The warmer weather of May ushers in a number of major springtime festivals around the state, encouraging Arkansans to get outside and enjoy their community.

By Josh Conley, Lauren McLemore and Jeremy Peppas

GREEK FOOD FESTIVAL – LITTLE ROCK

From its humble beginning as a booth at Riverfest, the Greek Food Festival has grown in its 35 years to one of the most exciting culinary weekends in Little Rock. Festivities start Friday, May 17 and end on Sunday, May 19.

    The three days are packed full of entertainment and delicious Greek and Mediterranean food. The menu reflects the diversity of those who put the event on as well as the parishioners of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church which also serves as host of the event.

The church’s membership is made up of Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Romanians, Russians, Indians and Americans which inspires the diverse menu from falafel at the Jerusalem Cafe booth to gyros served up by former professional tennis player Richard Akel. And he still has a wicked backhand for the half-moon skillets that collect the shaved gyro meat.

 New menu items include the Olympic sundae described as “vanilla ice cream topped with loukoumades — Greek doughnut holes — and honey syrup” and ouzo cake which is similar to pound cake but flavored with cinnamon, cloves and the stout, distilled alcohol that gives the treat its name. 

On the savory side, an appetizer plate that has Greek meatballs, dolmades, Kalamata olives, feta cheese and pita bread will be available along with a new and improved Greek salad. The festival is also debuting what it is calling a “vegeterranean” plate with rice, Greek-style green beans, Greek salad and pita bread. For the meat eaters, the lamb dinner will also be back from its temporary hiatus.

    For entertainment, there will be family-friendly music and Greek dancers from the church, along with Irish and Middle Eastern dancers on the festival’s main stage. The full entertainment lineup, along with the complete menu, can be found at greekfoodfest.com.

    For those attending, parking in walking distance is plentiful at the Agape Church, catty-corner from the festival, while additional parking will be available at Asbury United Methodist Church, Pulaski Academy and additional lots on Napa Valley Drive. A free shuttle service will run festivalgoers from those lots. Parking is free if you can find it.

    Dillard’s is this year’s presenting sponsor, along with families and other businesses both large and small. A portion of the proceeds from the festival will benefit these local charities: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas, Community Connections, Easterseals of Arkansas, Humane Society of Pulaski County, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas, Wolfe Street Foundation and Youth Home.

    In a break from years past, the International Greek Food Festival does not have an overall chair, but the various booths are chaired by parishioners.

    Cash, along with debit and credit cards, will be accepted by the food booths outside, while baked sweet treats, like baklava, will be for sale inside along with arts and crafts. Church tours will also be available.

    Admission to the festival is $3, or a person can bring three cans of food and get in for free. Those canned items are donated to the Arkansas Foodbank.

    The new food items will be available at a sneak peek event on May 1 at the church. It will start at 5:30 p.m. Those attending will also be able to see a yet-to-be-revealed mosaic from Italy. Tickets can be purchased for $20 on Eventbrite or at the door.

TOAD SUCK DAZECONWAY

Another popular festival will be full force in downtown Conway May 3 – 5. 

In 1982, businessman John Ward and others sought to create a festival celebrating springtime. They expected only a few thousand that first year, but 25,000 showed up to Toad Suck Park for the first Toad Suck Daze. The free event, now put on by a committee of Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and volunteers, is held in downtown Conway with carnival rides, musical entertainment and the renowned World Championship Toad Races at the Toad Dome.

On the morning of Saturday, May 4, participants can compete in a 10K and 5K run/walk, wheelchair event or Tadpole Trot (for ages 4-12). The 12th annual Tour de Toad races will take place later the same day with cyclists competing in 10-mile, 20-mile and 40-mile routes while raising funds for Literacy Action.

“We really put an emphasis on the family at the festival, and we make sure everyone in the family can come out and have a good time,” says Mary Margaret Satterfield, director of the Toad Suck Daze events committee. 

More than 100 booths will make up the Toad Market for shopping while the Toadal Kid Zone will feature performances by balloon artists, magicians, clowns, dance and gymnastics groups and school choirs on two stages. 

