Image: West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off, Pocahontas Cty., W. Va.
David Shawley  /
Since chomping a bit of gravel can cause some serious dental problems, the good folks of Pocahontas County, West Virginia's Roadkill Cook Off have wisely limited entrants to cooking up non-roadkill animals, which in no way diminishes the excitement of trying out the rabbit, crow, possum and other wild delights dished up by these very serious competitors. The next festival will be held Sept. 27, 2008, in Marlinton, W. Va.
updated 6/4/2008 3:15:01 PM ET 2008-06-04T19:15:01

What makes a particular food bizarre? Not much, according to Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining, a Web site devoted to strange and exotic meals. "The only difference between nasty food and tasty food is one letter," he says. "That's it."

Lin should know. Over the years, he has written about his experiences eating everything from beaver tail to Kopi Luwak, a rare, expensive coffee brewed with coffee berries that have already been digested by a cat-like jungle mammal called the civet.

Not everybody can be expected to go ga-ga for grasshoppers or be passionate about pickled pig ears, so we explored three possibilities when compiling this list. First, there are those festivals that celebrate what might be objectively considered truly bizarre food—meals so far out of the mainstream that they’re unlikely to appeal to any but the most adventurous eaters. Then there are those festivals that celebrate regional or ethnic specialties, which are popular within a certain culture but seem bizarre to others because do not yet enjoy mainstream appeal. Finally, there are those festivals that focus so intently upon a specific food, however common, that they elevate them to the status of bizarre. For these, food becomes fetish object.

When we say “bizarre,” we're really thinking of festivals like the annual Bugfest at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It's not the festival's "bug-filled fun for adventurous people of all ages" that inspires us, but the "Cafe Insecta"—featuring buggy-licious treats like stir-fry grasshoppers and mealworms marinara.

When you're ready to move up from bugs, slither on over to the Waurika Rattlesnake Hunt, held in Waurika, Okla., every April. If competing for the $150 prize for longest snake caught makes you hungry, the concession features deep-fried rattlesnake meat. For those watching their weight, the butcher shop will sell it to you fresh so you can prepare it in your own way and keep you from tipping the scales.

No festival fetishizes a single food object quite the way the Gilroy Garlic Festival does. The festival takes place in Gilroy, Calif., the unofficial Garlic Capital of the World. It will be holding its 30th anniversary celebration in 2008. This fragrant fest attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually who consume more than two and a half tons of garlic. While most of the focus is on traditional uses, the unabashed love for the pungent bulb inspires some truly bizarre creations. Anyone hungry for garlic ice cream, garlic soft drinks and garlic lollipops?

Even corporate-sponsored events can fit into the “bizarre” category. Consider the Waikiki SpamJam, one of many festivals held every year around the country that celebrate the pink, oblong potted meat product. Whether the festival is more kitsch than culinary is up for debate, but the fact is that Spam has been a popular part of the Hawaiian diet for decades.

Our second category includes foods that are regional or ethnic specialties that have yet to catch on nationally. These include the Chitlin' Strut of Salley, South Carolina, and the San Fernando's Menudo Festival. Both celebrate parts of animals that most of us don't consider eating. (Chitlins, if you don't know, are pig intestines, and menudo is a traditional Mexican soup made with tripe, or stomach.) Such festivals are important, according to Lin, because they stress the nature of "nose-to-tail" eating, which reduces waste and is a more ecologically sound approach to food preparation and consumption than just eating the normal bits, so to speak.

Another approach to "green" food preparation can be found every year in Marlinton, W. Va., which celebrates what might be our car-crazy culture's most abundant untapped food source: roadkill. Please note that while the Roadkill Cook-off celebrates dishes made with any animal that might commonly be found on the side of a county highway, it does not allow actual roadkill. As Shirley, at the visitor's center, explained: "The judges might break a tooth on a piece of gravel, and the cooks would be disqualified immediately."

San Fernando Menudo Festival, October, San Fernando, Calif.
San Fernando hosts this annual festival to celebrate Menudo—no, not the Puerto Rican boys band, but the traditional tripe-based soup said to have wonderful curative properties after a night of overindulgence. If you think you'd never eat stomach lining, think again: Plenty of people said the same thing about squid just a couple of decades back. It's held every October.
Sometimes what we consider a bizarre food might only be a case of poor marketing. Take the annual Turkey Testicle Festival of Huntley, Ill., which draws thousands of visitors to the Parkside Pub in this old farm town. It is only one of a disconcertingly large number of festivals nationally that celebrate this particular organ (such as the Rocky Mountain Oyster festival of Throckmorton, Texas). If the idea of gobbling a gobbler’s goodies doesn’t appeal to you, consider that a generation ago most Americans would have shuddered at the thought of eating squid tentacles. And yet today nearly every suburban supermarket offers calamari.

No amount of marketing, however clever, can soften the truly bizarre edge of the perfectly named Weird Food Festival, held during the week between Christmas and New Year's in different locations around the Los Angeles area. Founded by a group of friends who enjoy trying exotic foods, the festival will celebrate its 10th annual get-together this year. Though it’s more of a private dining club than a destination, the festival's founders, Marc Moss and friend Levi Ahlberg, are more than happy to share their enthusiasm for kangaroo jerky, musk-ox meat, jellyfish or any of the other surprises the attendees can scrounge up from the plentiful and diverse ethnic markets that L.A. offers. Like silkworm pupae, weird-food aficionados have to stick together.


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