting up shop. The Spoonbread Festival hosted over 260 vendors this year, which is a full 50 more than last year. The organizers have their hands full handling the increasing popularity from year to year!
So how does a festival like this grow from year to year? One word: community. According to co-founder and organizer Sandy Rowlette, the Spoonbread Festival began 21 years ago in response to the Berea Chamber of Commerce’s need for a fundraiser. The goal was to showcase Berea’s diversity and sense of community in a way that was different from the various art festivals held throughout the year. So they named the festival after something that Bereans could bond over besides art: spoonbread, a dish that the historic Boone Tavern is famous for. Despite its namesake, it took a few years for the festival to start serving spoonbread. They only sold 50 pans (at about 12 servings a pan) the first year, but that number has grown to over 400 pans in recent years. Rowlette estimated that this year they would sell 200 on the first day of the festival alone.
But what is spoonbread, anyways? I’m always down to learn about new kids of food, and I was delighted to find out that spoonbread is essentially corn pudding’s creamier, smoother cousin. The base of cornmeal and milk gets baked with eggs, butter, and baking powder until it emerges with a golden brown crust and a soft, pillowy center. Everyone has a preference on whether it should be served with a dollop of butter or a drizzle of honey on top, and even though I tried it just recently I know it should OBVIOUSLY be served with both. I mean, who am I to turn my nose up at butter??
The Spoonbread Festival is a community-building event, and it shows. The vendors all bring their A-game trying to impress festival-goers. Aside from the titular spoonbread, food options range from fully-loaded hot dogs to steak sandwiches to fried Reese’s. Yes ma’am, I said fried. Reese’s. You’d better believe I was first in line to get one, and I have to say I’m a changed man because of it. But don’t forget to try some other fair favorites like kettle corn, fresh doughnuts, and fried catfish! They had a food vendor for everything, so you will never leave the festival wishing you had more to choose from. In fact, you’ll be wishing you had more room to eat it all!
Berea is a college town, and it’s also an arts town. But the Spoonbread Festival shows that it’s so much more than that. It’s truly a community that loves to celebrate and support one another. Food brings people together, and that’s a fact. The founders could have named the festival after any number of things, but they chose a food. And no matter how simple that food is, it has the power to unite a whole town and attract visitors from miles and miles away to keep a festival growing for over two decades. It really goes to show the power that our stomaches can have on our hearts!
You may have missed this year’s Spoonbread Festival, but next year’s promises to be even bigger and better than ever. Stay tuned to their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to be the first to hear the dates for next year, and mark your calendars to take a trip! Whether you’re heading down from Richmond, Kentucky or Richmond, Virginia, I promise you won’t be disappointed in taking part of a tangible (and edible) part of Kentucky’s rich history.