Who You Callin' a Worm Grunter?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you haven’t vibrated worms out of the ground? You haven’t lived.
By Terry Ward
California has a whale festival and Alaska an annual bald eagle fete. But is it any surprise that Florida takes the cake as the wackiest in the union, bypassing its omnipresent alligators to spotlight less captivating critters like earthworms and swamp frogs?
On the east coast, near Vero Beach in the tiny town of Fellsmere (pop. roughly 5,500), the tradition of frog gigging in local marshes is the inspiration for the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival that takes place every January. The three-day event draws thousands of people to sample some 5,000 pounds of battered and fried frogs’ legs.
“Who knew that frog legs are considered a delicacy not only in France but in the small towns of Florida too?” says the festival’s incoming president, Susan Adams, whose mother started the event back in 1990 to raise money for local youth recreation programs. Fellsmere frog legs were used in the festival’s fryers for many years, says Adams, but farmed amphibian appendages are now brought in from Louisiana to fulfill a demand that’s outgrown the town’s wild-harvested supply. “You have to have a certain quirky personality to want to come to a frog leg festival,” she quips. “A lot of people come out of curiosity.”
For repeat festivalgoer Teresa Farquhar, of Sebastian, Florida, it’s not about feasting on the amphibians (“although my friends tell me they’re amazing and juicy,” she says). Rather, she comes with her nieces to try more mainstream foods and enjoy classic fair rides and games.
A few days before the festival, organizers spread 1,000 worms across the ground to make sure it’s plenty wormy.
Across the state, in the hinterlands of the Panhandle in a small town that’s dubbed itself the possum capital of the world, there’s an annual — you guessed it — possum festival. At the Wausau Possum Festival, politicians looking for votes dangle the animals by their tails, and intrepid eaters can even get a taste of one. Once a primary source of food during the lean Great Depression years, the nocturnal marsupial is still cherished by the people of Wausau. In addition to its “possum tastings,” the festival, which keeps things simple (as it has for roughly half a century), offers a parade, pageant and the crowning of the festival king and queen.
And for another Panhandle festival focused on an even less glamorous animal, head to the tiny outpost of Sopchoppy (about 33 miles south of the state capital in Tallahassee) for the annual Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival, held every April.
WTF is worm grunting, you might ask? It’s a long-standing local tradition of “getting worms for bait to go fishing by causing the ground to vibrate,” explains festival organizer and longtime Sopchoppy resident, Bill Lowrie. And that’s just what kids try their hands at during the festival’s annual competition, where they’ll rub a piece of iron across a wooden stake driven into the ground. A few days before the festival, organizers spread 1,000 worms across the ground to make sure it’s plenty wormy. Indeed, when the ground starts to vibrate, out jump the worms. Collect the most worms to win.
“Enough worms have been grunted here over the years that if you put them tail-to-tail they’d go to the moon and back,” says Robert Seidler, a local filmmaker in Sopchoppy who also grows oysters and always makes a point to attend the festival. “In a world that moves fast, there’s something right about it that earthworms don’t.”
Food for thought. Before we become food for worms.
Go There: Florida’s Weird Animal Festivals
- Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival: Held annually in January in Fellsmere (93 miles south of Orlando). A “frog pop,” which is one frog leg on a stick, will set you back $3.
- Wausau Possum Festival: Held annually on the first Saturday of August in Wausau (90 miles west of Tallahassee). There’s also hog callin’, rooster crowin’ and cow lowin’ contests.
- Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival: At this April event in Sopchoppy, the person who collects the heaviest weight in worms wins. There’s also a Worm Grunters’ Ball to cap off the day.