The Gourmet Highway: Harvest Feasts and Football Food

According to the always reliable Old Farmer’s Almanac, the 2021 Harvest Moon rises on Monday, September 20. The Moon will appear full for about three days around this time, from Sunday morning through Tuesday morning.

Shine on, Harvest Moon!

The toils of the growing season are winding down and the rewards may be uncertain if your well-being is closely tied to climate. But, we work and hope for the best.

Dinner on the Grounds is a popular Church Tradition throughout the South. Painting by Olivia Thomason ©2021

Harvest traditionally means celebrations and with college football tailgating happening simultaneously, drinks, food and fun surround us.

Celebrating the harvest was once a pagan ritual. Today, the festivals encompass a variety of events like church-sponsored dinner on the grounds with indescribably delicious food and rousing music. Apple festivals dot the Blue Ridge Mountain countryside and fairs honor local traditions. Pumpkins have their built-in imagery of fun, tricks, treats and rewards. Visits to a Pumpkin Patch bring memories of childhood hayrides, pumpkin carving and delicious goodies.

“The Jack,” one of America’s most hallowed October festivals, has been a centerpiece of barbecue and Americana for decades in Lynchburg, Tennessee, a heartland village that looks like a Norman Rockwell masterpiece. It’s also the home of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. The annual event brings barbecue teams from all states and 30 foreign countries who compete for big cash prizes. Crowds in excess of 40,000 attend free of charge to enjoy the beauty of small-town America and the bucolic countryside while enjoying countless varieties of barbecue.

I’ve served as a judge in many food competitions connected with festivals throughout the  country. “The Jack” stands alone as the best.

Pumpkins are Essential parts of Fall Celebrations. Painting by Olivia Thomason ©2021

The Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival partners with Emory University and has grown into the largest independent book celebration in the country. Urban festivals are popular and have the obvious advantage of short distance access. Food? Some of America’s top chefs, restaurants and wineries are included in the multi-day affair. I can think of no urban area  where I’ve lived or visited that didn’t have a fall or harvest festival. They are irresistible.

A perfect weekend in the Deep South would be Friday at a fall festival, Saturday tailgating outside a college football stadium hours before kickoff and on Sunday, attending dinner on the grounds with all day singing at a church. It’s a joyful and soul satisfying experience.

These gatherings feature creative food. Tailgating, firmly established as a seasonal tradition, includes some food you expect like burgers and chicken wings, but has evolved to become a showcase of highly creative dishes. There are tailgaters who gather in Baton Rouge before LSU games who serve dishes that rival many great New Orleans restaurants. Po’ Boys, Jambalaya, Gumbo and Shrimp étouffée accompanied with live Zydeco music, French wine and Abita beer will heal the troubled soul.

Tailgating, according to food historian Frank Spence, was born during the Civil War. It’s now an integral part of the lifestyle landscape. College stadium parking lots in the South and beyond take on enticing aromas this time of year.  Tailgating is deeply ingrained in our culinary heritage. A talented home cook becomes a superstar on Saturdays, basking in compliments after each bite of creative cuisine.

A group of chefs, at my request, collaborated and provided an imaginary list of some prominent Tailgating food:

Tailgating Showcases Good Food, Drinks and Hospitality. Painting by Olivia Thomason ©2021

Knoxville: Benton Country Ham and Biscuits;

Boston: Clam Chowder;

Tallahassee: Hush Puppies;

Athens: Peach Cobbler;

Tuscaloosa: Lane Cake;

Miami: Cuban Sandwiches;

Gainesville: Fried Gator Tail;

Atlanta: Varsity Hot Dogs;

Clemson: Pulled pork barbecue;

Nashville: Hot chicken;

Baton Rouge: Grillades and grits, and

Chapel Hill: Smoked Mountain Trout.

Tailgating includes drinks. While there will always be beer kegs and jug wines (just as hot dogs, wings and burgers will remain), today’s pre-game spreads commonly feature fine wines, craft beers, creative cocktails displaying some genuine appreciation for aesthetic quality and locale. The ubiquitous Bloody Mary takes on new flavor dimensions and honors culinary heritage when Tabasco is replaced with Datil Pepper sauce.

The Datil pepper packs some significant heat and has been grown in St. Augustine since Conquistadors introduced it centuries ago. It’s available online, and your Tailgating guests will be pleasantly surprised.

There are special harvest memories. Years ago, I joined a group of writers in Napa for the grape harvest. One day was set aside to work in the vineyards alongside Mexican workers. Armed with an appropriate knife for severing the grape clusters, the friendly workers wisely kept their distance. Looking back, this really grueling effort under the hot California sun was the high moment of the visit.

Food, drinks, fellowship and fun are part of the equation as we observe the harvest ritual or come together on those special Saturdays near the stadiums or at home in the backyard. There is an unwritten principle involved. It’s so basic: Have some laughs, share the bounty of food and drink with others; make some new friends.

Soon, the glorious holiday season will be on the horizon.

Old school journalism describes the style and stories produced by Doc Lawrence. “In everything I do,” he says, “there is a beginning, middle and an end.” One of the top travel writers in the country, Doc is steeped in the heritage of the deep south. Traveling the back roads from Texas to Virginia and on down to Key West inspires stories about local food and wine preferences, community theater, folk art and music often leading to clues for a good story. Heroes include Faulkner, Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker and Willie Morris. An Atlanta native, Doc keeps a well-stocked wine cellar and bar and two outdoor grills. He enjoys entertaining and believes that the greatest challenge for a writer is to keep searching for a higher life. |
Scroll to Top