As I write this sentence, I’m still doing time by the air conditioner. The cicadas outside my window sound like a weed eater that just won’t come unplugged, whining on and on so as not to let me forget I’m still in the thick of summer.
Everything is thick – the air, the trees, the grass. Everything is green – an unyielding, unruly green from unrelenting rain this summer. Vines swallow my fence. My grass needs mowing…again.
As I write this sentence, I’m yearning for a month that ends in –ber. The onset of what I call the “ber months” –September, October, November, December – have always given me a certain tingle.
Granted, here in the Sandhills, the heat can hammer on well past Labor Day. However, when the calendar flips from August to September, I’m in a different state of mind…even if sweat still glosses my head. Come September, I’m filled with anticipation, a sense that things will soon be different. The air will soon be crisper, the sky will soon be bluer, and the bugs will soon be scarcer. Come September, I start craving candy corn, corn mazes and county fairs. I’m ready to pick the perfect pumpkin to put on my porch. I’m ready to strike out for the mountains to watch the firestorm of reds and yellows on the slopes.
Head for the hills Its fall in North Carolina, and each year I eat it up like a bite out of a Red Delicious apple from the hills over Hendersonville. Which reminds me, September always arrives in our state with the North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville, a short drive south of Asheville. It’s been a Labor Day tradition in this small, yet sophisticated mountain city, ringed with apple orchards, for more than 60 years.
You can enjoy a street fair, a parade and partake in bushels and bushels of apples – Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Rome Beauty, Galas. You can eat apple pie, apple cake, apple butter, apple bread, apple turnovers, apple crisps and wash it all down with apple juice.
Growing up just down the mountain in Greenville, South Carolina, I spent many a Labor Day weekend in Hendersonville, planting white paper bags bulging with apples on the car’s floorboard. And no store-bought apple juice can compare to that brown nectar from plastic jugs sold along roadsides in communities like Fruitland and Edneyville. This year, the apple festival begins Friday, August 30 and wraps up Labor Day, September 2.
September is still too early to soak in the fall colors in the mountains, but the region is speckled with colorful festivals, such as ColorFest: Art and Taste of Applachia. The month-long celebration is in Dillsboro, about an hour’s drive southwest of Asheville. Artists from across the region show off their creations in downtown, with everything culminating in a festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on October 5.
Throughout September and October, as you join the legions of leaf lookers, you can enjoy mountain festivals celebrating everything from gems (N.C. Wholesale Gem and Jewelry Tradeshow, Ashville, October 22-23) to Volkswagens (VW’s in the Valley, Maggie Valley, September 21-22).
Closer to home Maybe you don’t have mountains on your autumn horizon, or much gas money to burn. Maybe you’d prefer to stay among the sandy soil and pines. Around here, we have the Cumberland County Fair (Crown Center, September 12-22) and the Cape Fear Fair (Fayetteville Speedway, first week of September).
The Fayetteville region certainly has its fill of fall festivities, notably the city’s International Folk Festival, hosted every year by The Arts Council. In my years living in Fayetteville, I’ve had the privilege of emceeing events at the festival and even once appearing in the parade. And everyone has to love this parade: it’s a glorious glimpse of the world, with all its colors and customs, streaming along Hay Street. There’s Brazil! There’s China! There’s Greece! The Parade of Nations is one of the great spectacles Fayetteville has to offer, putting its best foot forward by letting its diversity dance in the streets. Thanks in large part to Fort Bragg, Fayetteville has a prominent position on the world stage, and for 35 years our community has seen fit to celebrate the global community right next door.
No doubt, we are a city of “Hey y’all!” and sweet tea. But, we’re also accented with “Holas!” and friendly blokes who prefer a spot of tea or a pint of Guinness. Watching the Parade of Nations unfold downtown like a billowing flag, we see our neighbors from around the world who have made Fayetteville, U.S.A., their homeland. There’s Nigeria! There’s Ukraine! There’s Guyana! They have come here to serve in America’s military, to be entrepreneurs, to open restaurants and medical practices, to start families, to be good neighbors, to thrive. And oh the food they bring with them. To walk through Festival Park and Festival Park Plaza is to experience a wonderful whiff of the world. Shish kabobs and Caribbean jerk chicken. Filipino noodle dishes and Brazillian steak. Cooked plantains and Thai stir-fry.
The aromas mingle beautifully, as if choreographed, with the sounds from the main stage. That’s where performers – men, women, teens and little kids – show off colorful costumes while singing and dancing to the rhythms of their native lands. For hours they go on. Let’s hear it for Uganda! Give it up for Okinawa! Viva Mexico!
At the International Folk Festival, you can go around the world in one hour, in one square mile. The celebration starts this year on Friday, September 27 and carries on until 6 p.m. Sunday, September 29.
CLASSIC NORTH CAROLINA All this talk of foreign lands and exotic dishes can leave one feeling worldly and sophisticated. So, now let’s talk some turkey. Who says you have to wait until the fourth Thursday in November to throw down a big turkey meal? In Raeford, they do it for a whole week in the middle of September during the North Carolina Turkey Festival. Small wonder we have such a festival: North Carolina ranks second in the nation for growing turkeys. All this poultry pageantry starts Saturday, September 14, with the Turkey Throw Down, a wrestling tournament at Hoke County High School. On through the week, there’s a parade (Thursday, September 19, 5:30 p.m., Main Street), the Stuffin’ and Stompin’ Turkey Dinner (Friday, September 20, 5 p.m.-8 p.m., West Hoke Middle School) and the grand finale, Super Saturday (September 21, Main Street, all day).
The headline event of Super Saturday is the turkey-cooking contest, which begins at 9 a.m. If you’re not a bonafide North Carolina resident, tough turkey – you’re not eligible to enter. Otherwise, if you are a certified resident of the Old North State, come on into the coop. You can bake, broil or grill your turkey, add your turkey to a salad or make a turkey soup, as long as you have one pound of turkey in your recipe. There’s another white meat that’s much celebrated in North Carolina – pork. In these parts, barbecue is a noun, barbecue is sacred, and barbecue is always pork – no ifs, ands or buts (unless it’s a Boston butt) – about it. I fancy myself a North Carolina barbecue purist who’s very particular about our state dish. It has to be cooked with wood or charcoal; gas and electric cookers just don’t cut it. And when you do cut it, I want it chopped. There is a great divide in our state between western style and eastern style ‘cue, but call me the great unifier – I love it all.
Naturally, we have to celebrate this sacred meat that stokes such passion from Wilkesboro to Wilson. Thus we have the North Carolina Barbecue Festival, which fires up every October in Lexington, a city that’s my personal Shangri-La. This year the party is set for Saturday, October 26, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m., on Main Street. The festival has garnered national notoriety, and in 2011 it drew 160,000 people – the largest crowd in its 30-year history. Lexington, about a half hour’s drive south of Winston-Salem, has somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 barbecue restaurants and on festival day, most of them are serving up their ‘cue cuisine right there on Main Street.
Beyond pigs and poultry, North Carolina is peppered with festivals, shindigs, cruise-ins, expos and shows.
Like crafts and farm skills? Head to Aberdeen September 27 and 28 for the Malcolm Blue Festival. Like sailboats? Plan a trip to Edenton October 5 for the Peanut Sailboat Regatta. Like blues and jazz? Set out for Salisbury October 19. As I write this sentence, I’m aching to get in the van, hit the back roads and watch the neon-colored leaves flash across my windshield. I’m in the mood to wander through crowds while eating a turkey leg or a messy barbecue sandwich. It’s time to put a period on this yearly sentence of hot, sticky weather and leap into fall.