There are food festivals all year ’round, and they seem to cluster in the warmer months, starting in the springtime. Here are three March fests, two down and one to go.
Last weekend was WingFest at UIC Pavilion, a gathering of restaurants and bars – some fancy, others not so much – serving a very large, hugely ravenous crowd with two chicken parts that qualify as wings, though neither technically looks like a wing: the flat and the drummie. The flat (also called the wingette, skateboard, clothespin; it goes by lots of names) is the section of the wing with two thin bones and meat in the middle. The drummie (also called the drummette) looks a little like small drumstick, but it’s part of the wing not leg. The part of the wing that actually looks like a wing is usually called the wingette; it’s not always served because there’s not much meat on it. The flat is the bridge between the drummie and the wingette. Okay, that’s all for the anatomy.
WingFest is by far the messiest fest we’ve ever attended. As you can see from the picture above, many people came in various getups to avoid getting splashed and stained with the abundant sauces covering all the poultry pieces served (Have you ever tried to clean out a turmeric stain? You can’t). Several guys were attired like the man on the left, in what is basically a wearable paper towel; he told me “I don’t even need to carry napkins around,” a fact he demonstrated by whipping his mouth with his paper sleeve. The man in the kilt (with visible sauce splash visible on his left shoulder) looked like he was dressed for comfort and speed, which is important when you’re trying to move around huge lines to secure more chow to jam into your pie hole. The guy third from the left had the most inventive attire: a chest-mounted tray with a garbage bag in front for debris, a roll of paper towels (handy) and two cup holders, both of which he was using. I chatted with the young lady on the far right, mentioning that it seemed she was wearing a lot of white for an event like this; she smiled for the camera when Carolyn told her she was obviously a lady, accustomed to eating daintily; clearly, she was.
Our favorite wings were from a place we didn’t know much about: Rhyme or Reason. They coated their wings with a splash of hot oil and a well-balanced sauce of sweet and hot peppers. Local River Forest Catering was briefly represented at the event but ran out of wings about two or so hours into the five-hour event so we never had a chance to try them (guys, next time, come prepared for crowds!). Most other places kept pumping out wings for hours, and I saw people housing truly massive amounts of poultry throughout the event.
Last Monday night, Chowdah Fest was held at the Columbia Yacht Club, which was by far the coolest venue for the fests: it’s a rather large boat, MV Abegweit, which when commissioned in 1947 was the biggest ice breaker in the world. Now, it’s a floating clubhouse, restaurant and venue for events.
This year’s Chowdah Fest was magnificent; we’ve been attending for a few years, and this year there was incredible variation in the offerings, some of which really stretched the definition of “chowder.” It was actually the rare chowder that actually contained clams, as many of them used alternative seafood like salmon, mussels, shrimp or even swordfish.
The big winner of Chowdah Fest for 2017 was Cory Morris and the team at Chicago restaurant Ronero, who took home the best of show awards from both judges and “people’s choice.” Morris and Ronero presented a moqueta, a Brazilian fish stew that I’ve also enjoyed at Oak Park’s Taste of Brazil. Morris’ rendition of shrimp and swordfish in a creamy coconut broth, with traditional farofa (toasted cassava) sprinkled on top, was really good. This “chowder” had a lot more subtlety and spiciness than one usually expects from chowder, which, in Chicago, usually means a New England style of creamy chowder. Even at Chowdah Fest, no one served the clam chowder from Manhattan with the slightly spicy tomato sauce that is my favorite. Sniff.
Coming at the end of March, Baconfest is one of my favorite events of the year. It’s huge, with around 200 restaurants participating in three separate eating sessions: Friday night, Saturday lunch and Saturday dinner. I’ve been a Baconfest judge for something like six years now (last year I judged with local Elmwood Park gal Catherine DeOrio of “Check, Please”), and the most fun part of the event for me is conferring with the other judges about which preparation we like the most. As much as I like eating food – particularly bacon – I like talking about food almost as much: it’s fun and informative to sit down and chat with other food enthusiasts, people who spend a lot of their waking hours thinking about food. Also, and this is key, as judges, we can send runners for food from the exhibition floor and have it delivered to us in a meeting room, where we can eat it sitting around a table, like human beings (or very poised orangutans). That’s a huge benefit because the downside of all known festivals is that you’re usually standing and wolfing down chow in a crowd of maybe a thousand people or more: a far from ideal dining situation. Still, fests are fun, people obviously love them, and although you may have blown your chances of attending WingFest and Chowdah Fest , you still have a shot at attending Baconfest. If you do decide to spend a few hours eating some of the tastiest bacon creations you’ve ever had, you should probably move fast: tickets almost always sell out.
Because people love fests and ’tis the season.