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Savoring Chicago: Food festival is a window into the city's diverse palate

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 7:58 p.m. MDT

Taste of Chicago visitors admire Grant Park's Buckingham Fountain. It is one of the world's largest public fountains. (Stacey Kratz) Taste of Chicago visitors admire Grant Park's Buckingham Fountain. It is one of the world's largest public fountains. (Stacey Kratz)
CHICAGO — Utah's got lots of food-heavy festivities.
Salt Lake City's beloved Greek Festival, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple's Japanese Obon Festival and Snowbird's Oktoberfest come quickly to mind, as do the food-rich Living Traditions festival, the Utah Arts Festival, the downtown Farmers Market and numerous local fairs and parties that showcase our state's love of green Jell-O, Dutch ovens, home baking and the like.
And every one of them owes homage to the granddaddy of all food fests, Taste of Chicago. This annual bash of good eats, relaxation and entertainment captures everything great about this most quintessentially American of cities.
Visiting Chicago is like going to your hometown, only about 1,000 times bigger. It's cleaner than most big cities (if not cheaper), has a wonderfully walkable downtown and a no-nonsense, sensibly Midwestern approach to food. Though the city has its share of world-class gourmet eateries, it's most famous for perfecting the kinds of food regular folks eat.
Workers at the Eli's Cheesecake booth put berry topping on slices of cheesecake at this past summer's Taste of Chicago. Next year's event will take place June 27-July 6. (Stacey Kratz) Workers at the Eli's Cheesecake booth put berry topping on slices of cheesecake at this past summer's Taste of Chicago. Next year's event will take place June 27-July 6. (Stacey Kratz)
Nearly everything the typical tourist would want to see or do in Chicago (besides catching a Cubs game) is corralled in a cheerfully crowded downtown that borders Lake Michigan and also is home to Taste of Chicago.
First held in a three-block section of Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile, Taste of Chicago started in 1980 as a one-day event held on the Fourth of July.
But after enthusiastic response, organizers moved the next year's event to the more spacious environs of Grant Park, with its spectacular views of the city, Lake Michigan, the museum district and the park's own Buckingham Fountain, one of the largest water features in the world.
Since then, Taste, as the locals call it, has grown to 10 days with more than 70 food vendors; a "gourmet" tent; cooking demonstrations; classes on everything from gardening to home decor and fitness; free movies; celebrity appearances; a July 3 fireworks display rightly counted among the nation's best; and so much more that it's amazing they fit it all into just 10 days.
Street percussionists entertain the crowd outside one of the booths at the 2007 Taste of Chicago festival. (Stacey Kratz) Street percussionists entertain the crowd outside one of the booths at the 2007 Taste of Chicago festival. (Stacey Kratz)
Talk about your Midwestern efficiency.
But at its heart, Taste of Chicago remains centered on food — the kind of hearty, blue-collar food Chicago has made famous — with, of course, a few upscale flourishes.
Now's the time to plan a visit to the 2008 Taste of Chicago, which is scheduled to run June 27 to July 6 (see www.tasteofchicago.us). Hotel rooms in Chicago's downtown are scarce as hen's teeth during the festival, so booking well in advance will pay off.
When we visited the 2007 Taste of Chicago, we stayed at the downtown Hampton Inn & Suites, just a few blocks from the lake, Grant Park and other attractions. That meant we could leave our car safely parked (in a lot that, in typical major-metro fashion, cost almost $40 a day) and walk everywhere. But if you don't feel like walking, taxis are plentiful and, in this small downtown, not too expensive.
Grant Park, downtown, is where the Taste of Chicago event is held. (Stacey Kratz) Grant Park, downtown, is where the Taste of Chicago event is held. (Stacey Kratz)
Even during hot summer days, Chicago often is blessed with the lake-borne breezes that give this "Windy City" its nickname. Grant Park, Taste of Chicago's home just a street and pathway away from the lakefront, benefits from these gusts and also from the grand old shade trees lining most of its pathways.
We were amazed at the cleanliness of the park, which was packed with thousands of people wandering among the food booths and other attractions. There were garbage and recycling cans everywhere, a baby-changing station with free diapers and dozens of portable toilets with open-air handwashing stations.
It's also cheap: no cover charge and tickets that, at 11 for $7, work out to about 45 cents each. The most expensive item we saw cost eight tickets, or less than $4.
But we concentrated most of our tickets on the Taste items, which ranged from two to three tickets apiece for a small, two- or three-bite portion of a restaurant's specialty. This was a great strategy for us: Our tickets went further and we could try tons of different foods without getting too full.
Grant Park's Buckingham Fountain (Stacey Kratz) Grant Park's Buckingham Fountain (Stacey Kratz)
We had spicy vegetable samosas still hot and crisp from the fryer, mango cumin-dusted french fries with rich and sour tamarind chutney and miniature versions of buffalo burgers and breaded Italian-style steak sandwiches.
We had sloppy joes at the booth of the eponymously named Chicago Joe's, bites of world-famous Eli's cheesecake and jerk chicken with red beans and rice. And while the strains of a Chicago jazz band drifted through the trees, we blew our last eight tickets on a full-size frozen chocolate-covered banana and a big slab of walnut fudge, which we nibbled while walking from the Buckingham Fountain to the museum district.
As we walked, we passed families, groups of teenagers and urban sophisticates in huge dark sunglasses, all of them with that slightly dazed smile of satisfaction you normally see on people who've just eaten a really good Thanksgiving dinner.
Festivalgoers line up for a sloppy joe or another favorite from Chicago Joe's festival booth. (Stacey Kratz) Festivalgoers line up for a sloppy joe or another favorite from Chicago Joe's festival booth. (Stacey Kratz)
But even in their post-Taste of Chicago euphoria, nearly everyone remembered to throw away their wrappers. That's Chicago for ya.


Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: skratz@desnews.com

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