Tinkerfest, a collaboration of Toad Suck Daze and the Museum of Discovery, will offer activities provided by local elementary schools to promote hands-on learning and exploration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Toad Suck Daze committee recently paid for 25 elementary schools statewide to enroll in the museum’s Discovery Network Program which provides training and resources for STEM learning to educators of member schools.

    The way the festival represents the community’s century-old passion for and dedication to funding local education is what sets it apart from other springtime festivities. The first college scholarship given by Toad Suck Daze was awarded in 1985, and more than $1.7 million in scholarships have been awarded since with in excess of 310 Faulkner County recipients. The committee also provides donations to local education nonprofits like Arkansas Shakespeare Theater and Arkansas Preschool Plus. 

MAY FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS – EUREKA SPRINGS 

Eureka Springs is always buzzing with creativity, and that’s especially so in May. This year, the 32nd annual May Festival of the Arts will again invite the community to experience arts in all mediums throughout the city with something planned for nearly every day of the month. 

The festival is highly interactive, often inviting attendees to participate in certain projects. This year, artists in Basin Spring Park will be making costumes before the ArtRageous Costume Parade to turn onlookers into revelers. Children are also invited to take part in the Makers Fair, a new addition to the festival, held every Saturday for the first three weeks of May. 

Many art exhibits and installations are the result of collaborations, such as  A Taste of Art,  an event in which local restaurateurs pair with local artists. Afterward, their work is left on display at the restaurant for the rest of the month, and at least one piece will become a permanent installation.  

Last year, an interactive art wall showing the history of Eureka Springs was erected in Music Park. This year, nationally renowned artists Larry Mansker and Stephen Feilbach will team up with local art club students to create soft concrete sculpted additions to the sides of the previously constructed art wall.

“There’s performance art, literary art, culinary art, and of course, visual and 3D art. What we try to do, mostly, is involve or educate the public as much as we possibly can on art,” says Sandy Martin, chair of the Eureka Springs Arts Council. “You can show people anything, but we really want them to experience what we have here – the fun, the variety of culture and the diversity of culture.” 

Martin also co-produces the festival with the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Arts Council, which funds local artists who submit applications for exhibits and installations.

All city events, like the Street Art Chalk Festival and the five-day Plein Air Festival, are free to the public with the exception of ticket purchases for a concert featuring Steve Earle and The Dukes on May 3.

SOUTHERN FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL – EL DORADO

Quickly becoming one of El Dorado’s premier events, the Southern Food & Wine Festival returns for its fifth year. The event brings together some of the most celebrated chefs and sommeliers from around the world for one memorable weekend from May 9 – 11. 

The weekend kicks off with the celebrated Southern Food & Wine Dinner, held at the Griffin Restaurant. With the purchase of a ticket, guests will be treated to a five-course dinner – each course prepared by a different executive chef. Guests will also be treated to the sounds of California-based band Tepusquet Tornados, which is made up of wine industry professionals and friends. El Dorado’s own Madison Murphy will be on guitar. 

Saturday’s festivities include workshops to help guests learn how to taste wine like a master sommelier, cook like a Michelin-starred chef and improve their wine experience with the right glasses. Saturday’s main event is the Grand Tasting Wine Pour at 2 p.m. at the Murphy Arts District Amphitheatre. The wine pour will feature critically acclaimed wines. Those who purchase tickets to Friday night’s dinner will receive complimentary tickets to Saturday’s wine pour. 

The weekend will also feature a number of live musical performances from bands such as The Mix, Jeff Coleman & the Feeders, Da Unit and a performance of Mozart and more by South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. All of the weekend’s festivities will be centered around the Murphy Arts District and the Griffin Restaurant.

For tickets and the full schedule of activates, visit eldomad.com.

MEMPHIS IN MAY – MEMPHIS, TENN.

When the Mississippi River begins to rise each spring, the mosquitoes return, the weather warms, and the row crops are young – along Memphis’ sweeping riverfront greensward Tom Lee Park a celebration forms, just as it has each May since 1977. Formed as an avenue by which to celebrate the culture of the Bluff City, the suite of festivals quickly became a means to honor other cultures as well as bring together mid-southerners and peoples of countries all over the world through song, bonhomie, and of course, barbecue. This year the festival turns inward and celebrates Memphis’ 200th anniversary.

