The 2023 Mushroom Festival welcomes the return of the mushroom-picking contest and more09/07/2023 11:48AM ● By Chris Barber
The continuing popularity of Kennett Square’s annual Mushroom Festival likely lies in the innovations and adaptations by its leaders -- this year those leaders are executive director Gina Puoci and Festival Coordinator Gale Ferrante.
What started out as a simple, one-day celebration on State Street in 1986 that attracted a modest crowd of onlookers has turned into a nationally recognized celebration of the locally grown crop. Now, the festival is spread out over two fun-filled days and draws tens of thousands of visitors on each day.
When longtime chairman Kathi Lafferty retired from her position after the 2019 event, Kennett Fire Company administrator Puoci and mushroom company co-owner Ferrante took the reins. They faced significant challenges as the fair had been cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 and was greatly diminished in 2021 with a change of location to the parking lot of the former Genesis building across from Kennett High School.
Nonetheless, they proceeded in that 2021 comeback year with vendors, kids rides, demonstrations, entertainment and even the eating contest in that limited courtyard.
When the full-blown version of the festival came back in 2022, they moved back uptown and brought the return of a wide variety of vendors, the car show, souvenirs, the painted mushrooms and all the excitement people fill the street for.
The 2023 festival, as is tradition, will take place uptown in the borough on the weekend after Labor Day, this year on Sept. 9 and 10. Geographically, it will run on State Street at Church Alley on the east to Garfield Street on the west (Church Alley is the narrow road that runs between the former library and the rear of the American Legion.). The antique car show will run the length of South Broad Street and another stage will be added on South Union Street for culinary events.
Puoci said the festival’s duration will be shortened by one hour from last year on both Saturday and Sunday, running the event from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, giving the crew more time to clean up. Admission is $5 this year.
Through the years, some features have come and gone, like the Miss-America-like queen pageant, the Friday night parade, the three-night carnival downtown, the Ferris Wheel and the art show. But this popular annual festival has survived hurricanes, blistering heat, rainstorms and the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Through it all, the fair has almost always attracted visitors from far away – not just Philadelphia and Delaware County. It was reported that some even arrived from European countries because they heard so many good reports about the festival.
This year, the big news is that the mushroom-picking contest, which took place for several years more than a decade ago, is returning.
This event in the past has elicited a great deal of enthusiasm, especially among the harvesters in the respective companies. This year the contest will take place on South Broad Street and will pit three teams of two pickers each against each other both days. There will be a winning team each day.
“I’m really excited about that. It has a lot of support. The winners will get something and everyone else will get something [as well],” Ferrante said.
The winners will be judged on speed, quality and size of the mushrooms picked. The potential competitors are invited to submit a request to participate ahead of time and will be chosen by random lottery.
Ferrante, who speaks fondly of the support the Mushroom Festival gives to the surrounding community in the form of donations, said the inclusiveness of this contest will widen the scope of the people it includes.
Also on South Broad Street is the large growing tent where visitors can see and even touch the trays and contents where mushrooms actually grow. Mushroom growers are there to answer questions.
Additionally, in a related new event, the American Legion building will be open for showings of a continuously running video of the whole growing process of mushrooms. This replaces and significantly simplifies the past practice of offering bus rides to tours of nearby mushroom farms to see the operations onsite.
One block to the west of the Broad Street events, South Union Street, the area that borders on the Fragale Barber Shop and former Senior book store, will house a new stage that offers culinary events.
The cooking contest will be there in the form of two “chopper” contests in which adults in one and youth in the other are given a pre-selected quantity of food, and they must make it into a delicious entree.
South Union Street also is the site of a lecture by Kiki Aranita, who formerly owned Poi Diog restaurant in Philadelphia. The ever-popular and exciting mushroom eating contest will be back again at 12:30 p.m.
Attendees at recent Mushroom Festivals may have fond memories of the Sunday afternoon soup and wine event. This is another event that has yielded to newer features. There will be no lack of food, however.
Visitors will have no problem satisfying their hunger and interest in cooking—there will be plenty of vendors, contests and lectures about mushrooms.
As of mid-July, Puoci said almost 200 vendors, including local restaurants, had already signed up to place their booths along the street. Many will be selling craft and souvenir products, but others will offer everything from ice cream to mushroom specialties. There will also be soup for sale on South Broad Street.
Many familiar events will also be back such as Cute as a Button photos of kids, souvenir T-shirts and painted mushrooms. Kids’ rides will take place at the west end of State Street.
After a long run of having visitors park at the parking lot at Exelon in Kennett Township, that venue became unavailable in 2020. The Chatham Financial parking lot on McFarlan Road served the purpose well last year, Puoci said, and that will be the location this year as well as Kennett High School. Bus transportation will be provided throughout the festival to shuttle visitors to the event.
More information about the festival, including an updated schedule of events, is available online at Mushroomfestival.org.