Sunday, July 4, 2010

Review: Taste of Minnesota

I'd always wanted to go to the Taste of Minnesota, but I had never attended it before. I somehow ended up making plans far away from St. Paul every year on that weekend. This year, I wanted to put it on my calendar as soon as possible so I wouldn't forget it.

That idea was promptly shattered when I read that admission would cost $30, instead of being free or the measly $10 it was to enter last year. My reasoning for not going was that the ticket pricing means either the festival is doing really well and would be too crowded for my sociophobic tendencies, or its doing not so well and organizers are trying to make up for something.

Then two things happened: My travel plans for this weekend fell through and two free admission tickets to the Taste of Minnesota landed in my lap. Was it destiny? I wasn't sure what to expect, but such serendipitous circumstances maybe gave me the impression that I was about to have a truly memorable experience revolving around two of my favorite things: Music and food.

On Friday, July 2nd, 2010, I went to the Taste of Minnesota at Harriet Island in St. Paul, Minnesota, and there was music and food, but I wouldn't say that my experience was particularly memorable. Part of that had to do with something entirely out of the festival's control, and that was the very warm weather with a high of 87 degrees. But most of my disappointing experience rested with the heart and soul of the Taste: the food itself.

When one hears of a festival called “Taste of _____,” it is expected that one will find many food items there that are representative of the local community. Though the most of the vendors there were uniquely Minnesotan, what was on the menu was not. Put most bluntly, this year’s Taste of Minnesota could have been called Taste of Any County & State Fair Anywhere. There were hot dogs, corn dogs, French fries and pizza galore, but you can get that at practically any festival. There were also major chains there like Famous Dave’s, Joe’s Crab Shack, and Bubba Gump, but those were places I have already been to before – I wanted to be exposed to new food choices!

Northwoods Steak Buffet held promise, but they were basically just serving fries and blooming onions. Bennett’s Chop & Rail House served the same but also offered pork chop on a stick. Liffey Irish Pub at first sounded tempting, but was only serving fish, chips (fries), or fish and chips. Booth after booth offered burgers, mini donuts, and ice cream; few had any imagination. The Pioneer Press was dead wrong with its headline touting that the Taste of Minnesota had gone upscale.

There were some winners, though. The 5-8 Grill was there, serving up Juicy Lucy’s and Pig Pens. Edina’s CRAVE and Minneapolis’ SEVEN offered sushi, but the latter kicked in tasty hand-carved beef sandwiches. Vero Pizza was serving pizza, but it was deliciously coal-fired, not made in a normal oven. These were the types of unique foods I was looking for, not the same old run-of-the-mill fair food that saturates the summer festival season.

Another big winner was a booth selling something called Cream Cheese Comets. They were basically large cream cheese wontons filled with flavored fillings, the options being cinnamon-sugar or strawberry. They were so good, we came back to the booth for another strawberry comet!

I liked that the Taste of Minnesota was making a sincere attempt at managing the incredible amount of waste such an event produces. In addition to recycling stations that accepted aluminum cans and plastic bottles, there were organic recycling bins accepting paper and wood products. The only trouble was that some vendors were distributing food in items that didn't meet the recycling or organic waste specifications. One had to seriously look for a trash bin in which to place these items.

The musical entertainment was great! We caught the bands Minus the Bear and The Walkmen on the main stage. Dawes and James Hunter were playing at the City Pages Big Music Tent. Willie Murphy Band was rocking the Red House Records & KFAI Stage. Kids from The School of Rock were jamming at the Stage.

There were also other forms of entertainment, like ballet and belly dancers at the Circus Suventas, a tent with record spinning deejays, and a ramp where BMX tricksters defied gravity on their bikes. There was even a cooking demonstration where some chefs made sumptuous looking ravioli with some sort of cream-based sauce. This last bit of entertainment made me wonder why there weren’t more creative menus among the Taste of Minnesota participants – bringing the cooking technology needed to make such creations obviously was not the issue.

By the time 7:00 rolled around, the real drawbacks to the festival’s various payment systems were detracting from our experience. First were the admission tickets, which were tiered – pre-purchased $20 tickets had to be redeemed by 4:00 or we would have to pay the $30 gate price. We showed up as close to that time as we could, but after three hours of intense heat with shade providing little comfort the weather was taking its toll on us. We were intensely thirsty, which led to the next trouble involving the food and beverage tickets that had to be purchased at the gate. Food vendors didn’t take cash, they took “tickets” that could be bought in packs of eight for $5, which was smart in that the vendors didn’t have to worry about large sums of money, but discouraging once we ran out of tickets. It was almost two hours to the show we really wanted to see, Atmosphere, and we had already basically seen all we were going to see, eaten all we were going to eat, and drank all we were to have drunk (which wasn’t much, considering we had to shell out $3 for armbands just for the privilege to drink in addition to the equivalent of $6.25 per 12 ounce, tasty Summit beer).

We heard P.O.S. as we were leaving. We were hot and bored with the equivalent of no money, surrounded by beer and food we couldn’t drink, waiting for a musical act that felt like an eternity away. Even so, many of the booths were already closing for reasons we didn't quite understand. Had we actually paid for our admission tickets, we might have made a bigger attempt to stick around for Atmosphere, though I imagine we’d have been too tired and heat-stroked to enjoy it much. Because we left when we did, we could say that we had a pleasant time at the Taste of Minnesota despite missing the last concert - Atmosphere will be back in due time! Scorching weather notwithstanding, we could also say that given the run-of-the-mill food offerings, we probably won’t feel the need to attend the Taste of Minnesota again.

Photos from the Taste of Minnesota.

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