Spaghetti & Chicken Tra­di­tion

Ton­ti­town pre­pares to cel­e­brate its 119th Grape Fes­ti­val

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TONTITOWN - KAT ROBIN­SON

When the first set­tlers from Sun­ny­side sat down to a har­vest pic­nic in 1898, the thought of a Fer­ris wheel or carousel in eye­shot of the church house doors would have been in­con­ceiv­able. Just as hard to fathom, though, would be the idea that the sup­per would be­come a tra­di­tion that would span a cen­tury and more.

This com­ing week, the 119th an­nual Ton­ti­town Grape Fes­ti­val will be held on the grounds of St. Joseph Catholic Church along U.S. 412. The free fes­ti­val is billed as Northwest Arkansas’ largest, and prepa­ra­tions take weeks.

Eric Pellin is the chair­man of the Ton­ti­town Grape Fes­ti­val. He says it’s hard to quan­tify just how many peo­ple come each year. “Since we’re a free fes­ti­val, we don’t have a gate, but we es­ti­mate 20,000 to 25,000 peo­ple come out each night,” Pellin says.

The fes­ti­val com­mem­o­rates the first feast of the set­tlers of Ton­ti­town. In 1898, Father Pi­etro Ban­dini trav­eled northwest from the Sun­ny­side Plan­ta­tion near Lake Vil­lage to de­ter­mine a new set­tle­ment for mem­bers of his con­gre­ga­tion. Hun­dreds of Ital­ian fam­i­lies had bought into the Arkansas Delta land sight un­seen from New York de­vel­oper Austin Corbin; upon ar­rival, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the hill­sides around Rome and the des­o­late flat cot­ton-planted lands of the Delta shocked many. Ban­dini’s quest for ter­rain and avail­able land sim­i­lar to what the set­tlers had left be­hind ended atop the Bos­ton Moun­tain plateau. The com­mu­nity would take its name from Henri de Tonti, rec­og­nized as the first Arkansas Trav­eler.

The fes­ti­val’s name comes from the many vine­yards that once pro­duced grapes. “At one time there were a tremen­dous amount of grapes grown in Northwest Arkansas,” Pellin con­tin­ues. “Nearly ev­ery fam­ily in Ton­ti­town had grapes, and many still have vine­yards.”

A large grape juice maker once pro­vided a mar­ket for most of the grapes. To­day, Ton­ti­town Win­ery pro­duces wine from the nearby har­vested fruit, while Ranalli Vine­yard of­fers fresh ta­ble grapes. Both will have booths at the fes­ti­val. Grape stomps are part of the fes­ti­val, as is grape ice cream. A new ad­di­tion, a grape fun­nel cake, will also be of­fered.

Over the course of five days, thou­sands will fil­ter in and park out in the fields to en­joy a mod­ern car­ni­val, com­plete with rides, bark­ers with games, cot­ton candy and such on a tem­po­rary mid­way. Lo­cal crafts­men and women and area ven­dors line up along a side­walk that par­al­lels the high­way, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from pil­low­case dresses to lo­cal sorghum and honey, Ra­zor­back cloth­ing and your very own name carved into a wooden shape. Ton­ti­town Win­ery will be on hand with lo­cally made wines for sale.

But what draws fam­i­lies back is the fried chicken and spaghetti din­ner that started this tra­di­tional gath­er­ing in the 19th cen­tury. On the nights of Aug. 3-5, the cel­e­brated meal is served to thou­sands of din­ers. Soaked salad, fried chicken, long hand­made spaghetti noo­dles in home­made mari­nara with grated parme­san cheese, rolls and iced tea are handed across the counter to each hun­gry guest, who finds a seat at one of the long ta­bles in the hall. Bowls of sugar and sweet­ener, jelly and mar­garine for the rolls are set out for com­mu­nal use.

The prepa­ra­tions for the more than 6,000 din­ners that will be served takes weeks.

“We’ll make 500 gal­lons of sauce and over 3,000 pounds of spaghetti,” Pellin shares. “It takes us two weeks. We make on Mon­days and Thurs­days, we box spaghetti for din­ners on Tues­days and Fri­days and bag noo­dles for sale on Wed­nes­day and Satur­day.”

The Ital­ian din­ners are $12 for adults and $6 for chil­dren, and Pellin says the kitchen never runs out.

“Just like any other Ital­ian kitchen, we pre­pare for more than we ex­pect,” he says. Din­ers can con­sume their din­ners in the hall or take them to go.

For those who want to take home a taste of Ton­ti­town, bags of hand­made noo­dles are avail­able for $3 a pound. Pellin says they’re all made by vol­un­teers. In fact, the fes­ti­val is 100 per­cent vol­un­teer-driven. All the pro­ceeds go to St. Joseph Parish. Kat Robin­son is an Arkansas food his­to­rian and travel writer based in Lit­tle Rock. Fol­low her ad­ven­tures at TieDyeTrav­els. com and watch for her in the up­com­ing AETN spe­cial, “Make Room for Pie: A De­li­cious Slice of the Nat­u­ral State with Kat Robin­son,” pre­mier­ing March 2018.

NWA DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

An­nette Pianalto, left, and Sara Miller po­si­tion a rack of fresh pasta noo­dles. The home­made spaghetti will be served Thurs­day through Aug. 5 at the 119th an­nual Ton­ti­town Grape Fes­ti­val.

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