Seven California food fests you’ll have to see to believe

Gilroy has a garlic festival; dress appropriately.
(Randi Lynn Beach)

Do you find yourself wishing artichokes got the respect they deserve? Do you feel a pang of guilt when you realize you haven’t dedicated your life to garlic? Neither do we. But farming towns around California feel that the produce they grow for America needs some pomp and circumstance.

That’s where food festivals come in. California summer marks the season for parades and pageantry -- all devoted to specific crops and beloved ingredients abundant here.

Many of these events are wholesome, most are bizarre, and all are a bit gluttonous. Here are our picks for the California food festivals that deserve a trip this summer:

Castroville Artichoke Festival -- The area around Castroville, a small town in Monterey County,  grows more than 80% of the U.S. crop of artichokes. The “Artichoke Center of the World” celebrates its favorite thistle with two days of music, competition, wine and artichokes. Marilyn Monroe was even crowned “Castroville Artichoke Queen” in 1947. Be sure to check out the AGRO Art Competition, where contestants make three-dimensional sculptures out of vegetables. May 31- June 1, Monterey County Fairgrounds, $10 admission at the door.


Patterson Apricot Fiesta --Patterson, a very small town smack dab in the middle of the Central Valley, calls itself the “Apricot Capital of the World.” Its biggest claim to fame besides apricots is its massive Walmart, so the Apricot Fiesta is taken very seriously. Kids do their part by competing in an Apricot Pie Eating Contest, and by vying for the title of Patterson Apricot Royalty. A citywide parade is the climax of the festival, and visitors vote for their favorite parade entry online. May 30-June 1, Patterson, free admission.

Arcata Bay Oyster Festival -- Humboldt Bay in Arcata is home to one of the largest oyster production operations on the West Coast. Roughly 70% of the oysters grown in California come from this 450-acre plot. This city is nuts about oysters, and more than 10,000 people a year flock to Arcata for its annual oyster fest. Chefs from the area cook for festival visitors. The event’s most popular attraction is also its strangest. Teams of two attempt to shuck and swallow a dozen oysters as quickly as possible. Apparently the competition is vicious. June 14, Historic Arcata Plaza, free admission.

Marysville Peach Festival --Marysville, a tiny town outside of Sacramento, claims to be one of “the leading agribusiness centers in California.” The city’s expansive orchards have resulted in a passion for peaches among its residents. This festival is a bit more active. Visitors are invited to participate in a 5K run (or more likely, fast walk), and amateur soccer teams come together for the Azurri Peach Classic. If only they played with peaches instead of soccer balls! If any form of exercise causes you anxiety, try out the Peach and Pancake Breakfast -- only wrist control and a mouth are required. July 19-20, Historic Downtown Marysville, free admission.

Santa Paula Citrus Festival -- Surprise, surprise, we’ve got another “Capital of the World” on our hands. This one, Southern California’s Santa Paula, is for citrus. Of course, lemons and oranges are abundant, but music dominates this festival. Latin and country bands are invited to the stage while guests dance in the streets. July 18-20, Harding Park, $5 admission.


Gilroy Garlic Festival -- One of America’s largest and most publicized food fests is the Gilroy Garlic Festival. More than 100,000 people make the pilgrimage to Gilroy to sample some of its peculiar garlic creations. There are garlic lollipops, garlic gator bites on a stick, and even garlic ice cream. The Garlic Cook-Off is famous throughout the country and is streamed live on the festival website. They use more than 2 tons of garlic throughout the weekend, so bring some mints. July 25-27, Christmas Hill Park, $20 admission.

Oxnard Salsa Festival -- Oxnard is most known for its Strawberry Festival in early May, but its citizens also have an affinity for all things Latin. Oxnard residents love salsa -- the food, the music and the dance. The music takes center stage at this event, with bands blasting salsa music throughout the festivities. Visitors are encouraged to get on the dance floor, regardless of age or ability. Of course, there are dozens of salsas to try, from green and mild to red and fiery. Best of all, it’s totally free. July 26-27, Plaza Park, downtown Oxnard, free admisssion and parking.


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