I have never been a fan of the Taste of Chicago, the nearly three-decade-old food festival whose 2008 incarnation began Friday.
The annual event that is supposed to give the unique assortment of restaurants in Chicago a chance to show off their custom items is really nothing more than an opportunity to overpay for bite-sized morsels of pizza and barbecue.
NOW SOME PEOPLE are more than comfortable trotting out to Grant Park in the July heat of a Chicago summer to eat these items that I can order up just about any time I want.
Personally, I will avoid the park for the next 10 or so days, until after the Taste of Chicago is complete and the crews have removed all the trash (which leaves such a lingering aroma of unpleasantness that wafts its way into the Loop proper).
The Taste of Chicago’s food fare is too predictable.
Fair officials this year are promoting pizza as one of the unique food items. Specifically, they are touting the pizza by Connie’s Pizza, which is making some slices with a special whole-wheat crust – claiming it to be a healthier food choice than “regular” pizza.
I DON’T HAVE a problem with pizza crust made by whole wheat dough. I have had it on occasion, and it has a nice texture to it. But it is not the kind of item that I will make a special trip for (and have to pay Taste of Chicago-type prices).
And for those who take offense to the notion of eating any version of pizza that pretends to be healthy, be assured that there will be plenty of more conventional versions of pizza for sale from many other vendors at the Taste of Chicago.
How ridiculous are the event’s prices?
In theory, tickets for the Taste of Chicago (which must be used to purchase food – vendors don’t take cash or charge cards) cost little more than $0.60 apiece.
BUT TICKETS ARE not sold individually. They are sold in strips of 11 – at a cost of $7 per strip. Even then, most food items cost anywhere from five to eight tickets apiece, which means that a single strip isn’t going to get one much more than a lone bite or two of something greasy.
Multiple strips must be purchased, and that is just if one comes alone. Bringing a friend adds to the expense. A group of three can easily go through $50-60 to spend a couple of hours tasting a few food items – then have to spend more money to eat elsewhere because the portions were so small that they weren’t all that filling.
And what’s worse is that I have never been able to see anyone manage to use every single ticket. It is all too common to be left with a stray ticket or two – which means returning to the Taste of Chicago for a second day (and more money spent on ticket strips).
The mystery of the number of tickets sold on a Taste of Chicago strip ranks right up there with the question of why hot dog buns are sold in packages of eight, while hot dogs often come in packs of seven.
CROWDS ALSO CAN make a mess of the Taste of Chicago, particularly on Thursday of this coming week – when the combination of overpriced food and an elaborate Day-before-Independence Day fireworks show will cause more than 1 million people to cram their way onto the Chicago lakefront.
That is the day to avoid Chicago at all costs, unless your life is not complete without pyrotechnics.
But even on the other nine days of the Taste of Chicago, the mass of people can be overwhelming.
I still remember the Taste of Chicago from 1998, when then-Democratic gubernatorial nominee Glenn Poshard tried to use the summer festival (which is billed as Chicago’s preeminent outdoor event of the year) to get the urban people of Chicago to accept his Southern Illinois ways.
AS A REPORTER-type person with the old United Press International, I was working that day – following Poshard around as he tried to mingle with the masses.
Yet it quickly became obvious that the event was overwhelming. Poshard himself ate nothing more than an ice cream cone, and seemed bewildered that so many people could convene in such a small space for the explicit purpose of eating greasy junk food.
His reaction might very well be evidence that he had a strain of common sense.
AS MUCH AS I can enjoy crowds (a capacity group in a sports stadium doesn’t freak me out in the least), the sense just exists that the Taste of Chicago has no taste whatsoever.
If I really want to experience some of the unique culinary experiences of Chicago, I’ll get in the car (or figure out how to take the “el” or a CTA bus) to try out some of the unique restaurants located in the neighborhoods.
If I am able to find one new restaurant this summer in Chicago that serves me a truly unique meal, then I will consider that a much more worthwhile experience than spending a couple of hours at the Taste of Chicago.
AND FOR THOSE people who just have to experience some time in Grant Park this summer at a public event, I’d suggest trying the music festivals.
The Chicago Blues Festival has already passed, but the gospel, Latin music and jazz festivals all are coming up this summer and will offer one a much more pleasing (and less grubby) way of spending an evening in downtown Chicago.
I’m actually looking forward to hearing the skilled saxophone playing of Ornette Coleman, who aside from being thoroughly enjoyable any time of the year is scheduled to be the highlighted musical act performing on my birthday.
EDITOR’S NOTES: It may sound interesting that Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and Chaka Khan all will perform at the Taste of Chicago. The only problem is that the stages (http://egov.cityofchicago.org/city/webportal/portalEntityHomeAction.do?entityName=Taste+of+Chicago&entityNameEnumValue=166) where the music is performed usually get lost amidst the mass of greasy food.
Soldiers in Iraq will get to experience a piece of the Taste of Chicago, as Lou Malnati’s (http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5heP2QK8kxePru5jZ5U1nZHGqBXtgD91H21280) pizzeria has arranged to ship up to 3,000 of the pizzas they’re selling at the food festival to the troops.