This Tiny Appalachian Town Becomes the Cornbread Capital of the World Every April
Each April, thousands of people from around the world descend upon the tiny town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, to celebrate a Southern delicacy: cornbread.
South Pittsburg is situated next to the Tennessee River in the Appalachian Mountain foothills. More than a century ago, the town became the home of Lodge Manufacturing, a family-owned supplier of cast iron cookware.
The National Cornbread Festival swells the tiny town of just over 3,000 people to around 30,000 for a weekend, according to its organizers. For many, it's the love of cornbread that draws the visitors. For some, it's Lodge Manufacturing Company's beloved cast iron cookware, and for the residents of South Pittsburg, their involvement stems from a deep love of their town and community.
When Highway 72 was built to bypass South Pittsburg, Ed Fuller, who had recently moved to town with his wife, Lou, started looking for a way to ease the economic blow. That's when they had an idea to hold a cornbread festival.
"That actually was the genesis of it," Fuller said, "To try to save a small town that we were afraid was going to dry up because the traffic was bypassing us."
In 1996, Fuller recruited Lodge's then-CEO Bob Kellerman, who was instrumental in securing some of the first festival sponsors and organizing a cornbread cook-off.
"Cornbread is cast iron's best friend," Kellerman said. "You don't get that golden crispy crust unless you cook cornbread in a cast iron skillet."
Of course, you can't have a cornbread festival without cornbread, and that's where the cook-off and Cornbread Alley come in. The Lodge National Cornbread Cook-off is a testament to what you can do with a bag of Martha White cornbread mix and a piece of cast iron. Each year, a group of 10 seasoned home-cook competitors create an array of main dishes using the required Martha White cornbread product and Lodge cookware. This year's recipes ranged from Cajun-inspired dishes to meals that drew from international cuisine, like sesame shrimp corn cakes with Asian slaw. The winning dish? A Cajun-style shrimp pizza with a cornbread crust made by Lidia Haddadian of California.
At Cornbread Alley, guests can pay $5 in exchange for a sampling of delectable cornbread of all types—Mexican cornbread, a sweet gingerbread cornbread, and even Italian and Mediterranean-style options. Throughout the festival, different organizations offer free cornbread cakes, so you're never without the option to munch on the Southern delicacy.
Just like cornbread needs its cast iron skillet, The National Cornbread Festival relies on dedicated volunteers. The festival couldn't exist without the town of South Pittsburg and its residents' resolve to improve the town. It also wouldn't have reached national recognition without another component: Lodge Manufacturing and its commitment to its employees and hometown since the company started in 1896.
Their cast iron products, which are often passed down through families, have only gained notoriety and respect over the years. The company has remained innovative and successful, most recently by expanding their production and opening a second foundry in South Pittsburg a few years ago.
During the festival, Lodge opens one of its foundries for tours, showing guests the 2-hour process that transforms a mixture of steel scraps and pig iron into the iconic skillets our mothers and grandmothers have used to make some of the most cherished Southern recipes. Trust in the company runs through the consumers all the way to its employees in the foundry. In South Pittsburg, the Lodge family is known for their deep respect for their workers and hometown.
"They know every employee by name. They know their children. They know when one of them is sick. They know when one of them had a death in the family. That's just the kind of company they are," said Beth Duggar, who is the festival board's current president.
So when Kellerman was approached about being part of a festival that would benefit South Pittsburg, it wasn't a question that Lodge would get involved. In fact, Kellerman said, the same designer who made Lodge's egg logo also designed the Cornbread Festival logo.
From the beginning, the festival's founders knew they wanted the funds to filter into the South Pittsburg community. And, how they do it is truly amazing.
Groups and individuals from the area are invited to volunteer for the festival. Whether it's taking entry fees and tickets, helping set up tents for vendors, picking up trash after the festival, or serving on the various committees that work throughout the year to prepare for the festival, there's a place for everyone.
After the event, when the bills are paid and enough is saved to ensure another festival, the festival donates money to the volunteer groups. Around $95,000 went back to the groups involved last year.
This way of giving improves the town for everyone, year after year. Funds from the Cornbread Festival went toward the restoration of an old movie theatre downtown, The Princess Theatre. They also donated money for a walking track at South Pittsburg High School. One local church saved their funds for three years and built a baptistery, according to Teena Hewgley, the festival board's former Vice President.
"It's been a community of people that believed in their hometown," Hewgley said, tears coming to her eyes. "But what was the refreshing thing, was… that we forgot who we were until Ed and Lou came, and they woke us up and said, ‘this is what we see.' And when we heard that, we were like, ‘wow they really believe in us. So let's see what we can do to help them make this successful,' and it's because of their leadership that everybody bought in."
The National Cornbread Festival has become an example of how other small-town festivals can serve their communities. Former and current leaders said they've been invited to other festivals around the region to offer guidance.
A big part of its success is simple: from the beginning, the community bought into it. People wanted to be a part of it.
Sitting in the National Cornbread Festival headquarters on Saturday morning, as the streets filled with people and the smell of cornbread wafted through the air, Beth Duggar, the board's current president, remembered the first festival in 1997. Flipping through an old stack of photos, she marveled at the first festival's one stage, single stove for cooking cornbread, and handmade signs.
"It's a huge sense of pride for the people who live here. They talk about the festival like it's theirs, like they have ownership in it," Duggar said.
Today, they've grown to include five stages and nine stoves. The streets are filled with people, and vendors sell crafts and confections. Bright, colorful signs point people toward areas where they can sample cornbread. Attendees venture from throughout the United States and beyond. People from Australia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic sign a whiteboard placed outside the festival headquarters meant to collect tourist's travel miles. The festival encompasses five blocks of South Pittsburg's downtown, and there's a second generation of young people who now volunteer for the event in some capacity.
Over 23 years, through all the growth, which has almost reached a limit for the little town, the festival's mission has remained the same since the beginning—to promote and give back to South Pittsburg.
Want to get in on the celebration? Visit nationalcornbread.com to learn more about the festival and to stay updated on next year's National Cornbread Festival.