COVID-19 has taken another bite out of Bradley County normalcy and this time the humble cowpea has fallen victim.
With too many uncertainties facing organizers prior to the traditional September event, what would have been the ninth annual International Cowpea Festival and Cook-Off for 2020 has been canceled.
Melissa Woody, vice president of Tourism Development for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, and Darlene Goins, director of the Hiwassee River Heritage Center — the two of whom co-chair the annual spectacular in Charleston — said it’s just too risky.
“With much discussion and tough consideration, we have decided to cancel the International Cowpea Festival for this year,” Woody said in a joint statement with Goins to the Cleveland Daily Banner. “With the surge in COVID-19 cases in our community, we just don’t feel comfortable moving forward.”
The rationale for halting the initiative at this point is a simple one: Gov. Bill Lee’s State of Emergency ends just before the scheduled festival, and “… no one knows if that will be extended again,” Goins stressed.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but it is the right decision, the pair of planners agreed. To err on the side of caution — and in this case, public safety — is the correct direction to take, Woody and Goins stressed.
“Months of planning and hundreds of people are involved in making this event a success,” Woody noted. “Our first responsibility is to protect our volunteers, vendors, chefs, sponsors, entertainment and our faithful festivalgoers.”
There’s plenty of those as evidenced by the 2019 turnout. Last year, a record number of 2,000 pre-autumn enthusiasts filled every available parking spot in and around the Hoyt Berry Municipal Park. The one-day shindig rocked the night away with the featured music of country favorite Ronnie McDowell.
Organizers had no reason to believe the 2020 version — made possible by Bush Brothers & Company — would be any different. Woody said that’s the real pain of the decision to cancel because festivalgoers from throughout the region had grown fond of the September event.
It’s also a tough break for the Charleston area because of the loss of proceeds.
“This is an especially difficult decision because the festival is the only source of operational funding for the Hiwassee River Heritage Center,” Woody stressed. “Tough, tough times, but we just can’t risk the safety of our community.”
Not only has the International Cowpea Festival continued to grow its tradition for lively entertainment — some shipped in from big cities, others more of a local and regional flare — it is also known for its diverse array of vendors — food, crafts and otherwise — as well as games, air toys and a petting zoo for the kids.
The festival also routinely offers a “Princess and the Cowpea” character greeting for photo opportunities, a photo contest, fresh produce and a slew of additional festival favorites. Most significantly, it highlights the cowpea cook-off whose local chefs do the amazing with legume recipes, most of which are original and fresh off — or splattered on — the chefs’ aprons. Thanks to Bradley County’s largest employer, they’re always cooked on Whirlpool gas ranges.
Another part of the cook-off is the famous “spork,” a half-spoon, half-fork utensil that festivalgoers buy for $5 and then use to taste-test the chefs’ creations, and then judge them by vote for taste, texture and presentation.
Although calling off this year’s festival wasn’t what anyone wanted, it’s what is necessary, Woody and Goins agreed.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that organizers now have a jumpstart on planning for the 2021 festival.
“We are HAPPEA (accepted festival jargon meaning “happy”) to be on track for Sept. 11, 2021,” Goins stressed. “We have a head start on planning, so we will be back better than ever!”
In unison, the Woody-Goins tandem — a pair that has worked together on the festival since day one — urged International Cowpea Festival and Cook-Off fans to mark their calendars for next year.
“Please keep us in your plans and on your calendar for next year!” these “peapetrators” of September fun declared.
“And one thing we can never forget is what the people of this community, and surrounding areas, have meant to us over the first eight years,” Woody said.
Goins agreed, and echoed, “Thank you for your support! Our people created the Cowpea Festival. Our people have always enjoyed the Cowpea Festival. And, our people will bring back the Cowpea Festival in 2021. We hope to see everyone then!”
Dubbed as two parts of The Cowpea Crew, Woody and Goins encouraged festivalgoers and cowpea worshippers — past, present and future — to get more information by visiting www.CowpeaFestival.com.