“Taste” Tested

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(Photo: An evening at the Taste of Chicago…wheel-o-fun or whirling stress-o-meter? Credit: Looper.)

There’s no sweeter music to my ears than the woosh of 100 collapsing vendor tents, coming down today in Grant Park after the conclusion of another year’s Taste of Chicago, the Second City’s annual lakeside food extravaganza. Last week, I asked my native-Chicago friend, Rozella, if she wanted to go to the Taste. Her response was telling.

“Oh sure, I just live to dine over a dumpster and pee in a porta-potty.”

I thought it was just me. I’ve only been here three years, but I already share the opinion of a native daughter. I found that curious. Officially, the Taste of Chicago is supposed to be a universally beloved event. I quizzed my friends and coworkers whether they had any taste for the Taste, to see whether ‘Zella and I were simply statistical outliers in the great court of Hogtown opinion, or whether we were on to something. I had a hard time finding people who would disagree with us.

Instead, I heard the same reservations repeated over and over. It’s too hot. It’s too crowded. The food’s too ordinary. Why bother? Indeed, if the responses I heard are any indication of popular sentiment, Chicago must be the nation’s capital of personal masochism (which would explain our annual International Mr. Leather weekend, but I digress).

I mean, I went to the Taste this year, more than once. Devyn went, too. And so did most of the people I polled. But why, oh why, all this municipal gluttony for gastronomic punishment? As the Taste of Chicago rolls to a close every July, thousands of weary Chicagoans enter into pacts with their personal deities to deliver them from ever having to attend, whether by dint of invitation, peer pressure, or long-term memory loss, another year of the perilously overblown food fest. We swear “never again.” We bitch until August. We go back next year. Same time. Same place. Same outcome.

As if guided by mass hysteria, each year we all hope to score a visit to the Taste on that elusive weekday lunch hour when the temperature stalls at 68, the tourists have left town due to a massive hotel strike, and the office workers have all gone home after another basement flood in the Loop. Are our memories really that short? Do we simply go hoping that this year will be better than last year, although we know that’s never happened? Perhaps the Mayor’s Office of Special Events releases Zoloft into the water supply every year around late June?

My money’s on the last explanation. But while we still have some breathing (and bitching) room before the next mass dosing of the water supply, here is a summary of the most common complaints I heard from the people in my life regarding the Taste:

The Crowds
The oft-heard myth is that late-mornings through lunchtime you can walk the Taste without having to do the escalator line-up shuffle. Reality proves otherwise. Before the end of the first open hour of this year’s Taste, six-inch strides were already the norm up and down Columbus Drive. They didn’t relent. The Taste is exceptionally popular, but the pedestrian pathways through it are extraordinarily inadequate for the size of the crowds it receives throughout the day. With the exception of the food-tent area on Jackson, if you don’t want to get separated, best to walk arm in arm with that loved one. Or, better yet, tethered together.

The Heat
It might rain during the Taste, but somehow it never fails to hit 90 degrees on the day that you visit. When you’re in the Loop, all those tall buildings provide shadows to keep the sun at bay and lobbies and stores to pop into for a refreshing air-conditioned respite from Chicago’s summer heat. Over at the Taste, those leafy trees in Grant Park look like they’d protect you from the sun. And they would, if you were underneath them. However, you’ll be walking with your Lou Malnati’s along the sun-baked asphalt in the middle of Columbus Drive where, except for a couple of meager comfort tents, shade is utterly absent. By early afternoon, when you’re one sweat bead away from wilting like a salad, you’re no longer of the opinion that a small cardboard fan is a chintzy enticement to get you to subscribe to the Chicago Tribune. More likely, you’re desperately scanning trash cans to find one that isn’t covered in jerk chicken sauce.

The Food
…is nothing special. A yearly let-down. A greatest-hits of ordinary. The run of the mill of the mall. The same old, same old, year after year. You go hoping this will be the year the Taste is transformed into a truly gourmet paradise of hard-to-find, hard-to-beat, gastronomic delights celebrating the breadth and depth of Chicago’s world-famous foodie scene. Instead, you get Lou Malnati’s, the Billy Goat Tavern, and Home Run Inn. And while you scour the Taste map for the few honest, edgy ethnic restaurants that are actually represented, you wonder why the hell there’s a food tent for a brand of pizza that you can buy frozen for four bucks at White Hen.

The Expense
You think you’ll run over to the Taste for a quick afternoon snack. Fourteen dollars and 22 tickets later, you perceive the error of your ways. At first you try to build a meal the traditional way, out of three-ticket “taste portions”, but three olives, half a pierogie, and a chocolate covered strawberry can only get you so far. So after 15 tickets for two human-sized servings and another seven for a can of Coke, you’re poorer than you intended to be. But hopefully wiser.

The “Waste”
The apt nickname given to the Taste of Chicago by prominent local conservationist Jerry Adelmann, executive director of Openlands. Three-and-a-half million people can’t spend ten days in the middle of a park and not do damage. It takes weeks for grass and plants to fully recover from the pedestrian onslaught unleashed on Grant Park lawns every year by Taste revelers. At least some comfort can be found in the relative absence at the food fest of environmentally antagonistic styrofoam, illegal in most parts of the United States, but still happily housing many a takeout meal across Chicago. But it’s not like you’re grease-laden paper plate is going to get recycled, either.

The Atmosphere
It’s nice to see every type of Chicagoan turn out for the Taste as they do. Then again, it can also be a little horrifying. Sometimes it seems like every race, color, and creed in the city has come down to the Taste on the day you’re there, amiably ambling from tent to tent in well-fed social harmony. Unfortunately, it also frequently seems like they’ve brought every K-Mart flip-flop, Choppers tee shirt, stained Cubs jersey, battery-operated mini-fan with the little blingy LEDs, and badly wilted West Side hairdo with them. Of course, it’s usually what, 1,000 degrees when you visit the Taste? Hard to be concerned about fashion when you’re in survival mode.

The Amenities
Rented carny rides, exhibition divers, face painting, an ROTC booth, and a country music festival, complete with bales of hay. Doesn’t that just scream Chicago to you? Me either. Wisconsin called the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. They want their state fair back.

Eating on Your Feet
Sure, you go plop your butt down on a goose-, rabbit-, horse- and dog-poop laden Grant Park lawn to chow down on your saganaki. I hope you brought anti-bacterial wet wipes with. Unless you also brought a collapsible chair, like thousands of others, it’s elbows in, follow the feet in front of you, and try not to spill or fork yourself in the eye as you jostle down Columbus looking for a relatively uncrowded garbage can to catch your drippings. Yum. Oh, crap, garbage-can wasps. I meant run.

As with all personal preferences, your mileage may vary. I will admit many people love the Taste of Chicago, can barely wait for each year to go by until the Taste returns again to grace Columbus Drive with that familiar aroma of pizza and urine. Then again, many people love movies by former SNL stars, Fox News, and ketchup on hot dogs, too. I’m just not one of them. Point me to the food festival where I get to eat my meals on china and do my business over in-ground plumbing. Clue me into the festival where the temperature is always room and the crowds are always light. Give me the festival where the dishes are all gourmet and the dining is by invitation only. Keep the country bands and diving shows, they just attract the proletariat. I want exclusivity, baby. I want a password required to get in. I want food as sublime as Xel Ha. And, dammit, I want a comfy seat.

Or you could just come over to my house and I’ll whip us up some pastéis de bacalhau. I hope you love Portuguese dried salted codfish fritters as much as I do. I suppose when you get right down to it, there really is no accounting for taste.

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