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More than 20 unique food festivals, that take place throughout all three grand divisions of Tennessee, are represented in the Tennessee State Museum’s current temporary exhibition, Let’s Eat! Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food. They range from Memphis in May to the Grains & Grits Festival in Townsend; from the Obion County Cornfest in Union City to Doodle Soup Days in Bradford; and from the National Moo Fest in Athens to the International Cowpea Festival and Cook-Off in Charleston and everywhere in between.
Many of these festivals include a competition focused on the theme of the festival. In most cases, like the National Banana Pudding Festival in Centerville, it takes a truly discriminating palate and some proper preparation to be a judge. We asked marketing and advertising professional Peggy Owen, co-chair of this year’s festival (along with Jeanne Beasley) for some insight on their competition and just what it takes to be a judge. We also asked about controversies, close-calls and drama at the festival over the years, but it seems like everything has remained fairly smooth. Just like banana pudding.
This year’s Festival takes place the first weekend of October at River Park in Centerville. A full list of festivals represented in the Museum’s exhibition—by no means a comprehensive list of festivals throughout the state—follows the Q&A.
Tennessee State Museum: What was the genesis of the Festival?
Peggy Owen: The festival was the brain-child of some community minded individuals who were interested in establishing an event that would be a venue for non-profit organizations in our county (Hickman County) to raise money for the good work they do. The National Banana Pudding Festival is a non-profit organization. The money we raise as the festival is reinvested in subsequent year's festival and the community.
TSM: How long has the Cook-Off been a part of the Festival? How many categories are there, how are they determined, and how many entries do you receive?
PO: The Cook-off has been part of the Festival since the beginning. We do not have categories in the cook-off. It is a competition between ten finalists who prepare their recipes in front of a live audience. Recipes vary dramatically from traditional to unusual puddings. Potential contestants submit their recipes and our cook-off committee selects ten recipes to compete. Each year we get 25 - 30 recipes from all over the country. Last year we had contestants from nine different states and the winner was from Idaho. This year we have contestants from six states. The very first winner of the 2010 festival was from New Jersey.
The ten finalists have one hour to prepare their recipe. They prepare two batches with one going in the "Puddin' Pot" which we provide, and the other going in a vessel of their choice. The batch that is in the Puddin' Pot is auctioned off to the audience following the cook-off. The batch in the vessel of their choice is used for the judges to sample. Once the judges have their sample, sample boxes are offered to those in the audience who want to purchase a sample box.
TSM: How do you choose your judges, and what information/training do they receive prior to the competition? Do they have to be a cook themselves, have some history with banana pudding, etc. How do you make sure the judging is happening fairly?
PO: We have three judges each year. We try to get people from different backgrounds/professions. This year we have someone from the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development, a chef from an area restaurant, and a marketing professional from Franklin. They need to have a basic understanding of cooking and of course, like banana pudding. Each judge works independent of the other judges. They can talk with the contestants while they are preparing their puddings and watch them work. The judges go to a separate tent to taste and score the puddings. Each of the puddings are judged on their own merit in the following categories: Ease of Preparation, Use of Basic Ingredients, Appetizing Appearance, Texture, Color, Aroma, and Taste. (eds. Note: See Judges Instruction Sheet in callout box). They cannot discuss their scoring with the other judges. A representative of the cook-off committee is with them to be sure there is no discussion while they are in the judging process. Scores are calculated and the contestant with the highest score wins.
TSM: Can you share any anecdotes about judging in the past? Close competitions? Controversies? Multiple-year winners? A streak?
PO: To my knowledge, we have never had any controversy. We did have one contestant that won two different times, but for the most part, it is a new winner each year. The contestants and audience have a lot of fun.
TSM: What do the winners receive?
PO: First place received $2,000 in cash and bragging rights to the best banana pudding in the country. Second place receives $500 and the third place price is $100.
Food Festivals Represented in Let’s Eat! Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food:
National Moo Fest in Athens (May)
RC Cola and Moonpie Festival in Bell Buckle (June)
Doodle Soup Days in Bradford (September)
Clay County Fall Festival and Chili Cook-Off in Celina (October)
National Banana Pudding Festival in Centerville (October)
International Cowpea Festival and Cook-Off in Charleston (September)
Wine Over Water Food + Wine Festival in Chattanooga (October)
Unicoi County Apple Festival in Erwin (October)
Tater Festival in Gleason (August-September)
International Food Festival in Knoxville (October)
Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg (October)
Tennessee Soybean Festival, Martin (September)
BreakFest in Memphis (September)
Music City Hot Chicken Festival in Nashville (July)
World's Biggest Fish Fry in Paris (April)
Grainger County Tomato Festival in Rutledge (July)
Grains & Grits Festival in Townsend (November)
Obion County Cornfest in Union City (September)
National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg (April)
Memphis in May in Memphis (May)
ASBEE Kosher BBQ Championship in Memphis (September)
Strawberry Festivals in Humboldt, Portland and Dayton
Ramp Festivals in Cosby, Flag Pond and Reliance
Let’s Eat! Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food runs through February 2, 2020 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.
Joe Pagetta is the Tennessee State Museum Director of Communications