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Food festivals fill a traveler's plate all summer in Oklahoma



For millennia, human beings have anxiously waited out the end of winter and the annual coming of the year's crops. The plants break through the ground and people break out the wine, bringing forth a nonstop bacchanalia to celebrate the arrival of food on their plates after months of cold.


One of the best things about living in 21st-century Middle America is that these festivals so rarely feature the sacrifice of a virgin to the fertility gods. Every spring and summer, small towns across the U.S. hold festivals dedicated to local cash crops, and the public is invited to join in the celebration of baked goods, strawberries, pecans or watermelons. Virgin sacrifices have been replaced by beauty pageants; worship of Baal by eating contests, carnival rides, polka bands and wine smoothies.

Oklahomans looking for a weekend getaway on a recession-era budget will find no shortage of food-related festivals dotting the state throughout the warmer months.

For those willing to travel a little afield, the town of Stilwell, known as the "Strawberry Capital of the World," welcomes between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors to its annual Strawberry Festival on the second Saturday in May every year. The festival dates back to 1948, when the Stilwell Kiwanis Club began throwing the event to celebrate the prodigious numbers of strawberries grown in the area.

Stilwell is located approximately 30 miles north of Sallisaw and east of Lake Tenkiller in Eastern Oklahoma. The Strawberry Festival kicks off at 7:30 a.m. this Saturday with the start of the 5K Run for the Berries through the town. Newly crowned Strawberry Festival Queen Jessika Baird will be the star of the Main Street parade at 10 a.m., and local strawberry growers will auction off their finest berries at 2 p.m.

The day will reach its culinary climax at 3 p.m. with the traditional serving of free strawberries and ice cream, although food and drink vendors will be set up throughout the day. The strawberry carnival begins today and ends Saturday evening, and a rodeo lends nighttime excitement on Friday and Saturday. 

The summer season is dotted with such festivals. On June 27, the small town of Stratford, population of around 1,500, hosts its annual Peach Festival. The town is west of Ada at the intersection of U.S. Highway 177 and State Highway 19. More than 10,000 visitors attend the event every year.

Visitors can choose from a variety of activities at this peach-themed carnival, wander food vendors and arts and crafts exhibitions, or watch the crowning of the "peach royalty." Every year, a rodeo kicks off the event, followed up by an annual car show, with vehicles on display across Stratford's city park, and the "American Idol"-inspired "Peach Idol" singing contest.

On Saturday afternoon, the area's peach vendors and festival organizers will give away free homemade peach ice cream.

Perhaps Oklahoma's most famous harvest party is the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival, which has been featured in books such as Pat Willard's "America Eats!" The Watermelon Festival has its beginnings in 1940 and has been held continuously every year since 1948, attracting between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors annually and boasting more than 50,000 pounds of watermelons sold by local growers and served to festival attendees.

The Watermelon Festival, scheduled for Aug. 8, comes right in time, as summer starts bearing down and the baby-sized green fruits swell with juice. The festival boasts watermelon exhibits, including a seed-spitting contest, a free watermelon feed, stage shows and a "tiny tots" contest. For more information about the Watermelon Festival, call chairman Marvin Loeffler at (580) 476-3339.

Rush Springs is about 20 miles south of Chickasha on U.S. Highway 81 and 20 miles east of Elgin on state Highway 17. Lawton, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge and Meers, with its world-famous, head-sized burgers, are within a 90-minute drive from the town, making the festival a potential stop on a family tour of some of Southwestern Oklahoma's most scenic " and delicious " locales.

Small-town food festivals like the ones in Stilwell, Stratford and Rush Springs make excellent (and relatively cheap) day trips, although they are by no means the only ones of their kind.  "Nathan Gunter

Editor's note: This is the second installment of the series "The Great Oklahoma Road Trip," a look at the lesser-known " but worth a trip " spots across the state. Check back at the start of next month for the next installment.

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