Announcements and publicity associated with the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame

2020 Food-Themed Event Finalists

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Tuesday, February 18, 2020

By Andrew Vogler 

The Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s award for food-themed event honors one of the many community events or festivals that make our state a great place to live. These events attract tourists and neighbors alike and serve up lots of fun and hospitality alongside their signature foods.

Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival – Warren (Bradley County)

There really is something truly endearing about Bradley County’s reverence for the pink tomato. Held every year on the second weekend of June in Warren, the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival is the people of Bradley County saying “thank you” to the tomato industry. Knowing the full story, it’s not so surprising as the county owes an awful lot to the quirky crop.

In the early 20th century, when cotton’s economic influence was waning in the area, tomatoes offered farmers in Bradley County a new opportunity to make a living. The popularity of tomatoes spread quickly and farmers selling batches from the back of their trucks became a common sight in the area. However, it was the pink tomato that gained favor among other varietals and the people of Bradley County decided to honor it with a festival, organized by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce.

The first event was held in June 1956 as a day-long celebration of the pink tomato’s economic impact on the county. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the first event included “musicians, a carnival, and exhibits.” These days the festival has expanded to a weekend-long festival that attracts several thousand people from across the region and now includes a parade, a tomato eating contest, a concert, carnival rides, 5k run, turtle races, pageant, car show and concerts accompanied by the now famous (infamous) street dancing.

The 2020 Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival will be held on June 12 and 13.

The International Greek Food Festival - Little Rock (Pulaski County)

Held at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in west Little Rock, the International Greek Food Festival is one of Arkansas’s best-attended festivals and as of last year, celebrated its 35th anniversary. However, the real tradition of the festival stretches much further back...

If great things start with humble beginnings, the Greek Food Festival is especially wonderful because it initially started as the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church’s pastry sales in which the women of the church would raise funds through the sale of Greek desserts such as baklava. The popularity of these fundraisers, which were first held in downtown Little Rock, helped towards the establishment of a new church in Little Rock’s Napa Valley neighborhood. It was this move that opened the opportunity for the church to host a larger event. Thus in 1985, the first official festival was hosted and enthusiasm for the event has made it one of Arkansas’s most popular.

In keeping with the tradition of food being the main draw, people can enjoy a variety of Greek and Middle Eastern food with the proceeds of the food sales benefiting several charitable organizations in Arkansas. The international part of the event comes in the form of live entertainment, which includes music and dancing from a variety of cultural traditions.

The 36th annual International Greek Food Festival will be held on May 15 and 16, 2020.

Our Lady of the Lake’s Annual Spaghetti Dinner - Lake Village (Chicot County)

The story of Our Lady of the Lake’s Annual Spaghetti dinner really begins in the 1890s and the arrival of Italian immigrants to the Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County. The operation was headed by Austin Corbin, a New York businessman who was having trouble staffing his farming ventures. Taking advantage of the surge of Italian immigrants into America, Corbin contacted Prince Ruspoli, mayor of Rome, who arranged for 100 families to immigrate to America, settling in the Sunnyside Plantation, just outside of Lake Village, with the first group reaching the area in December 1895.

Along with their Catholic faith, these families brought with them their knowledge of Italian cuisine. In keeping with the Italian tradition, members of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church would often cook large meals to provide parishioners an opportunity to come together and connect. Eventually, these families would find their rhythm, hosting the dinner each March with the first official event held in 1910 as a church fundraiser.

Today, the dinners are organized by the Our Lady of the Lake Altar Society, whose members engage in intensive preparations for dinners that will serve well over 1,500 people. As was done in the first years of the dinner, everything is made from scratch - sauce, spaghetti noodles, meatballs, bread and lemon cakes, all done according to traditional recipes passed down from the families that arrived in the 19th century.

Though there are some festivals that might attract more people, there is something to be said about the special nature of this dinner as it honors one of the most unique Arkansas stories through one of the most authentic traditions.

This year, the Italian families of southeast Arkansas will celebrate the 110th Spaghetti Dinner on March 1. The community is also due to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Italians arriving in Chicot County from May 22-24.

Tontitown Grape Festival – Tontitown (Washington County)

The story of the Tontitown Grape Festival also begins at Chicot County’s Sunnyside Plantation. With the initial troubles of the plantation, many of the Italian families decided to seek better fortunes in other areas. Forty families, under the encouragement of Father Pietro Bandini, left Sunnyside for northwest Arkansas, in what would become Tontitown. The group was inspired by the resemblance of the area to the more familiar rugged Italian terrain but also there was an opportunity to grow fruit such as grapes.

The precursor to the Grape Festival was first organized as a picnic in 1898, in observance of the Feast of St. Peter and to celebrate their good fortune in prospering in their new home. In 1899, the community celebrated a successful grape harvest and the tradition continued. Since then, the picnic has grown into a five-day festival complete with concerts and carnival rides. However, as in the early days when the event was a community picnic, the biggest draw of the festival is the food!

What has to be one of Arkansas’s most beloved food traditions, and a hallmark of northwest Arkansas, is chicken and spaghetti. During this weekend, several thousand meals of this dish, all made from scratch, will be devoured by guests who will join friends and strangers at long communal tables. What a lot of people do not see is the meal preparation for these dinners, which begins weeks before the actual festival. In what is a tradition in itself, several families from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church come together to start making the pasta, which includes mixing, cutting and drying. When it’s all done, about 35,000 pounds of pasta will serve about 10,000 dinners.

The 122nd Tontitown Grape Festival will be held August 4-8.

The winner of the Food-themed event category, along with the four other categories, will be announced at the 2020 Arkansas Food Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Monday, Feb. 24, at Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock. Tickets can be purchased here.