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Food Festivals: Maryland, New Mexico, Indiana

If you want great food, go to the source: food festivals. These gatherings celebrate local fare at its freshest and purest, straight from the field to the table, prepared by grandmas in towns with names like Irmo, Indio, and LaBelle. We've eaten our way across the country, and here are our fall favorites.

National Hard Crab Derby
crisfield, maryland; labor day weekend
They're off and running— sideways— in these crab races at the southern tip of Maryland. Happily, not all the crabs will compete in the 50th annual event: there'll also be plenty to eat. By all means, try the popular herb-speckled crab cakes and the soft-shelled crabs, which come crisp from the fryer, two to a bun. But save room for the steamed crabs. Order a dozen or two, and the server will pluck them from a huge pot onto a cardboard tray. For tips on extricating crabmeat, watch the pros at the picking contest. And stick around for the coronation of Miss Crustacean. Crisfield Chamber of Commerce; 410/968-2500.

Hatch Chile Festival
hatch, new mexico; labor day weekend
The fields in this farm community 80 miles east of El Paso yield bushels of ancho, serrano, jalapeÒo, and Big Jim peppers. Southwesterners think of them as an essential food group, a main course rather than a seasoning. The festival highlight is the Chile Meal, starring green chili con carne served with tortillas and beans, green-chili enchiladas, and red-chili tamales. But the chilies aren't just on your plate: they're piled high in baskets, strung up in ristras, dried and ground to the most potent powder you'll ever add to a bowl of red-hot. Cool down at the exhibits of chili jewelry and artwork and the crowning of the Little Miss Chile Festival Queen. Then get heated up again at the Saturday night dance. Hatch Valley Chamber of Commerce; 505/267-5050.

Persimmon Festival
mitchell, indiana; september
Plum-shaped native American persimmons, half the size of the Oriental variety, are gathered in the fall by savvy people in the Southeast and southern Midwest. They taste a bit like dates and were eaten by Catawba and Choctaw Indians as well as by early settlers, but now they're increasingly hard to come by. Mitchell's festival has a flea market, a road rally, a parade, carnival rides, and .

Okra Strut
irmo, south carolina; late september
Okra may have a bad rep, but when deep-fried it's mighty tasty. At the Strut, it's also served boiled, pickled, or steamed, but you're on your own there. Most people in Irmo, just outside Columbia, poke fun at the local crop; the festival, however, is serious business. The huge parade has floats, politicians, marching bands, and all the rest. There's a golf tournament, and starting next year the town's rival high school football teams will play during the festival (it'll be called the Okra Bowl). Wherever you go, you'll hear lots of okra jokes ("Ate so much okra when I was a boy that I couldn't keep my socks up"). We never said they were funny. Okra Strut Festival Committee; 803/781-9878.

Marion County Country Ham Days
lebanon, kentucky; late september
This two-day festival celebrates country ham, as much a Kentucky tradition as bourbon and tobacco. There are contests of pig calling and pipe smoking (which involves the length of time contestants can keep a pipe alight); an auction of the champion ham; country music (this year, the Cumberland Grass Band and the Main Street Brass Band will be doing their thing); the Pigasus Parade; and a heavenly Southern breakfast: fried apples, scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, biscuits, and (of course) country ham with red-eye gravy. If you get tired of all that ham, check out the Maker's Mark distillery, a few miles away. It's a National Historic Landmark where sour-mash bourbon is still made. Lebanon- Marion County Chamber of Commerce; 502/692-9594.

Gumbo Festival
bridge city, louisiana; mid-october
Just across the river from New Orleans, in the heart of Cajun country, Bridge City serves up deep bowls of spicy seafood and chicken-and-andouille gumbo— this is, after all, the (self-proclaimed) Gumbo Capital of the World. The festival, one of the country's liveliest, features a gumbo that is a thick and funky bayou brew, the sort fancy restaurants simply can't achieve. Sidle up to the beer wagon for a cold one; run off all you eat at the 5K race; pick up cooking tips at the gumbo contest (if any of the chefs will share recipes); watch the Beautiful Child .

Chincoteague Oyster Festival
chincoteague, virginia; mid-october
Oysters have long been considered a treat: ancient Greeks farmed them; more recently, Diamond Jim Brady reputedly put away three or four dozen raw ones . . . before supper. What's your capacity?Here you can try them raw, steamed, fried, or in fritters. This festival is for serious oyster lovers— there's a hefty $25 admission fee and no other amusements except a festival band. But some aficionados regard the salt oysters of Chincoteague, which is on Virginia's Eastern Shore, as the world's tastiest, and October as the best month to eat them. Though many families hold their reunions here, dressing up the picnic tables with crystal and candelabra, the feel is decidedly casual. Tickets must be purchased in advance from the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce; 757/336-6161.

Barbecue Festival
lexington, north carolina; late october
Lexington, 30 miles south of Winston-Salem, has more barbecue joints per capita than any other town in the United States. And among the countless styles of barbecue— from Texas beef to Kentucky mutton— this town's North Carolina version is legendary: pork is cooked and hickory-smoked, shredded, and mixed with a vinegar sauce. Have it on a bun with a side of hush puppies while you listen to the hog-calling contest— Sooo-ey!— or watch the Parade of Pigs (in which people dress up as, yes, pigs). At either end of Main Street, stages feature gospel music, square dancing, and blues shows. Barbecue Festival; 800/555-2142, ext. 62952.

National Date Festival
indio, california; mid-february
Okay, so it's not really autumn, but the harvest comes late in the southern California desert. For nine days in February, Indio takes on a Middle Eastern aura as citizens gather twice a day for camel and ostrich races. At night they don caftans and turbans for the Arabian Nights .

Swamp Cabbage Festival
labelle, florida: late february
Talk about an identity problem. Though the name's not appetizing, swamp cabbage is a delicacy, and one you're not likely to find anywhere else in the world. These hearts of palm— sabal palm, to be precise— are different from the hearts of palm shipped up from South America in cans. Mild and delicate, like an artichoke, and made into stews and fritters, swamp cabbage is a perfect accompaniment to the local barbecue or such swampy things as alligator and frog's legs. It's an old Indian food, so it makes sense that many of the booths at this festival are run by Seminoles, who also sell such goodies as fruit-filled fly breads. When you've had your fill, check out the other goings-on in LaBelle, "city with a heart": the rodeo, the parade, the Swamp-Stomp 5K run, the clogging performance, the Bass Busters fishing tournament, and the Miss Swamp Cabbage .

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