A mushrooming celebration
● By Richard Gaw
Mushroom Festival 30th [2 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
By Carla Luca
In 1986, Kennett Square mushroom grower RoRo Ferranto, reporter Carol Berzon and local attorney Frank Felcetti banded together to bring a new street fair to the borough that September. They formed the Chester County Mushroom Festival, Inc., and called this new event The Mushroom Street Festival.
Taking up only two blocks along State Street, from Broad Street to Center Street, the first festival was the culminating event of an entire week of mushroom-based events throughout the county during National Mushroom Week. The festival featured mushroom specialties, food, games, rides, crafts and antiques. Other events during Mushroom Week included a golf tournament, an art show, the First Annual Mycological Symposium Dinner, the Mushroom Cook-off Contest, a road rally, a business card exchange and a dinner-dance.
At this year's 30th Anniversary Mushroom Festival Spring Gala, RoRo, in a message read by her daughter Gale, said of the first event, “The Mushroom Festival came about in the early 1980s as an idea to bring awareness to the mushroom industry and Kennett Square. Our mission was to educate others about how mushrooms were grown, harvested, the nutritional value of mushrooms and the many ways to cook with them. We provided recipes and value through the American Mushroom Institute. It makes me very proud to walk the street at the festival and see what this event has become.”
By the Second Annual Chester County Mushroom Festival in 1987, many more events were part of the celebration. More people, such as Ralph LaFrance, Sonny Pizzini and Bob Maucher, joined in the planning and execution. The event kicked off with the Mushroom Ball at the Sheraton Brandywine Inn and the crowning of the first National Miss Mushroom, which was attended by 485 people.
This second festival was held at the Brandywine Polo Grounds with a theme of “A Taste of Chester County Cuisine.” At the Polo Grounds on Friday, there were food vendors and craft booths, lots of mushrooms, plus a talent show in the evening. Saturday featured an ethnic festival, a polo match, and musical entertainment.
By 1989, the Mushroom Street Festival returned to downtown Kennett Square and was once again a one-day event at the end of Mushroom Week. Every year since, a street festival celebrating mushrooms has made its way to Kennett Square. In the mid-1990s, the event was becoming so popular it became a two-day event. In the mid-2000s, the festival was featured on the Food Network show "All-American Festivals," and the following year's attendance soared.
This year marks the 30th time the festival has been organized. Now called the Mushroom Festival, the event attracts up to 100,000 visitors to Kennett Square over the two days. State Street becomes “Mushroom Boulevard," as the street fair stretches nearly a mile -- from its east entrance at Willow Street to the west entrance at Garfield Street. Some events, such as the popular Growers' Exhibit, have remained the same over the years. Some events, such as the National Miss Mushroom pageant, were discontinued after a number of years.
The former Mushroom Cook-off contest, which featured both amateur cooks and professional chefs, is now split into two very popular events. The Amateur Mushroom Cook-off on Saturday features six home cook finalists who have one hour to cook their mushroom soup or appetizer (depending on the year) in front of a panel of judges. The winner receives a $500 cash prize. The Soup and Wine event on Sunday is a battle for “The Best Mushroom Soup in the Brandywine Valley” for area restaurants, as attendees sample all the soups and vote for their favorite, with the added bonus of wine tastings from the region's wineries.
The Mushroom Festival, Inc., a non-profit corporation, now organizes Kennett Square's largest event of the year. The 11-member, all-volunteer Board of Directors oversees the organization's mission, which is “to promote the mushroom, educate consumers about the health benefits of mushrooms and to promote tourism in Southern Chester County, all while financially supporting local and regional charities through a grant process.” Dozens of volunteers work over the year on specific aspects of the festival. On Mushroom Festival weekend, nearly 500 people volunteer to make the festival a success.
The festival's longtime coordinator is Kathi Lafferty, who volunteers her time to implement a successful festival. Much of the work is done out of her store, The Mushroom Cap, on State Street. She started on the Mushroom Festival Board in the late 1990s, and during her first year, her job was to alphabetize the 60 vendors that were to be part of the festival. Now her vision and influence on the festival can be found in many of the events she's added -- from the National Fried Mushroom Eating Championship to the Cute-As-A-Button Baby Photo Contest, the Painted Mushroom Silent Auction, the Old Fashioned Carnival, and Dining and Dancing in the Streets during the Community Parade. She is also responsible for organizing the annual Midnight in the Square/ Mushroom Drop on New Year's Eve.
Lafferty led the effort to organize the Mushroom Festival grant program. In 2000, the first year the Mushroom Festival had proceeds to distribute as grants, three organizations received a total of $500 in grants. At this year's Mushroom Festival Spring Gala, 47 local organizations received $80,000 in grants. Since 2000, the Mushroom Festival has given more than $700,000 in grants and donations back to the community.
Special celebrations are in the planning stages for the 30th annual festival. Two celebrity chefs will join the celebrations. On Saturday, Fabio Viviani, from Bravo's "Top Chef," will be in the Culinary Tent. On Sunday, visitors can meet Brian Duffy, from Spike TV's "Bar Rescue," in the Culinary Tent. Look for a new cookbook based on the 30 years of mushroom cooking contests that will be released at the festival. There are plans for a free concert on Saturday evening in the Special Events Tent featuring a Kennett Square Symphony pops concert.