With the grand expanse of the Mississippi River and acres of Arkansas farmland as the backdrop, the events that make up the Memphis In May International Festival are nothing short of picturesque. Each weekend, the riverfront hosts a different function to suit any variety of interests including the Beale Street Music Festival, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the Great American River Run, and this year Celebrate Memphis, a finale weekend of all things Memphis commemorating the city’s bicentennial.

For those planning to travel to Memphis to partake in the musical festivities, here are some tips to help you make the most of May in the “Gritty Little City by the River.”

1. Don’t forget rainboots and ponchos. People often refer to Memphis in May as “Memphis in Mud.” It is springtime in the mid-south, so plan for rain and if you’re on the riverfront, plan for mud – lots of mud. Bear in mind that while these showers can result in delayed or canceled musical performances at Beale Street Music Festival, they can also lead to increasingly interesting people watching especially near the beer vendors.

2. It helps to know somebody. Specifically for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, to get the full party experience, you need to know someone to get into a team’s tent (read: elaborate two, three or four story party structures.) The good news is, with more than 75,000 people, teams from 26 states and six countries all vying for the coveted World Champion title, you’re bound to know someone, so start working that phone book of yours. Bonus tip: Thursday is when all of the restaurant industry folks make it out, and the parties are legendary each year.

3. The Blues Tent. While having the chance to see world-class acts like Dave Matthews Band, The Killers and William Bell is reason enough to buy a ticket and wade the crowds, the real excitement lives in the Blues Tent. Typically the northernmost stage of the festival, the Blues Tent features some of the best names in blues music which you may or may not have heard of before. It’s a great opportunity to get your bearings on where the world of blues music is. The bonus is that the Blues Tent is enclosed and air-conditioned, so take some time to cool off and tune in to great contemporary blues mere steps away from the Mighty Mississippi.

4. Parking. With the staggering crowds that descend upon Memphis for Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, parking can seem to be a bit of a challenge. Make use of garages and surface lots farther away from the riverfront. Memphis’ downtown is quite walkable and with public transportation like the vintage trolley cars, getting to and from the riverfront has never been easier.

5. Fireworks over the river. While Sunset Symphony is sadly no longer part of the lineup, you can still enjoy the closing fireworks over the river during the final weekend. The fireworks show is usually a good one given the dark backdrop across the river. Find a seat on the bluff at Vance Park or Butler Park and enjoy the show!

MAGNOLIA BLOSSOM FESTIVAL – MAGNOLIA

In south Arkansas, the Magnolia Blossom Festival celebrates every aspect of outdoor spring activities from fishing on Lake Columbia to live music in Square Park, all taking place May 17 and 18.

The annual event kicks off a few days earlier on Monday, May 13 with the People’s Bank Treasure Hunt. Clues are given on local radio stations to aid Magnolia residents in their search for a $400 treasure hidden somewhere in the community. 

Art displays, concerts and parades are free to enjoy, but expect entry fees at competitions and tournaments including the annual steak cook-off.

The Magnolia Blossom Festival is loaded with competitions including 5K to half-mile runs along with uphill foot races. Fishing tournament participants compete for hourly awards with a grand prize of $1,000 while division awards for the 69th annual art show total more than $4,000. A baggo tournament offers up $2,000 in prize winnings to its first, second and third place winners.  

But the most coveted prize of the entire festival goes to the winner of the 30th Annual World Championship Steak Cook-Off. Competitors will grill more than 3,000 16 oz. ribeyes. The winner will receive bragging rights, take home the Governor’s Cup and $4,000 in prize money. The cook-off is a fan favorite with a parade of competing chefs traveling through town on the morning of the competition.     

Another favorite, and perhaps the oldest feature of the festival, is the 69th Magnolia Arts Annual Art Show. The show continues the tradition of Marjorie Chamberlain’s beloved Sidewalk Art Show 22 years after her passing. This year’s display will be in the Magnolia Arts Center.

Attendees who prefer a different type of art, like the kind with an engine, can also visit the jet boat show and the car and truck show where registrants also have an opportunity at cash prizes.