What: National Cornbread Festival.
When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday (all times Central).
Where: Cedar Avenue, downtown South Pittsburg, Tenn. (take Exit 152 off I-24 and follow Highway 72 west for 1.5 miles).
Admission: $5 per day, $2 additional for Cornbread Alley samples.
Taste the South in your mouth this weekend at the 15th annual National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Cornbread, skillet bread, hoecake, corn pone or fritters - no matter how you mix the ground meal, you'll find it served in all manner of dishes at the festival.
Each April, the folks of South Pittsburg roll out the red carpet for as many as 40,000 visitors over the festival's two days, said Kim Mantooth, marketing co-chairwoman with Christa Pesnell. Mantooth said it takes a minimum of 1,000 volunteers to put on the event.
Mantooth said the fun gets under way tonight with a free street dance following the opening ceremony. Dance to the music of The Neons from Atlanta, or try your hand at a game of chance on Kissell carnival's midway.
Saturday and Sunday's action is centered along Cedar Avenue in downtown South Pittsburg.
Food: If you've never been to a National Cornbread Festival, the first place to head is Cornbread Alley, on the corner of Fourth Street and Cedar Avenue, before the line gets too long.
For a $2 ticket, you can sample one or all nine cornbread dishes made by members of South Pittsburg school and church clubs. Each club is responsible for preparing enough of its one recipe to feed 30,000 people. This year's flavors will range from chipotle cornbread to pork puppies to Hawaiian fritters.
Also, 30 food vendors will be on-site, many of them manned by civic, church and nonprofit groups as fundraisers.
Fun: In addition to live music both days and the Kissell carnival, you'll find a Kids Corner at the corner of Second Street and Cedar Avenue. Some activities, such as the inflatables, are free with a paid admission. Some, such as sand art and hair-painting, have a nominal fee.
For those who want bragging rights, there are homespun competitions pitting the biggest appetites. Cornbread and ice cream eating contests along with buttermilk chugs are scheduled for 10 a.m., 1:45 and 4:45 p.m. Saturday; 10:45 a.m., 3 and 4:15 p.m. Sunday (all times are Central). Mantooth said registration announcements will be made from the Citizens Park stage, where contestants may go to enter.
No festival is complete without arts and crafts. The Cornbread Festival has more than 60 crafts vendors signed up, 20 of whom are new this year, said Mantooth.
If you're interested in the town's historic homes, take one of the guided tours of the historic district. Each $5 tour departs on the hour from City Hall. Or see how your cast iron is made with a tour of Lodge Manufacturing. The free tours will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., starting at the Employee Center of the foundry.
Also, it's not too late to run in the 5K race. Mantooth said runners may sign up at 7 Saturday morning at the Citizens Park Stage.
Finalists: Of course the highlight of the Cornbread Festival is the crowning of the National Cornbread Cook-Off champ, sponsored by Lodge Cast Iron and Martha White.
Recipes based on Martha White cornbread mix were accepted from across the nation until March 1. Mantooth said a panel of cooks representing Martha White went through the entries, choosing about 100, which they prepared and tested. Ten national finalists were named, and they will prepare their dishes on-site Saturday.
This year's 10 female finalists will be cooking in two heats: the first at 1:30 p.m., the second at 3:30 p.m.
"We encourage people to watch," said Mantooth. "Spectators may bring lawn chairs, or we'll have bleachers set around the stage area."
The grand champion wins $5,000, a 30-inch stainless-steel gas range from FiveStar and gifts from Martha White and Lodge Cast Iron.
Fellowship: The best part of the festival is its atmosphere. It's small-town Southern hospitality where everyone greets their neighbor by name and offers their guests Southern cooking washed down with Coke or glasses of sweet tea.
Stroll Cedar Avenue, where both sides of the road are lined with civic booths. Volunteers lean over the counters to hail friends and there's a lot of good-natured ribbing about who's the better cook.
"It's a fun event," said Mantooth. "Some people who come on a regular basis become friends so it's a time to get reacquainted. It's just neat what this festival has done for South Pittsburg - it's put a sense of pride in this town."