Models of model homes on display at the Mason City Architectural Interpretive Center

Stalking Asparagus

Empire, Michigan—population 400—may be tiny, but, when its residents join forces each year to honor the humble asparagus, the result is impressive. This weekend, the picturesque burg on the Leelanau peninsula celebrates the fiber-rich stalks with a party that MSN ranked in its top 10 list of the World’s Weirdest Festivals, sandwiched between South Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival and the Monkey Buffet Festival in Lopburi, Thailand. Here are three ways to explore Empire’s annual vegetable-based bacchanal:

  1. Gettin’ piggy with it
    The Empire Chamber of Commerce promises a “butt swingin’ good time” at the asparagus dance and pig roast on Friday, May 20th, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Art’s Tavern (6487 Western Ave., Glen Arbor). Old-school zydeco/cajun/swamp blues/washboard music will be provided by the Benzie Playboys. Admission is $5.
  2. Green cuisine
    Things really get cooking Saturday morning, as the Asparagus Recipe Contest and Cook-Off fires up at 11 a.m. at the Empire Township Hall (10088 W. Front St.). The competition involves sampling of asparagus-based soups, entrees, and appetizers by an “asparagus obsessed” panel of judges and the public. The judges will award a grand prize, while the public picks the “People’s Choice” winner; both will be announced at noon. Also Saturday: From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Asparagus Eats/Wine and Beer Tasting will include $5-or-less plates of asparagus crepes, asparagus brats, asparagus pizza, and asparagus deep fried in beer batter, among many other offerings, all under the big white tent in downtown Empire.
  3. Ode to the green
    In keeping with the green nature of the festival’s veggie of honor, a non-motorized parade will make its way through Empire starting at 3 p.m. Participants—many of whom dress up like asparagus stalks—march, pedal, dance, and ride on horseback through the parade route. Prior to the parade there will be reading of the winners in the hotly competitive Asparagus Poetry Contest.

GO The 8th Annual Empire Asparagus Festival, May 20th through 22nd, in downtown Empire, Michigan. For more information, visit

Where to stay: The Empire Lake Shore Inn (11730 S. Lacore Rd.; 231-326-5145, has 11 rooms convenient to both Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and downtown Empire; rates range from $130 to $158. A renovated Victorian farmhouse, the Cottonwood Inn (9583 W. Front St.; 231-326-5535, is walking distance of both downtown Empire and Lake Michigan; rates range from $120 to $150.

Where to eat: The atmosphere is casual and the burgers are robust at Joe’s Friendly Tavern (11015 W. Front St., 231-326-5506). Trattoria Funistrada (4566 W. Macfarlane Rd., Burdickville; 231-334-3900) offers upscale Italian fare and an extensive wine list.