Confession: before last weekend, I had never been to a food festival. I’ve poured hundreds of cups of white gazpacho into plastic cups, topping each one with a fat pink shrimp, doling them out with a snappy spiel at a convention for chefs. I’ve (wo)manned olive oil tables and organic beet tables and kefir Popsicle tables at conferences, handed out glossy brochures at the Javits Center, yelled into a megaphone at a hot summer fair, announcing a pancake competition play-by-play (“And now he pours the maple syrup!”).
So when a friend asked if I’d like an extra VIP pass to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami, I said, “hell yes.” In the deepest, darkest February, I had lost all feeling in my fingers and toes, and sometimes my face. I would have gone to a basket-weaving festival in South Beach (maybe).
In Miami, people shivered in their ridiculous parkas and claimed it was “freezing.” Ha! What did they know? I broke out my sandals. I thawed. The sun felt rapturous on my shoulders. The turquoise waves fell upon each other in stupendous cascades. The air smelled of ocean and meat.
But this isn’t an essay about escaping New York in this mean-spirited winter. I was excited for the famed food festival, too. It was a grand affair, organized by the Food Network and the Cooking Channel and Food & Wine and a long list of other corporate sponsors, some culinary-centric (Kitchen Aid) and others, not so much (Buick). There was a long lineup of big-deal chefs and their entourages, who hosted hundreds of events — breakfasts, tastings, soirees, burger bashes, barbeques, classes, lectures, tiki parties, oyster extravaganzas, chocolate celebrations, seminars, after-parties, after-after-parties — and thousands of hungry, thirsty people who came to partake.
Sounds fun, right? That’s what I thought!
It wasn’t. Not really. Let me walk you through an event. I flash my fancy pass and bypass the line outside, which winds up the beach and onto the street and on and on. There are a lot of girls in bikinis, handing out shots in test tubes and water bottles and mini protein bars and tote bags. I take one of each.
My pass doesn’t help me navigate the mobs, or circumvent the next layer of eternal lines and more lines. So I wait.
The end of the line is anticlimactic. Often, the food disappoints. I understand — it’s not easy to make thousands of portions of something transportable and easily assembled, much less something delicious. The ribs are dry, the ceviche is chewy, the drink is all ice, scant cocktail.
A few dishes are truly awesome, like Najat Kaanache’s paella (she’s an El Bulli alumnus), served out of a giant pan, crisp with socorat, and sweet with plump head-on prawns and lobster knuckles. I try a cucumber soup that’s fresh and mellow and wonderfully cucumber-y, homemade crispy fritos rich with lard, and Serbian caviar heaped atop cauliflower panna cotta…the salt air smiles with me and life is very good.
But even when there’s a special dish, there’s no proper way to enjoy it; nowhere to sit, or even to stand. Want to dine with a drink? You’ll need a third arm.
A better bet: crashing an after-party. The crowd looks like a caricature of a Miami club: men in unbuttoned shirts and women wearing not much of anything, taking lots of selfies. The drinks are syrupy and overwrought; I sip a “One Night In Bangkok,” which involves lemongrass and egg whites. But I know a few people, which makes me feel less lame, and we sit in the corner, people-watching and laughing too loudly.
If I had shelled out hundreds of dollars, I would be pissed. For free, the whole thing was a totally acceptable way to spend a weekend. I’m happy to come home to New York, even to this tundra cold, and eat full plates of whatever I want, lounging about my apartment or a cozy restaurant, waiting in line only to buy my groceries, and only for a minute.