Vendors, especially food and beverage vendors, at a bluegrass festival can sometimes be like an oasis from the elements, a blessed port in a storm. Think of the times you’ve been at a hot and humid festival in late July; you’ve lost five pounds in sweat alone, your cooler is dry and empty, and there it is in the distance: a stand selling homemade ice cream. You can hear the churn cranking as you stagger towards it, praying that it’s not a mirage.
Then there are the craftspeople, luthiers, music dealers, etc., who sometimes have items you would never find anywhere else. You’re just not going to be able to wander into your local Target and come out with the LP of Mike O’Roark and the Freeborn Men you’ve looking for for over 25 years.
Still, festival vendors can also disappoint, though often we only have ourselves to blame. If it’s food, you usually can see it ahead of time and should know better. You can see that greenish-looking hot dog that may have been sitting in lukewarm water since the gospel show started over four hours ago, and yet you still order it and eat half of it so as not to be wasteful.
Sometimes, too, out of sheer boredom, you buy something from a craftsperson that you’ll never ever use, and that your spouse will likely never even permit in your garage, let alone your house; a 4 by 6 feet, framed oil painting of a car dealership, for example.
I thought back through the years of my own festival experience, also receiving the valuable testimony of friends on the subject, and I have compiled a list of some of the most tragic items ever purchased, consumed (though sometimes not retained for long) and/or brought home from a bluegrass festival.
No names of actual vendors have been used (we don’t want to prejudice the jury in any court cases that are still open). If some of these are not real life examples, it’s only because the “valuable testimony” from the friends mentioned above was obtained by waking them up at 3:00 AM, so they would be less guarded and more likely to speak freely. As a result, some of their recollections may have actually been vivid dreams (or nightmares).
First on my list relates to festival sushi (definitely in the “I should have known better” category). I got adventurous and tried something at a midwestern festival that was called The Iowa Roll. It turned out to be raw, ground pork (organic, grass-fed, soy free, free-range), blended with bits of what they said was wheat grass, but what I suspect was just brome grass, all surrounded by a ring of cornmeal. A vegetarian version was available, which was just the cornmeal. I just asked them to deep fry it into a hush puppy. It wasn’t bad.
Next is a food item I tried while in a devil-may-care mood that proved once and for all that not everything is better when it’s deep fried. Many aficionados of southern cuisine like to make this claim, and I agree completely that many foods are better after being breaded and submerged in some hot lard. Ice cream, okra, and chittlins are a few that come to mind. I do, however, have to draw the line at deep fried Caesar salad, which is exactly what I ordered, smothered in warm Caesar dressing, from a festival vendor. Not recommended.
While we’re on the subject of deep frying, I was also very disappointed in the deep fried cotton candy I ordered at the very same event. In the hot grease, the cotton candy shrunk to the size of a ping pong ball, and with a similar consistency. It was handed to me on a napkin, covered in powdered sugar.
In the non-edible category (though perhaps everything on this list should be technically classified that way), a craft item that really missed the mark was something developed by a small family company that was already making handmade banjo case covers. They developed a cover large enough to fit over an entire banjo player. Even with a reasonable price of $79.99 (a bargain, considering the labor that went into the item), and a couple of prominent artist endorsements, the Banjo Kozy is always going to be a tough sell. I have to say, though, that I was impressed by the demonstration I watched. The Kozy fits snugly over most banjo players, designed to follow the contours of the standing musician, holding his or her banjo with the slightly hunched stance we all recognize. The manufacturers claim that it will keep most banjo players warm in the winter and cool in the summer in between shows, for up to six hours. They also claim that when the Kozy is removed, the banjo will be just as in tune as it was when the Kozy was put on. It’s available in short and tall sizes.
Finally, back to so-called food, what had to be my least favorite innovation in festival bakery offerings was something I tried that was billed as the Bill Monroe Chewy Donut. I liked the idea, but to me it just tasted like a really stale donut, and perhaps that’s what it was (it’s amazing the things you can pick up from the Krispy Kreme dumpster during a slow week). This hockey puck-like delicacy was so named for the alleged incident in which Bill Monroe ate a bagel for the first time and thought it was just an unweet, chewy donut.
This might be a good time to finally clear up this urban legend. The fact is that this incident, though it did take place, did not involve Bill Monroe at all. It was Pope Leo XIII, who, upon his first papal visit to the Holy Land, was served a bagel for the first time in a coffee shop, and was overheard to say: “Quod valde est chewy donut et non est aliquantulus dulce. Et quia omne bonum aut est capulus!” Or, loosely translated: “That’s the chewiest donut I ever ate, and it ain’t a bit sweet. The coffee’s none too good, either!”
Why this was attributed to Bill Monroe no one knows for sure.
To end on a positive note: In last week’s comments, Jon Weisberger reminded me of one of the great festival food discoveries a year or so ago at a southern California festival: The bacon-wrapped smoked sausage on a stick. Now that’s good festival eating! The vegetarian version: a stick.