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Roadkill cook-off, Spam Jam lure bold foodies

  • Story Highlights
  • There are many options for people who seek food festivals with an unusual twist
  • RoadKill Cook-Off features dishes incorporating meat from deer, squirrels, snakes
  • Waikiki Spam Jam in Hawaii celebrates the canned luncheon meat
  • Garlic ice cream at the Gilroy Garlic Festival tastes like vanilla ice cream with a kick
By A. Pawlowski
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(CNN) -- Thousands of people converge on the small town of Marlinton, West Virginia, each fall for a feast whose main ingredients were unlucky enough to crawl, slither or lurk too close to a speeding car.

Unusual food festivals include BugFest in Raleigh, North Carolina, where a young visitor tries a stir-fried scorpion.

Unusual food festivals include BugFest in Raleigh, North Carolina, where a young visitor tries a stir-fried scorpion.

It's RoadKill Cook-Off time, where past years' crowds have sampled dishes like Pothole Possum Stew, Fricasseed Wabbit Gumbo and Smeared Hog with Groundhog Gravy.

Welcome to the world of unusual -- dare we say weird? -- food festivals.

Sure, you can find plenty of culinary celebrations dedicated to everything from rhubarb to seafood, but there are also options to satisfy your cravings for rattlesnake, fried pig intestines or garlic ice cream.

The RoadKill Cook-Off is so popular that it fills all the motels and hotels in the county when it takes place on the last Saturday in September, said David Cain, who runs the event and samples all the dishes.

"There are some that are better than others, but I've never really had anything that I really didn't like," Cain said. "But there was one year they cooked a rattlesnake in some kind of stew, and ... there was no way I could taste that one." Photo See photos from these unusual food festivals »

The RoadKill Cook-Off began in 1991, when organizers thought it might boost attendance at the main event: the Pocahontas County Autumn Harvest Festival.

Did it ever.

About 10,000 people from all over the country came to last year's gathering, Cain said. All dishes featured in the festival must have animals commonly found dead on the side of the road -- such as deer, squirrels and snakes -- as their main ingredient. But the meat doesn't have to be actual roadkill.

More strange eats

Chitlin' Strut
Specialty: Fried pig intestines
Where: Salley, South Carolina
When: November 28, 2009

Rattlesnake Round-Up
Specialty: Fried rattlesnake meat
Where: Sweetwater, Texas
When: Every March

National Baby Food Festival
Specialty: Baby food cook-off
Where: Fremont, Michigan
When: July 22-25, 2009

Gizzard Fest
Specialty: Fried chicken gizzards
Where: Potterville, Michigan
When: June 12-14, 2009

"Judges will deduct points for every chipped tooth resulting from gravel not removed from the RoadKill," the official rules warn. "All judges have been tested for cast-iron stomachs and have sworn under oath to have no vegetarian tendencies."

All about Spam

Thousands of miles away, in Honolulu, Hawaii, aficionados of canned luncheon meat gather in April for the annual Waikiki Spam Jam, described by organizers as "a street festival that celebrates the people of Hawaii's love for Spam."

Some may call it mystery meat, but it's not advisable to do so in Hawaii, which has the highest per-capita consumption rate of Spam products in the United States. Almost 7 million cans worth of the pinkish product are eaten every year in the Aloha State, according to festival officials.

The crowds at this year's Spam Jam sampled dishes such as Spam Fried Rice, Spam Burgers and Guava Mango BBQ Spam Sliders.

"I think people are amused by the whole idea because it is pretty different. Like, why would you celebrate Spam?" said Barbara Campbell, one of the founders of the festival. "It's just about having fun, and they love the different Spam items."

A restaurant that offered Spam Chili Nachos at the festival was so amazed by their popularity that it's thinking of adding the dish to its permanent menu, Campbell added.

Fans who admire the yellow and blue design of Spam cans also have a chance to splurge on Spam-themed merchandise, including T-shirts, baby items and slippers.

Celebrating the 'stinking rose'

Some unusual food festivals can tickle the nose as well as the palate. Vampires may hate garlic, but the pungent cloves draw huge crowds of hungry mortals each July to the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, "the garlic capital of the world."

If you're a fan, pack some breath mints and enjoy everything from traditional garlic-infused fare like scampi and stuffed mushrooms, to more exotic choices. Garlic ice cream, anyone?

Those who have tried the frozen dessert describe it as an "acquired taste."

"I would say when you first taste it, it's like regular vanilla ice cream, and then give it about 10 seconds, and you feel the kick of garlic," said Peter Ciccarelli, director of media relations for the festival.

"It's not something that people would eat by a bowlful, nor would they put chocolate syrup on it."

Last year's festival drew more than 100,000 people who consumed more than 15,000 servings of garlic bread and 10,000 servings of garlic fries. Almost 3 tons of the "stinking rose," as garlic is sometimes fondly called, were used to flavor the dishes.

A meal with legs

The truly adventurous foodies may opt for BugFest and the leggy dishes served up by Café Insecta at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh each September.

Popular choices include the Ant-Chilada, a cheese enchilada in which toasted freeze-dried ants are used as both the filling and topping, and Hush-Grubbies, in which wax worm grubs are coated with hush-puppy batter and deep fried.

For dessert, visitors can try Chocolate-Chirp Cookies, which have crickets baked in.

"We basically use recipes that we would use for any other dish and substitute the protein," explained Matthew Busch, head chef at the museum's Acro Café, who creates the dishes at Café Insecta during BugFest. So, instead of doing a shrimp stir-fry, the museum might do a scorpion stir-fry.

Busch, who said he tries anything he cooks, recommended the Hush-Grubbies, calling the bugs inside "tasty" and "a little buttery." Stir-fried scorpions, on the other hand, can be a little bitter, he cautioned.


Watching the reactions of visitors who dig in to the bug-laden food is Busch's favorite part, and he described seeing an entire range of responses, from people who are gung-ho and want to try everything to those who are squeamish and have to be peer-pressured to take a bite.

Some people's strategy is just to eat around the bugs, Busch said.

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