Text and photos by Leanne E. Smith
When 75,000 people gather for four days at a music festival, they will eat a lot of food. If that festival is Merlefest, they will have plenty of choices from longtime favorites to newer offerings. Food vendors are scattered throughout the festival grounds at the Wilkes Community College campus in Wilkesboro, NC, but the center of the morning-to-night food scene is the circus-sized tent by the Watson Stage, the festival’s main stage. If the grounds by the Watson stage serve as an outdoor living room for the festival-goers, that tent is the combined kitchen and dining room.
The round tables at the front of the tent provide views of the Watson and Cabin stages, and people-watching galore. The middle of the tent is for strolling through and reading menus, making decisions, and standing in line to order. Along the back, the row of vendors stretches the length of the tent. Some organizations prepare the food themselves, while others contract with vendors. However it is prepared, the food at Merlefest definitely has a local face.
Banners at the front of the booths display the names of organizations. To-be-expected civic groups like the Lions and Civitan clubs are there, as well as schools, Boy Scouts, Hospitality House and Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission, and the WCC culinary program students. Some of the vendors have long histories with Merlefest and attract returning customers, while others were experiencing their first festival as vendors. Some festival-goers choose their meals and snacks according to the kind of food they’d like to eat, and some choose which community organization or local business they would like to support. There’s an extensive list of vendors with menus and prices in the festival program, but a stroll through the food tent—following sights, smells, or a neighbor’s recommendations—works well for making decisions, too.
Opposite the Watson stage, the first booth on the left when one enters from the festival grounds was staffed by volunteers from Communities in Schools of Wilkes and Alexander counties. For them, it’s a reunion—they look forward to working the festival’s first night together every year—and a social cause, as they raise funds for school dropout prevention for students from kindergarten through college. CIS efforts include tutoring, mentoring, art lessons, scholarships, case management, providing supplies—whatever it takes to keep students in school. On hot days, their wraps sell well, as does the strawberry shortcake on Sundays. If the weather is cold, the baked potatoes and pinto beans are the bestsellers.
Another chilly-night favorite is meatballs smothered in marinara. More than 20 years ago, the Civitan Club started serving pinto beans at the festival, but eventually decided that Italian-themed food would be easy to put together onsite. It too has proved to be popular—a lot of spaghetti-and-meatballs orders make it to the tables, and some customers return every night of the festival for the chicken parmesan. The Civitan funds go to support the national organization’s mission of Alzheimers and heart disease research, as well as local scholarships, Special Olympics, and rest homes.
Several booths offer fast-food style options. It’s easy to guess what the people wearing hotdog hats are selling, but their menu may be more expansive than most people would expect. When the YMCA gave up its hotdog booth to run a campground for the 2016 Merlefest, the festival invited Hospitality House, a regional organization combating homelessness. The “catch” was that they had to help fill the hotdog void. The volunteers agreed, but decided to reinterpret the classic theme as gourmet, serving Black Angus hotdogs and foot-longs, plus sausage dogs—on pretzel or gluten-free buns—with so many choices for toppings that eating an all-the-way dog would likely require a knife and a fork: cheddar or jack cheese, chili, slaw, relish, sauerkraut, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and yellow and spicy mustard.
The taco-quesadilla-nacho stand also has a long history at the festival, and sales support the Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission. BROC works to alleviate the impact of poverty among several populations via Head Start, community services such as home weatherization, and elderly nutrition efforts in Ashe, Alleghany, and Wilkes counties. Amid the civic and school organizations, one church also participates that will be familiar to people who attend the local lawnmower races. The volunteers from Fishing Creek Arbor Baptist Church in Wilkesboro estimate they have been serving at Merlefest for about 15 years, with proceeds from their fried fish and chicken supporting church missions.
For snacks or even lighter meals, follow the aromas of fresh-popped salted popcorn to the Lions Club of North Wilkesboro’s booth near the festival’s artist meet-and-greet tent. The Lions Club was one of the first vendors to sign on with Wilkes Community College at the beginning of the festival in the late 1980s, and the members enjoy spending time together selling popcorn, peanuts, pretzels, and nachos to raise funds for the blind and other community causes.
If all-day breakfast is what one wants, the festival vendors from nearby schools can fill that order. North Wilkesboro Elementary, Boomer-Ferguson Elementary, and West Wilkes High School Athletic Booster Club share a tent serving breakfast, pizza, and deep-fried desserts. Their funds go towards teachers’ supplies, awards for students, playground equipment—whatever is needed at the schools, the volunteers said. Central Wilkes Middle School sells roasted corn, with the turned-back shucks serving as handles, and club-sized turkey legs—and the Parent-Student Organization uses the proceeds for quarterly behavior awards and other back-to-the-students projects. The Vandalia Cheerleaders, who have sold food at the festival for more than 20 years, use funds from the corn dogs, sausage dogs, cheesesteaks, gyros, ice cream, and other desserts for equipment, uniforms, and to help them travel to competitions.
It’s worth eating barbecue chicken twice in the same day (or even same meal) in order to try both the Boy Scout Troop #333 and North Wilkes High School Vikings Athletic Club versions. Since the second year of Merlefest, Troop #333 volunteers have served chicken that is, according to the banner above the booth, “the Boy Scout chicken everyone has told you about.” It’s grilled with now-retired scoutmaster Randy Huffman’s sauce recipe, and his family still helps serve the chicken plates with rolls, beans, and slaw. Troop #333 is from Hays, outside of Wilkesboro, and for any scout who earns the rank of Eagle Scout, the Merlefest funds help send him to a high adventure camp of his choice, such as Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
Though the other barbecue chicken booth, the Vikings Athletic Club, has been serving food at the festival for five years or so, 2016 was the second year they have done the cooking themselves rather than contracting with a vendor. When they took the booth on, the theme was already Thai, but wanderers shouldn’t look for curries. It’s strictly pad Thai—rice noodles with vegetables and chicken. The festival committee wanted to provide more healthy options, and chicken and vegetables help fulfill that goal. The star, however, is the barbecue chicken, seasoned with pepper vinegar, with a bit more sauce and spice than the Boy Scout chicken.
At a festival in North Carolina, and with as much food as there is at Merlefest, there must be barbecue of the pork variety somewhere. Just look for the booth with the big plywood cut-outs of pink-painted pigs. That’s one of three booths catered by one of the longest-serving vendors at the festival—the Wilkes Community College culinary program. While BBQ sandwiches and plates are the WCC program’s bestsellers, they have expanded over the years to include other dishes that have become favorites, such as jambalaya and shrimp and grits. Likewise, the desserts are not-to-be-missed, with the sales from all of the WCC booths supporting student travel to France and Spain to enhance their culinary education. To raise funds to join WCC students on that trip, Alamance Community College’s award-winning culinary program served for the first time this year at Merlefest, introducing Indian-themed food to the festival, including samosas with tamarind chutney, curried lentils, vegetable madras, pork vindaloo, and butter chicken.
What about dessert? While several booths have different sweet options, one of the most obvious choices is the WCC pastry booth’s colorful delights, but the North Wilkesboro Kiwanis booth nods to another local element: Wilkes County apple culture. The menu should look familiar to anyone who has visited the NC State Fair Village of Yesteryear’s apple barn down by the gristmill. Contracting with Smitty’s, a traveling vendor, Kiwanis serves apple chips, fritters, and dumplings. Even alone, these apple treats are meals.
Merlefest’s tagline toasts “Music. Moments. Memories.”—and hopefully for most festival-goers at some point during the four-day weekend, indulging in “festival food” to recycle money into organizations that support local causes will be one of those moments.