As the summer heat begins to wane, warm up your taste buds for a bevy of fall food festivals. Harvest season rakes in everything from fresh apples and avocados to hearty ales and aromatic wines. Sure, you can get your hands on autumn fixings at your neighborhood grocery store, but if you're one to honor the emergence of seasonal ingredients, you'll find a cornucopia of food-centric festivals taking place all around the United States, from California to Massachusetts. Below are some of the season's most satiating celebrations.
Courtesy the National Apple Harvest Festival
[In Pictures: 9 Flavorful Fall Festivals]
National Apple Harvest Festival
Macintosh, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Golden Delicious ... autumn is the season for apples. Nothing complements the changing leaves quite like a fresh-baked apple pie or a hearty slather of apple butter. If you believe that the arrival of apple season deserves more than produce-aisle markdowns, make your way to Pennsylvania for the National Apple Harvest Festival. Hosted by Arendtsville, a small community roughly 10 miles northwest of Gettysburg, the 49-year-old festival delights taste buds with a slew of apple-oriented treats, from the candied apples to apple cider. (You'll find plenty of non-apple fare as well, including funnel cakes and barbecue.) The festival also includes pie contests (both baking and eating) and bobbing competitions. This year, the National Apple Harvest Festival will take place Oct. 5, 6, 12 and 13. Admission is $9 for adults; senior citizens 60 or older can enter for $8, while kids ages 12 and younger can get in for free.
Louisiana Pecan Festival
As winter approaches, Americans have two things on their minds: the holidays and all the tasty food that comes with them. So why not kick off the countdown to Thanksgiving with a festival honoring one of the most beloved pie ingredients, the pecan? Hosted by Colfax, La. (a small town at the heart of the Pelican State), the 44th annual Louisiana Pecan Festival will commence on Nov. 1 and include three days of parades, pageants and pie-eating contests. Approximately 75,000 people head to Colfax every year to take part in the event, which was first held in 1969. In addition to the centerpiece attractions -- which include the Antique Tractor Show and a variety of pecan cooking competitions -- the festival will feature free live music, allowing you to save some cash to spend on local crafts and plenty of pecans.
Courtesy Oktoberfest Zinzinnati
For many foodies, the highlight of autumn's arrival is not the colorful foliage or crisp, cool weather -- it's Oktoberfest. Even if you can't make it all the way to Munich to partake in the pandemonium, you can still get your fill of seasonal brew. Just head to Cincinnati where Samuel Adams and Hillshire Farm team up to host the country's largest version of the annual beer-and-brat festival, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. From Sept. 20 to 22, Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati will set the scene for live music, dancing and, of course, refreshment booths to quench the thirst and satisfy the appetites of more than 500,000 people. Don't worry, there's plenty of grub to go around: According to a survey of the event's vendors, Oktoberfest 2012 served up more than 80,000 brats, 3,600 pounds of sauerkraut and nearly 2,000 pounds of German potato salad. While you will have to pay for food, you can enjoy the rest of the festival's offerings for free.
[See: 10 Best Cities for Foodies]
California Avocado Festival
Avocados have become somewhat of a foodie trend in recent years, making their way into everything from burgers to gelato. But the town of Carpinteria -- sitting about 84 miles northwest of Los Angeles -- has been celebrating the superfood since 1986. Located in Santa Barbara County (the third largest avocado producer in North America), Carpinteria welcomes thousands of visitors each year during the California Avocado Festival. Casually known as AVOFEST, this free three-day affair provides ample opportunities to revel in the avocado's versatility, including recipe contests, taste tests and, of course, a guacamole competition. But there's more to snack on here than avocado: You'll find ice cream and other treats to nosh on while you peruse local arts and crafts, rock out to live music and watch the kids enjoy puppet shows and play areas. This year's AVOFEST will take place from Oct. 4 through 6.
