Every year the small town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee opens its doors to a staggering 25,000 tourists in an all-American celebration of a favorite southern food staple: cornbread. Arguably the south’s cornerstone cuisine, cornbread traces its roots to Native Americans who originally made the dish with maize. The modern incarnation of cornbread takes many forms — traditional bread, fritters, hoecakes , even hushpuppies. All receive their fair share of the spotlight at the annual South Pittsburgh celebration.
South Pittsburgh also happens to be home of Lodge’s cast iron manufacturing facility, the point of origin for the cast iron skillets frequently used to cook the dish. Founded in 1896 by Joseph Lodge and originally named the Blacklock Foundry, Lodge is one of the oldest cookware companies in the world. While the techniques used to make cast iron have evolved over the years to incorporate automation and safer manufacturing practices, the heart of the foundry relies on the same casting and molding processes used for over a century. There’s no shortage of Lodge branding and sponsorship at Cornbread Fest, ensuring that visitors leave with a renewed appreciation for the company and people who make one of the South’s premier cookwares.
I first went to Cornbread festival on a whim in 2016 (below is a picture of me at the festival’s signature cornbread smourgasboard buffet, Cornbread Alley). It’s now one of my favorite festivals in the south. I’ve become somewhat of an evangelist for the event, recommending it to others as an authentic celebration of Americana, manufacturing, and (of course) delicious food.
Embracing my inner southerner at my first cornbread fest
Cornbread Fest takes place the last weekend in April. The festival typically runs from 9 AM on Saturday to Sunday evening. If you do go, you’ll want to get there early. South Pittsburgh is a small town (normally home to 3000) and the massive influx of tourists means things get crowded quickly. If you arrive by 8 AM on Saturday, you can run the Cornbread Fest 5K, which winds its way through the (rather hilly) South Pittsburg historic district. 5K registration includes a t-shirt, admission to the festival, and admission to Cornbread alley, the festival’s premiere cornbread sampling station. If you’re not a runner, you can also walk the 5K route. Trust me, some calorie burn will be necessary to minimize the impact of a day filled with nothing but carb consumption.
A 5K calorie burn is equal to approximately three cornbread samples
After the 5K, I recommend heading straight to Cornbread Alley (sure it’s 9 AM, but what’s wrong with cornbread for breakfast?) Cornbread Alley ($5 admission) consists of around 10 community groups (from boy scout troops to Methodist churches) who’ll spend the day cooking up their best cornbread concoctions and passing out samples to a never-ending stream of hungry passerby. After enjoying your cornbread spread (pictured below) in a nearby shed, you can head back out to the main street of the festival to shop. Cornbread Fest hosts a slew of artisan vendors from Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, who sell everything from pottery to goat milk soap and birdhouses. As you wander the festival grounds, there’s also ample opportunity for even more cornbread samples. Be sure to stop by the main festival tent to get a map (which will alert you to where the free samples are) and festival guide. There’s also a postcard scavenger hunt, where you can collect stamps from stops around the festival, ultimately redeeming a completed card for a cornbread festival cookbook and entry to win a cornbread festival gift basket. The gift basket contains an assortment of flour (Martha White is an event sponsor), festival merchandise, and enough Lodge cast iron that you’ll need a dolly to get it to your car. Not to be missed is the merchandise tent, where you can purchase a must-have festival t-shirt with a clever cornbread slogan and festival emblem (“Country as Cornbread” is my personal favorite, followed by “Put the South in Your Mouth”). Other off-the-beaten path attractions found outside the festival gates are the quilt show (this year’s featured quilts inspired by America’s National Parks) and the car show.
Cornbread Alley: More cornbread than a single plate can reasonably accommodate.
2017 Cornbread Festival Quilt Show featuring quilts inspired by the National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains (left), Biscayne Bay (top right), Arches (bottom right)
The Lodge cast iron factory also gets in to the spirit of the event by opening its doors to festival-goers. Here you can take a self-guided walking tour of the factory and indulge in a real-life episode of “How It’s Made.” On your tour, you’ll learn that the classic skillet starts as a mix of iron, recycled cast iron, and stainless steel melted together in a 2800 hundred degree furnace. The molten metal is poured into a sand mold. Once the skillet solidifies and is removed from the mold, it’s tumbled and shot blasted to remove any residual molding sand, polished, and dried. Spray guns apply a seasoning to the skillet. Although it’s simply oil baked into the pores of the iron, the seasoning is Lodge’s “secret sauce” — it’s an additive that prevents oxidation and imparts the skillet with its highly desired nonstick properties. The level of automation in the factory is impressive – for the Cornbread Festival walkthrough, some of the robots are set into a demo mode akin to robotic ballet (see the picture below of a Kuka industrial robot waving a cast iron skillet at passerby). Next door to the factory is the Lodge cast iron factory store. The discount section, which consists of products with blemishes or defects that didn’t meet the factory’s stringent quality control standards, is your best bet for finding a good deal.
I for one, welcome our robot overlords if they will cook Southern food for me
The marquee festival event is the cornbread festival cookoff in which ten chefs from around the country (downselected from over 100 initial entries) compete for the title of cornbread champion in a live head to head competition. The dishes run the gamut from traditional to the exotic (last year’s winning dish was Bob’s Bama hoecake sliders, a mix of pimento cheese, smoked sausage, and pickles sandwiched between two cornmeal pancakes). The festival also includes a full schedule of live musical performances (mostly bluegrass and country) and a fireworks show.
The 2016 Cornbread Festival Winner: Hoecake sliders
Cornbread Festival epitomizes the intangible things I love about the south. South Pittsburg seems like a place where, to borrow from Rick Bragg, “grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven.” Perhaps it reminds me in some ways of the town I grew up in. The people are welcoming and the food is certainly something to write home about. South Pittsburg, with its Disney-esque Main Street, also plays into our collective misplaced nostalgia for an America that probably never really existed in the first place (a phenomenon discussed at length in this recent New York Times article The Myth of Main Street). Regardless, Cornbread Fest feels like such an authentic piece of Americana that it’s impossible not to succumb to its southern charm. Even the most cynical of festival-goers will leave with the feeling that the key to happiness might be found in a mix of butter, cornmeal, and flour cooked up in some American-made cast iron cookware.