North Carolina sure knows how to celebrate food. Annual festivals from the mountains to the coast spotlight farm-fresh apples, strawberries, collards and more.
Collards are king at the Ayden Collard Festival, a tradition in the small community of Ayden since 1975. It started when the local newspaper held a vote on naming the town’s new festival, and collards beat cucumbers by a large margin. Now in its 42nd year, the Ayden Collard Festival draws as many as 25,000 people over three days in September.
“We have one of the largest parades in the state with more than 100 entries,” says Pat Tripp, Ayden Collard Festival president. “There is always a collard eating contest after the parade, which is a big draw, and we have arts and crafts vendors and live bands at night. People like it because Ayden has an old-country atmosphere with Southern hospitality and a real hometown feeling.”
Tripp says “back in the day,” collards were a cheap vegetable that nearly every family in Ayden grew.
“You raised what you ate and put it up to survive the winter,” he says. “Collards are easy to cook, too. You just clean them, put them in a big pot with a piece of salt pork, and boil them three or four hours until tender. Then you just chop them and eat them.”
Perhaps even more unusual than a collard festival is Haywood County’s Annual Ramp Festival, which highlights ramps (a bold-flavored native wild onion that can be eaten raw or cooked). Now in its 85th year, the Ramp Festival happens in either April or May in Waynesville and includes live music, crafts, clogging and plenty of food cooked with ramps.
Strawberries get their share of praise at three festivals held in their honor. The Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce holds its annual Strawberry Festival in April in Garner, and Chadbourn hosts the North Carolina Strawberry Festival in May. The town of Wallace also celebrates the sweet, springtime fruit at its Carolina Strawberry Festival, also in May.
Chow down on freshly picked apples and apple treats at the North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville. Held on Labor Day weekend, the four-day event features the King Apple Parade, a street fair, free entertainment and fried apple pies, apple cakes, apple butter and apple cider. It’s Henderson County’s way of tipping its hat to the apple, one of the most important agricultural crops grown in the area. North Carolina ranks seventh in the nation for apple production, and Henderson County grows an impressive 65 percent of the state’s apple crop.