December Food Festivals

By: Jose Ralat Maldonado
pickle drop new years eve

Year-end food festivals are a paltry lot. Nevertheless, they exist and are as jubilant as any festival, regardless of the date. This month brings gingerbread houses, warming beer, local wine and seasonal creativity.

Holiday Ale Festival, Portland, Ore., Nov. 30 to Dec. 4: The last vestiges of Thanksgiving are hopefully fading into pleasant memories in time for a Pacific Northwest beer fete, just in case you didn’t put back enough of it last week. This edition will include more than 45 winter warmers, hefty suds to wick away the damp chill. Held annually under the cover of a tent in Pioneer Courthouse Square, the beloved celebration is known for tapping rare, limited releases. Due to flow, this year is a keg of Cascade Brewing Company 2007 barrel-aged Baltic Porter, which organizers tout as the last one, and a 2005 keg of the brewed-once annual dopplebock Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus. The beer brunch will be hosted on the last day of the festival. Throughout the festivities, designated drivers will receive complimentary Crater Lake Root Beer and bottled water.

Texas Hill Country Holiday Wine Trail, Fredericksburg, Texas, Dec. 2-4, 9-11, 16-18: Take the holidays on the range with this freewheeling celebration of a local gem, Hill Country wineries — 31 of them, to be exact. The wineries, such as Driftwood Estates and Pedernales Cellars, will be decked out in their yuletide finest. Wine trail visitors will receive one custom holiday ornament emblazoned with the winery’s name at each stop, plus one grapevine wreath at Becker Vineyards in Stonewall. A 15 percent discount will be applied to a three-bottle purchase at each winery. Not bad for a $60 ticket.

Gingerbread House Competition of New York State, Elmira, N.Y., Dec. 4: The best part of building a house of cards is knocking it down. The same applies to gingerbread houses. Among the construction of edible edifices, this contest is young, going into its fourth year. That doesn’t make this competition any less fierce. Entrants who build their houses at the event site (Ernie Davis Community Center) receive extra points for doing so, whether in the amateur or professional — yes, there are pro gingerbread homebuilders — categories. The registration and erecting begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m. Completed houses, measuring no bigger than 30” x 30”, will be judged on the criteria of originality/creativity, appearance and adherence to the design rules. Aside from the official judging by a panel of local celebrities and chefs, a popular vote will be held. The fantastical holiday objects will also be auctioned. All proceeds will benefit Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters

Bracebridge Dinner, Yosemite National Park, Dec. 13-25: Since 1927, The Ahwahnee lodge in Yosemite National Park has gone practically Restoration with the Bracebridge Dinner, a dinner theater production that transforms the luxury hotel into a 17th-century English manor. The meal — a four-hour, seven-course banquet with more than 100 actors and singers in period dress — is held in the Ahwahnee dining room and recounts a Christmas celebration with Lord Merrick of Bracebridge. Previous dinners have included peacock pie (braised California pheasant and chestnut pithivier, roasted parsnip purée, huckleberry jus), as well as plum pudding and wassail. The level of pageantry is matched only by the price of admission: $425 per diner.

Mt. Olive Pickle Drop, Mount Olive, N.C., Dec. 31: Before the crystal ball drops in Times Square, an illuminated pickle will descend in Mt. Olive, headquarters for the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. The food corporation and Mt. Olive’s residents know better than to compete with network television on New Year’s Eve — their pickle will drop at midnight Greenwich Mean Time (7 p.m. Eastern). After that, the town lamplighter will extinguish the streetlights and everyone will shuffle off to watch Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest or the back of their eyelids as 2011 turns into 2012.