Like a candy store to a kid, a hardware store to a handyman, or a fabric store to a fashion designer, that's what a food and wine festival is to a "foodie" like me.
Being able to experience new foods and flavors prepared and paired in ways I could not have imagined, and, in some cases, cooked by chefs I've seen on television is irresistible and unforgettable.
Food and wine festivals seem to be popping up from Aspen, Colo. to Portland, Maine so there are more opportunities than ever before to indulge your inner gourmand. These events often include formal grand tastings where guests meander from table to table eating appetizer-sized portions of a chef's specialty, often perfectly paired with a glass of wine or signature cocktail.
For those who don't like to get all dressed up, there are many more casual opportunities to sample great food and libations, participate in cooking classes and wine tastings, shop for cookbooks and eclectic products, and, in some cases even meet and mingle with celebrity chefs.
Growing up on Chicago's northwest side, I experienced the neighborhood version of these food fest at Greek and Italian festivals often sponsored by local churches or community groups. I looked forward to these events and the opportunity to experience specialty foods like spanakopita or those yummy fried rice balls called arancini. These were, and still are, great places to sample unique food close to home. But if you can travel beyond the six-county area you can do more than just taste great food.
Last year I attended Walt Disney World's Epcot Food and Wine Festival. The festival started 17 years ago as a showcase of "small-plate tastes" from the countries featured in the Epcot Showcase like Morocco and France. Wines from each country complimented the tasting. While there were small fees for the food and wine, there were also free daily cooking classes. This is where I happened upon a class taught by Food Network personality Bobby Flay and tried ceviche for the first time.
Over the years, the festival has expanded to include special entertainment, a wider variety of food offerings and more cooking demonstrations led by celebrity chefs like the Jamie Deen, Tony Mantuano and Jacques Torres, as well as Disney chefs.
During last year's Epcot festival, I attended a demo led by Chicago's Hearty Boys who made delicious short ribs and shared entertaining tips, like planning a menu that includes foods that can be made days in advance, so you aren't stressed at the last minute.
"Top Chef" contestant Casey Thompson also was there and had just returned from Argentina. She suggested Argentine wines and introduced me to farro, an ancient grain that has since become a family favorite.
You can find another festival, one not requiring a plane ride, just north of Milwaukee in Kohler, Wis. Held every October, the Kohler Food and Wine Experience, offers wine seminars, tastings and cooking demonstrations by regional and national celebrity chefs like Food Network's Anne Burrell and America's Test Kitchens's founder Christopher Kimball.
To make the most out of your festival experience, I suggest you sign up for as many events as possible in advance. Arrive hungry with an open mind (and palate), wear comfortable shoes and no matter what, don't wear white. Even if you don't spill, someone else might.
• Penny Kazmier from South Barrington, won the 2011 Cook of the Week Challenge.