The summer might be winding down, but the Cape still has a few surprises up its sleeve for those who choose to linger. On Oct. 19 and 20, the tiny town of Wellfleet, Mass., will brave the cooling temps to indulge in one of the region's most popular delicacies: oysters. For a reasonable admission fee -- $5 for one day and $8 for two -- you'll gain access to Wellfleet OysterFest's arts and crafts booths, live music and, yes, fresh shellfish. You can get your fill of raw oysters on the half shell before testing your own prep skills onstage during one of the festival's main events, the oyster shucking competition. Competitors pay a $25 entry fee for the chance to win up to $1,000. Although it's easy to get distracted by all the games and the entertainment, consider devoting some time to the festival's educational programming, which will include lectures and films about the area's underwater ecosystem.
Santa Fe Harvest Festival
Santa Fe, N.M.
The annual Santa Fe Harvest Festival puts a southwestern spin on autumn food events. Held at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living history museum located about 15 miles southwest of Santa Fe, this two-day-long festival celebrates both the area's history and its cuisine. Geared toward families, the Santa Fe Harvest Festival immerses attendees of all ages in the flavors of New Mexico. Not only can you and your kids learn to make tortillas, string chile ristras and stomp the juice out of wine grapes, you can also sample handmade treats (like bizcochitos -- cinnamon cookies -- and fresh apple cider) and watch cooking demonstrations. And if you're planning on going without kids in tow, you can enrich your experience by watching traditional dance sessions and marveling at Mexican fashion. The festival will take place on Oct. 5 and 6; admission is $8 for adults and $5 for teens (kids 12 and younger can enter for free).
Sonoma County Harvest Fair
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Courtesy the Sonoma County Harvest Fair
It's time to say goodbye to summer and toast to the onset of fall -- and where better to do just that than at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair? On Oct. 4 through 6, winos from all over the country will flock to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., to mingle with representatives from more than 150 local wineries. For nearly 40 years, the free festival has been uniting Sonoma Valley visitors with top-notch vino, delighting palates with food- and wine-pairing tips and cooking demonstrations, and helping stock pantries with local products from the filled marketplace. If you don't mind forking over $50, you can gain access to the Tasting Pavilion where you can sample wine, craft beer and cider and try out dishes prepared by local chefs that are evaluated by judges during the festival's Professional Food Competition. This all leads up to the festival's main event: the World Championship Grape Stomp. For $30 per team, you and a partner can show off your grape-crushing abilities for the chance to win $1,500. Teams are encouraged to dress in costume, and whoever produces the most juice walks away a little bit richer.
[See: Best Wine Vacations]
Warrens Cranberry Festival
Everyone knows that a turkey dinner isn't complete without cranberry sauce, but hardly ever does the versatile cranberry get to steal the spotlight ... except at the Warrens Cranberry Festival. Hosted by the small town of Warrens in northwest Wisconsin -- 164 miles southeast of Minneapolis, Minn. -- the Warrens Cranberry Festival will pay tribute to the bright red fruit from Sept. 27 to 29. Every year, the festival features a parade and guided tours of the nearby cranberry marshes (for $6 per person -- admission to the rest of the festival is free). There's plenty to see at the main fairgrounds, too. As the largest event of its kind in the world, the Warrens Cranberry Festival comprises more than three miles worth of shopping booths where you'll find everything from cranberry-infused soaps and lotions, handcrafted jewelry and artwork and fresh produce. Just make sure to leave your diet at home, as cranberry cream puffs and pancakes with cranberry syrup will be impossible to resist.
American Royal World Series of Barbecue
Kansas City, Mo.
While you may only allocate quality time with your grill during the summer, Kansas City, Mo., believes that barbecue is a year-round cuisine. Sure, you'll find your fill of saucy snacks no matter the season, but for true barbecue immersion, make your way to this Midwestern city between Oct. 4 and 6. This particular weekend marks the end of competitive barbecue season, during which the American Royal Association -- a nonprofit community service organization -- sponsors the massive American Royal World Series of Barbecue. More than 500 teams will spend the weekend showing off their grill skills while judges evaluate them in a variety of categories, including best sauce, best meat and best sides. What does that mean for you? For $10 per day or $15 for the whole weekend ($13 if you purchase tickets online in advance), you can attend cooking demonstrations, live music sessions and, perhaps most importantly, the food court where vendors serve up hearty portions of their award-winning recipes.
[In Pictures: 9 Flavorful Fall Festivals]
-- Miriam B. Weiner