Three thousand redheads walk into a park. That’s not the start to a joke, but what actually happened the weekend of June 4th and 5th near Chicago.

Based on a festival called Roodharigendag, the original gathering for redheads in Breda, Holland, the Redhead Days Chicago Affiliate is the first of its kind to bring redheads together in North America. According to a press release, the event “seeks to unite the global redheaded community through their three core values of bonding, pride and recognition”.

The festival took place in Highwood, a Northern suburb of Chicago whose downtown feels more like the center of a charming small town than a suburb. Jim Stoecker, owner of Highwood’s Alex’s Washington Gardens, organized the second annual event.

I attended both years, this time as a judge for the “Carrot Cake Throwdown”, and found the festival had notably expanded.

Last year consisted of a few booths, most of which served ginger-themed drinks. I remember feeling bored as I walked around wondering why I’d spent more than an hour driving there. However, I did the hear several of the same conversations over and over again coming out of different people’s mouths: stories of bullying, families who brought the only redheaded kid in the family because they needed a confidence boost, commentary on each others’ particular brands of redheadism: strawberry blonde, auburn, curly, straight, Maureen O’Hara-esque. We openly stared at each other, the same way nonredheads often stare at us, since only make up about 2 percent of the population.

In comparison, this year’s event had lots of interactive entertainment added to it: in addition to the annual group photo and carrot cake competition, Redhead Days boasted additional food and drink vendors, a petting zoo with llamas and even a monkey of some type, a presentation and free hair braiding by How to Be a Redhead, palm-reading psychics and live music.

Of course, for me the Carrot Cake Throwdown was also a highlight as it was my first time being a judge in a taste-testing competition. Along with three area journalists, only one of whom was a fellow redhead, we sampled carrot cakes from bakeries across Chicagoland, judging them for their taste, frosting, presentation and texture.

Although eating endless amounts of cake sounds like a dream come true, I started to feel dizzy and lethargic, with a touch of a stomachache, about halfway through. One of the hosts had warned us to only take a small bite of each of the 11 cakes we tried, but I found it hard to rate the cakes in all four categories without taking extra bites. Bent Fork Bakery from Highwood won the competition.

Interesting, more non-redheads seemed to attend the festival this year. Perhaps this was a result of the weather: downpouring rain. When I arrived, just as the rain seemed to be ramping up, several of the festivalgoers seemed to be leaving, including two ponies that I assumed had been part of the petting zoo.

I had a lot more fun at Redhead Days this year, probably because I was so flattered to be a carrot cake judge. I can’t wait to see how the festival grows in future years. Maybe one of these days I’ll make to original in the Netherlands.