April 9, 2014 10:24:03 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
There are many reasons to enjoy the Cotton District Arts Festival in Starkville Saturday. The Taste of Starkville culinary competition is a big one. In this good-natured food showdown, local restaurants and cooks vie for titles while offering up fare for every tastebud.
Against the backdrop of art, artisans and crafts in the Cotton District, professional and amateur chefs, confectioners and grillmasters will pull out the stops to offer their best "street food," with emphasis on quality and portability.
Festival-goers are the real winners, of course, as each contestant steps up their game in everything from burgers, pizzas and ribs to pasta and sweets.
Taste of Starkville judges have the envious task of visiting every booth. They then will name winners in categories such as Most Likely for Seconds, Best on a Hot Day, and, of course, the coveted Best in Show.
Good eats sampler
Many Taste of Starkville participants are returning veterans, like Central Station Grill and The Veranda. Others, including The Biscuit Shop and Bombay Spice Kitchen, are taking part for the first time.
"We're a new restaurant, we just opened in February, so we're glad to have the exposure at this big festival," said Pete Patel of Bombay Spice Kitchen. He and his crew will prepare tandoori chicken and chicken tikka kabobs, as well as behl, a vegetarian mixture of chick peas, onions, tomatoes, jalapenos and other ingredients.
"We're really looking forward to our first year in the Cotton District Festival," added Patel, a Jackson native and Mississippi State alumnus. "I'm really grateful to be here in Starkville and thank everyone for their support since we opened."
Chef Carnell McGee of Harveys is a CDAF mainstay. He's been part of Taste of Starkville since the competition began and knows what the audience likes.
"It's been one of the highest requests we've had," he said, talking about the marinated beef tenderloin kabobs with red and yellow bell peppers, and red and white onions so popular with festival-goers. The Harveys booth will also feature marinated chicken kabobs and a beef chili dog topped with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese.
For owner Carol Taylor and her crew at The Cake Box, it's (almost) all about dessert. In their festival debut last spring, they were pleasantly surprised at the demand.
"We were shocked at how much product we sold last year," said Taylor of the decorated cupcakes and iced and decorated cookies they offered. "We've already had people calling us this year to make sure we're going to be there." MSU fans headed to Super Bulldog Weekend games Saturday are making plans to pick up some of Taylor's Dawg Bone cookies during a stop at the festival. In addition to the sweets, The Cake Box will serve a Cajun pasta Saturday, too. It's a natural addition for Taylor, who hails from New Orleans.
Admittedly the festival day is long, tiring and often hectic, especially when trying to feed a hungry crowd and impress judges at the same time. But Taste of Starkville contenders seem to take it in stride. It's worth it to be part of the celebratory bustle and vibe, to connect with festival-goers and fellow participants.
Chef McGee summed it up: "We do it for the community."
Twenty vendors have been approved by the festival board to compete. They include Abners, Bin 612, Biscuit Shop, Bombay Spice Kitchen, Buffalo Wild Wings, Cake Box, Central Station Grill, Chill Factory, Dave's Dark Horse, Doug Cater Cotton Candy, First Baptist Youth, Harveys, Kiwanis, McAlisters, Morris' Barbecue, Mugshots, 929 Coffee Bar, Peppers, Sno Biz and The Veranda, according to event website.
For more about the Cotton District Arts Festival, presented by the Starkville Area Arts Council and numerous sponsors, go to cdafestival.com or call the SAAC office, 662-324-3080. Check out MSU Super Bulldog Weekend activities at HailState.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.