Spring, Sprang, Sprung 

Get fresh, get outdoors, and get cooking this season.

Forget Christmas. For Memphis foodies, spring is the most glorious time of the year. During these last chilly days, elaborate menus are being planned around fresh produce; last year's goop is being scraped off grills; and secret recipes are being tested for the various cooking contests and festivals around the region. So dig in. It's time for the very edible rites of spring.

To Market, Three Markets

There's good news for fans of early spring produce. The Memphis Farmers Market at the Central Station Pavilion downtown is opening two weeks early this year on Saturday, April 19th. The Memphis Farmers Market has become a Saturday-morning tradition for foodies, music lovers, and fun seekers from all over the city. It's a vibrant, see-and-be-seen event and the only place in town where you can dance to a traditional Irish band while buying a bag of arugula from a pair of burly men in matching, perfectly pressed overalls or go through a basket of yellow, pear-shaped heirloom tomatoes raised only a few miles away and picked the night before. Go to memphisfarmersmarket.com for more information.

For those who can't make it from Saturday to Saturday without stocking up on a pile of fresh and/or exotic produce, the midweek farmers market (pictured) that runs from 2 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday at the Memphis Botanic Garden opens its season on April 23rd. Go to memphisbotanicgarden.com for more information.

For the purists who prefer to buy their homemade crafts and farm-fresh produce out of a big red barn, there's the Agricenter Farmers Market at 7777 Walnut Grove. It's open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information, go to

agricenter.org/farmersmarket.html.

Feeling Festive

First up is the Overton Square Crawfish Festival, from noon to six p.m., on Saturday, April 12th. A fund-raiser for the Alzheimer's Association, this event includes arts and crafts, live music, and plenty of Cajun food and crawfish.

Didn't get your mudbug fill? The Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival is on Sunday, April 20th, starting at noon at Wagner Place downtown. Five-hundred pounds of crawfish will given away free at noon. The fest also includes a very competitive gumbo-cooking contest. The Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival benefits Porter-Leath. For more information, go to porter-leath.org.

Paul Gagliano loves hot wings. That's why he organized the first Southern Hot Wing Contest & Festival back in 2002 in the parking lot of the Poplar Lounge. This year's festival, on Saturday, April 26th, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., is being held on South Main between G.E. Patterson and St. Paul. The festival benefits the Ronald McDonald House. Go to southernhotwingfestival.com for more information.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF MEMPHIS IN MAY
  • Courtesy of Memphis in May

The wildly popular Beale Street Wine Race is Sunday, April 27th from noon to 6 p.m. Cheer on your favorite server as he or she tries to break away from the rest of the wine-glass-filled-tray-bearing pack. And don't miss the usually bawdy Queen of the Vine contest.

Opa and oh boy! Our Big Fat Greek Festival at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Highland returns for its 50th go on Friday and Saturday, May 9th and 10th, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. This one's a feeding frenzy with moussaka, souvlaki, spanakopita, and more. Plus, there's the fantastic pastry shop, with loads of sweet treats. Go to memphisgreekfestival.com for more information.

It's got to rank among the best three days of the year worldwide, if not the universe: the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. (Check out that rack pictured above!) Serious business for the competitors and serious fun for everybody, this year's barbecue fest is Thursday, May 15th, through Saturday, May 17th. For more information, go to memphisinmay.org.

Pass the gravy. The enormous Memphis Italian Festival returns to Marquette Park Thursday, May 29th, through Saturday, May 31st. There will be cooking demos and cooking contests as well as plenty of Italian specialties to sample. Go to memphisitalianfestival.org for more information.

Take it Outside

In Memphis, there's a restaurant patio to suit every need, occasion, and personality. For martini-swilling type-A people-watchers on the go, there are tiny strips of sidewalk next to the road, where acrid exhaust fumes blend with the intoxicating smells of spicy bistro cuisine. For laid-back bohemians, there are secluded, vine-shrouded decks where the strongest drink on the menu is an iced chai latte. There are chain restaurants with signs that say, "Come sit on our big deck," where the music is loud, the wait staff performs dance routines, and singles gather in packs to drink multicolored cocktails full of rum and mischief. There are no-frills beer joints where weatherworn picnic tables match the weatherworn friends who gather there every night. There are palm-laden, umbrella-dotted, concrete slabs suitable for wedding receptions, where acoustic duos cover Van Morrison songs and couples meet for top-shelf mojitos, margaritas, and gossip.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF MEMPHIS BOTANIC GARDEN
  • Courtesy of Memphis Botanic Garden

Point is, it's springtime in Memphis, a brief respite between the cold, damp winter and the intolerably hot summer, and it's time for everybody to take things outside.

It's time to visit the grocery store with long picnics by the river in mind and select fresh strawberries, coarse brown bread, tangy olives, and a nice wedge of stinky Stilton to match with that bottle of chilled Chardonnay. It's time to visit a walk-up soft-serve stand, or a retro sno-cone shack, or a smoke-stained cinderblock hut that promises crispy fried chicken. It's time to buy a dozen tamales from a roadside vendor and eat them in the park alone.

It's the time of year when nothing tastes better than pizza and hot dogs at a drive-in movie, and when backyard barbecue chefs fire up their grills and the smell of slow-smoking pork rolls through neighborhood. It's the absolute best time of the year to be a Memphian.

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