In the Year of Festivals, Texas Monthly writers gamely join community celebrations across the state. Bring on the pageants, cook-offs, and parades!

The first thing you need to know about the Oatmeal Festival is that there’s very little oatmeal involved. There’s an Oatmeal Bake Off that’s judged in private, and there’s Oatie, the mascot who’s an anthropomorphic can of oats, represented this year by a costumed teenager.

In hindsight, after attending the forty-sixth annual event last Saturday, that makes complete sense. The Oatmeal Festival isn’t even in Oatmeal—it’s in Bertram, a town with roughly 1,800 residents, about forty miles northwest of Austin and five miles from the actual hamlet of Oatmeal. Though neither of these places is known for growing oats, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a celebration of local agriculture. After all, the Poteet Strawberry Festival, the Pecos Cantaloupe Festival, and the Texas Citrus Fiesta, in Mission, honor regional bounties. 

When the Oatmeal Festival started, in 1978, it was meant to poke fun at those more self-serious events. The Oatmeal Bake Off was perhaps a spin on the famous Terlingua Chili Cook Off, which started in 1967. The festival has long included a cow chip–kicking activity, which was possibly a spoof of the watermelon seed–spitting contest at the Luling Watermelon Thump, which kicked off in 1954. And where myriad small-town festivals crown queens and princesses, the Oatmeal Festival also awards the titles of Miss Oatmeal Cookie and Miss Oatmeal Muffin. 

Things seemed a lot more oatmeal-related back in the day. Ken Odiorne was an Oatmeal resident and meat salesman who wanted to bring a little more fun to town. (“It was boring around here,” he told the Austin American-Statesman in 1983.) Odiorne secured funding from the Bertram Chamber of Commerce and a sponsorship from the now-defunct brand National Oats, and he designed a truly wacky affair that would make people remember the town of Oatmeal. 

Oatmeal was established in the mid-ninetieth century, and its quirky name either came from a derivation of Mr. Othneil, who owned the first gristmill in the area, or from one of the settling families, the Habermills. “Haber” is a dialect word for “Hafer,” which means “oats” in German. After the Civil War, a group of formerly enslaved people set up a community in the eastern part of Oatmeal called Stringtown. Oatmeal has been tiny for decades, never exceeding more than a couple dozen residents. We drove through Oatmeal out of pure curiosity and saw a few farms, a sign for a church, the dried-up Oatmeal Creek, and the famous water tower that’s painted to resemble a canister of oats.

According to an article in Austin Monthly, early iterations of the Oatmeal Festival were quirky. Experiments in the eighties and nineties included an airdrop of hundreds of pounds of oats, oatmeal wrestling (“quickly banned after inebriated participants became violent”), oatmeal sculpting, and even the “public stripping of the ‘Dry Grits Guzzler,’ the town’s oatmeal villain, who was then smeared with syrup, caked with oatmeal, and chased out of town every year.”

In 2023, the Oatmeal Festival is decidedly tamer and more family-friendly. The Grits Guzzler does still make an appearance, but this year she was a high school–age girl in a Hamburglar-esque costume who was taken down by Silly String at the beginning of the grand parade, then put in the back of a police car. That’s really where the hijinks ended. 

The Oatmeal Festival Needs More Oatmeal
Oatie, the Oatmeal Festival mascot. Kimya Kavehkar
The Oatmeal Festival Needs More Oatmeal
Mini caramel apple doughnuts at the 2023 Oatmeal Festival. Kimya Kavehkar

The rest of the parade procession was very similar to what you might witness in other small towns. A series of cars (vintage and otherwise) and floats carried first responders, political candidates, and local businesses and organizations. The riders tossed out candy to the kids and waved dutifully. A team of horseback riders strutted their stuff, and young members of the Oatmeal Court glided by atop convertibles, waving placidly.

After the main activity of the day was through, attendees dispersed. Folks mingled over $15 barbecue plates—an extremely reasonable price given the generous portions—that raised funds for scholarships, browsed the couple dozen vendors, or shepherded their kids over to the bouncy castles. (I’m still patiently waiting on bouncy castles for adults.)

Even though the festival pushed its date out a few weeks this year (it was historically held over Labor Day weekend), it was still in the mid-90s by the middle of the day, so everyone was searching for slivers of shade. My husband and I enjoyed creating a tasting menu of sorts that allowed us to sample a fair amount of fair fare. Of course, food is one of the best parts of any festival—there are very few places in the world where a hot dog and sno-cone constitute a complete meal.

After catching the tail end of the pet parade, in which first place went to a chicken in a cage accompanied by a young boy dressed as Colonel Sanders, we hit up the food court. By 10 a.m. we had polished off two bags of mini doughnuts and a large sweet tea, pushing past our sugar limits dangerously early. The highlights of the day were two even more indulgent treats: a horchata sno-cone stuffed with a scoop of ice cream and topped with whipped cream, from Dee’s Shaved Ice House, and a bag of kettle corn made on-site by Poppin’ Around Texas. I hoarded the bag for days, eating only a handful of popcorn at a time.

I made a few valiant efforts to see the Oatmeal Bake Off in action, but I was dismayed when the sign on the door that read “Closed for Judging” stayed there the whole time. This shrouded the competition in an air of mystery, as only a lucky few could sample the array of breads, cakes, pies, and other confections. I say let the general population taste the delicious oat-based creations of their friends and neighbors, and perhaps even let them judge anonymously. 

Even as someone who dislikes oatmeal, I was hoping for more oatmeal at the Oatmeal Festival. There was plenty of small-town charm and folks being neighborly, but it would be nice to hearken back to Odiorne’s original vision of true kookiness. Oatmeal flinging? An oatmeal dunk tank? Bobbing for apples in a pool of oatmeal? Having the Grits Guzzler terrorize Oaty for the entire day? Of course, as an outsider, I understand that locals may take these ideas with a grain of . . . grain.