The National Cornbread Festival (South Pittsburg, TN)
Back in October, we found ourselves in southern TN for a weekend trip to Pinhook Plantation House B&B. Scott was really jonesing for a cast-iron Dutch oven, so on the way to Calhoun, we swung through South Pittsburg, TN to visit the Lodge Factory Outlet and get that much needed cooking vessel.
While we were checking out, we saw a flier advertising The 16th Annual National Cornbread Festival. Given Scott’s love of cornbread, there was no question that we were going to find a way to make it there. It didn’t take us long to do the math and figure out that the National Cornbread Festival was the weekend before The Kentucky Derby, which we already had plans to be home for. Sometimes things are just meant to be.
What Is The National Cornbread Festival?
The National Cornbread Festival is your basic street fair, complete with art booths, cook-offs, food sampling, fair food, live music, and a beauty pageant. The Festival is good old fashioned American entrepreneurism at its finest. Back before the start of the festival 16 years ago, a bypass was built around South Pittsburg, taking customers away from the small town of 3,500.
While the Festival is only a once a year event, the life that it’s brought back to the town is a year-round thing. We’ll just let them tell it in their own words:
Since the Festival began we have landscaped streets, helped build ball fields, supported boy scouts, schools, churches, given to theaters, day care, libraries, and improved our community immensely. People come from everywhere to see the sights and hear the music, feel the history and taste the cornbread that is cooking in our town. We have seen our “closed” buildings be occupied with restaurants and new stores, our small town has come back to life. More than that the people take great pride in show casing their very best, the last weekend in April as others come from all over to see “What’s Cooking” in South Pittsburg, TN.
We got a chance to speak with one of the festival volunteers, the principal of nearby Richard Hardy Memorial School, who told us similar things. Students in the community help with setup and clean up in return for donations to the schools. Some of the schools even let the kids out on the Friday before to help with setup. So let’s talk more about the festival.
As you’d expect at The National Cornbread Festival, there’s a bit of cornbread sampling to be had. Cornbread Alley is the place to go to try nine different kinds of cornbread. We can’t recall exactly, but are pretty sure it was $4 for a plate with all 9 kinds of cornbread. So yes, we ate cornbread for breakfast and it was delicious!
In Cornbread Alley, all of the recipes use Martha White cornmeal, a sponsor of the festival who provides the cornmeal. The teams are various non-profit groups: local schools, churches, and a Boy Scout troop. This year’s cornbread flavors were:
- Butter Pecan Muffins
- Cornbread Pizza
- Deep Fried Sweet Potato Tots
- Raymond’s Pineapple Cream Cheese Cornbread Cake
- Rodeo Pups
- Razzle Dazzle Cornbread
- Sour Cream & Onion Cornbread
- Toasty Hushpuppies
Cornbread Alley isn’t just a tasting though…it’s a contest. You vote for your favorite team by dropping cash into one of the nine buckets (one per team). At the end of the weekend, the team with the most cash in their bucket wins. All of the cash is then combined, divided into 9 even piles, and given to all of the teams. We thought it was a rather neat setup.
Our favorite, you ask? Well, we couldn’t pick just one, though we did narrow it down to three. We decided those three make for a nice full meal. For the main course, we picked the Toasty Hushpuppies. For the side dish, the Deep Fried Sweet Potato Tots. And for dessert, Raymond’s Pineapple Cream Cheese Cornbread Cake.
Like any good street festival or fair, there’s more food to be had than just cornbread. South Cedar Ave is packed with vendors offering your typical fair food. Basically, if it can be fried or put on a stick (or both), it’s sold here.
You’ll find everything from deep-fried cheesecake and Oreos to barbequed turkey legs and blooming onions to kabobs and gyros. There are also standard southern foods like pork rinds and barbeque, plus some other options to get your cornbread fix, like pinto bean casserole with cornbread, cornbread salad, and greens with cornbread.
Since you can’t go to a street festival without getting some supremely unhealthy fair food, we went with the deep-fried cheesecake. It’s as good as you’re imagining. Now, you can get your cornbread and street food fix here, but don’t come planning on getting any other fixes. There’s no alcohol served at the festival.
Bring The Whole Family…Two-Legged Creatures Only
The National Cornbread Festival is a family-friendly atmosphere. There are carnival rides and a play area for the kids. Sorry though, your four-legged friends can’t come with you.
Live Music & Entertainment
On the Citizens Park Stage, you’ll find all manner of entertainment, from live music to eating contests. Let’s see, this year there was the “Cornbread Eating Contest & Buttermilk Chug,” bluegrass music, and awards ceremonies for the winners of the 5K Run and the Cornbread Cook-offs.
There are films and music groups in The Princess Theater on Cedar Ave. There’s more music in The Gazebo. The Jam Tent is especially cool. There’s a house band to keep the music coming, but everyone else is invited to bring their own instrument and join in the jamming. We caught a rousing rendition of Rocky Top that the whole crowd joined in on. Scott didn’t take his drum kit, though. It wouldn’t fit in the truck with all of our other stuff.
A Few Other Festival Facts
Here are a few other facts about the National Cornbread Festival that we picked up. First of all, Lodge is the main sponsor. Anyone that knows cast-iron likely knows about Lodge. Lodge has been in South Pittsburg for its entire 116 year existence, turning out high-quality cast-iron since William McKinley’s first term as President. It’s actually the only cast-iron manufacturer based in the U.S.
Attendance at the festival is 75,000-100,000 over the course of the weekend, depending on the weather. As for the volunteers, they are quintessential Southern hospitality. We really couldn’t ask for a more helpful, cheerful, and friendly bunch of people running a festival.
We went to the Festival both Saturday and Sunday, spending a total of $48 for everything. Here’s a run-down of the prices:
- $5 admission each per day
- $5 each for Sunday’s pancake breakfast
- $4 each for the Cornbread Sampler
- $5 for the fried cheesecake
- $4 on bottle water
- $1 for treats for Knox
Not too shabby for two days of fun.
South Pittsburg, TN is about as far south in Tennessee as you can go while still being in Tennessee. It’s about 30 miles west of Chattanooga and the city center is about 2 miles north of Alabama. Being only a couple miles of off I-24 though, it’s really easy to get to. Other than that, you just have to wait until the last weekend of April.
Cornbread Festival Pictures
Pictures of cornbread. Pictures of Miss Cornbread Queen. Pictures of Lodge. If it was at the National Cornbread Festival, we tried to get a picture of it.