Fall is Culinary Festival Season on the Gulf Coast
By Mary Story
I might be new to the Alabama Gulf Coast, but I’ve already discovered a few things in my first full year living here; like how each season brings a different visitor: Summer is the traditional high season, when tourists flock to our sugar-white sand beaches to soak up the sun. Winter is snowbird season, and the spring break crowd hits town in March. Fall is arguably the best season here—if not for almost zero humidity and close-to-perfect temperature, then for the food.
There are multiple reasons the 43rd Annual National Shrimp Festival has been around for more than 40 years—I attended for the first time last year, and will definitely be back.
Almost 250,000 people descend on Gulf Shores during the four-day festival, so I decided to go Thursday night in hopes of beating the weekend crush. Popular local band, the Tip Tops, headline the main stage year after year on Thursday night (including 2014!). That alone is reason enough to attend opening night.
Parking is limited around the festival, so my friend and I opted for the shuttle bus, which is definitely the easiest way to get to and from the festival. Shuttle buses pick up all along Perdido Beach Blvd., and run continuously throughout the festival. With a $2 shuttle ride and free admission, Shrimp Fest is one of the most affordable entertainment options around.
We arrived about 45 minutes before the Tip Tops took the stage and realized we had made a grave mistake: The veterans get there several hours early and stake out premium spots with their lawn chairs. Luckily, the standing-room-only section toward the back of the crowd became a dance floor when the Tip Tops took the stage—it was virtually impossible not to groove and sing along to their covers of Motown favorites such as The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. We quickly began to understand why the locals don’t miss this high-energy dance and show band
I made the rookie mistake of not getting there with enough time to sufficiently check out all the arts and crafts booths. Since there’s no admission fee and shuttle transportation was so easy, it was simple enough to return the next day and take our time strolling through the booths of some of the 300 vendors, selling everything from local artwork to handcrafted woodwork. The return also gave us an excuse to eat another helping of fried shrimp, and listen to other local band favorites, Sugarcane Jane and Blackjack Billy.
43rd Annual National Shrimp Festival will be held Oct. 9-12, 2014 from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Admission is free.
Having been impressed with Shrimp Fest, I called a couple of my foodie friends in Atlanta and put them on alert for the Oyster Cook-Off taking place in early November.
How often do you get to sample oysters (from raw to Rockefeller) prepared by more than 70 celebrity chefs in one location? Culinary artists from the Food Network’s Iron Chef competition and regional and local restaurants compete for bragging rights and almost $10,000 in prize money.
We each paid $30 and got a booklet of tickets that allowed us to sample oysters at 20 different booths. It didn’t take long to figure out we needed a strategy to make sure we didn’t fill up without getting a chance to sample the oysters from our favorite chefs and restaurants. A quick walk-through to get the lay of the land before digging in proved very useful. In addition to enjoying our fill of fresh Gulf coast oysters, we found it fascinating to see how the talented chefs inspired each other to come up with different variations on classic dishes.
The Oyster Cook-Off will be held Nov. 7-9, 2014. Admission is free, but tickets will be sold that may be redeemed for oysters. Tickets are $2 each or $30 for 20 tickets.
My 2014 fall calendar has Shrimp Fest and the Oyster Cook-Off marked, and I’m also eager to check out three other culinary festivals happening this fall on the Gulf Coast.
Saturday, Oct. 4, is the LA Gumbo Festival, a head-to-head competition between Louisiana (LA) and Lower Alabama (LA) to see where the best gumbo is. Alabama restaurateur Bob Baumhower orchestrates the competitive cook-off among gumbo masters in both LAs. The festival also features live stage music and street music throughout the event. In addition, artists from all over the Southeast sell their art and conduct live demonstrations.
The third annual Alabama Festival of Flavor is set for Oct. 18 in downtown Foley.
The festival features fresh, local fare prepared by local restaurants. Visitors will learn traditional Southern recipe secrets from renowned local chefs, attend a food and wine pairing, and acquire tips on creating their own organic garden at home. Visitors can stroll through the streets of historic downtown Foley exploring artisans and crafters (this is a great time to pick up new kitchen tools) while listening to live music.
The Wharf Uncorked, a new addition to the fall calendar, fits right in with established culinary events. The three-day event, scheduled for Sept. 25–27, plans to combine food and wine tastings and live entertainment, with a pinch of Southern flare and a dash of Gulf Coast hospitality. The Wharf Uncorked will benefit the Alabama Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Note to all my out-of-town friends: guest rooms fill up quickly during fall culinary season! Book your room today to experience the best of Alabama Cuisine.