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Postcards from the Windy City - A Taste of Chicago


By Abby Stocker

Fri, Jul 19th, 2013
Posted in All Columnists



Dear Readers,

This week I went to Chicago.

I felt very hip, very urban as I boarded the Metra commuter train and headed downtown to meet a friend. Our destination? Taste of Chicago, an outdoor food festival which ChooseChicago.com promises is “the quintessential summer event in the city” and “appeals to all the senses.” When I told my coworkers my weekend plans, 100 percent of responses included “lots of people” or “hope you enjoy crowds.” And no wonder; the Chicago mayor’s office estimated that 1.5 million people stopped by the five-day event this year. Simply put, since Taste started in 1980, it has become a really big deal.

Sense one, sound: the Metra whistling in classic train fashion as we sped to Union Station. The elevated train, or L, thundering as it careened on its thin track over the downtown traffic. As my friend and I snaked through traffic looking for parking, car horns honked and tires and brakes squealed. Despite the chaos, I discovered I love the energy of public transit.

Parking secured, we walked several blocks to the Taste itself, passed security guards, and wandered the two-some blocks of food vendors, trying to select among the more than 40 options. Want Chicago hot dogs? They’ve got ‘em. Salsa bar or fresh fruit? Got those too. Vietnamese, Polish, African, Thai? Check all four.

Sense two, sight: yes, there were crowds. But they weren’t oppressive. Busy enough that you could easily get separated from your companions; open enough to walk two-by-two and still have space to breathe.

Besides, I’d be disappointed not to see downtown Chicago, of all places, filled with people. They buzzed about wearing all colors while all sorts of foods entered their happy mouths. Local restaurants temporarily occupied tents (some simple white, others elaborate fruit stands or tiny Italian villas) along the length of blocked-off street in Grant Park. (If you’ve been to the Bean, you were close: Grant is right next to Millennium Park.)

Sense three, smell: sun baking everything—sidewalk, people, food. Trash. Wind off the water, smelling slightly salty. Almost like the Minnesota State Fair.

We eventually met up with a friend of a friend to attend one of the many concerts that grace the Grant Park stage during Taste. In addition to kids’ games and chef demonstrations, Taste brings in fairly big-name bands. This year’s opening night act was Fun. Entertainment continues on two stages, one at either end of the stretch of food. We heard the Lone Bellow, a pop band with an occasionally acoustic sound and a favorite of my friends.

Sense four, touch: the grass as we lounged on the lawn. Trying to avoid touching other people, who filled the green space fronting the stage. Touching cool cups of iced tea: relief from the heat.

So what did I eat? I mostly sampled, purchasing the “tastes” of various items rather than the full portions to stretch my food tickets further. A frozen banana dipped in chocolate (on a stick); a slice of watermelon that ran, juicy, down my chin; tastes of juice and iced tea; a bite of my friend’s guava Thai noodles; and a slice of cheese pizza.

Sense five, taste: of full-bodied Chicago deep dish pizza that overwhelmed my mouth with melty cheese and warm tomatoes. Of warm summer weather, nostalgic pop music with new friends on the expansive lawn, with yes, crowds. Of public transportation, and the lives of so many people in this bustling city who use the Metra every day to get to work. Most of all, a taste of Chicago and its summertime festivities. A taste of its people, who live and visit here and make the city what it is. The Taste may be facing decreasing attendance and dropping revenue in recent years, but Wikipedia still calls it the largest festival in Chicago. And as I’ve mentioned before, notably after attending the Glen Ellyn Cardboard Regatta, I like local flavor. I come from a place with plenty of flavor of its own. This week, that local flavor was Taste of Chicago. Can’t wait for my next taste of the city.

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