The Tucson Homeskillet reports on the AZ Bacon Festival.
Bacon is mutilation!
So far the third installment of the Arizona Bacon Fest (http://www.arizonabaconfest.net) was off to a good start as that was the first thing we heard when we exited the car. Expecting to see a rag tag group of pasty protesters, gallant in their blonde dreadlocks and a reeking of a backlash decade’s long soy bender, what I got was a small group of tanned folk, ethnicity unknown as I was walking too fast to get a fair glimpse, dressed in what appeared to be their Sunday best or perhaps a fancy day out at their local Wal-Mart. I didn’t get it. I mean, I understand your convictions of consuming delicious meat, ripped and torn un-voluntarily from penned dumb animals and sold for our general consumption at your local market, but, jeeze man….this is the Bacon Festival. In Arizona mind you. Wild banditos and bikers high on methane and cheap swill don’t take kindly to piddly antics coming from fairly well dressed protesters such as yourselves. It was a good thing that the small band of baconphobes were slightly hidden and yelling their beliefs from behind the shells of 1980 era Chevys, hopefully knowing darn well that some muscle freak named Toad would not take kindly someone demeaning his favorite snack and his sweaty meat rage would take effect and a beating to those who think that collecting honey from bees is somehow a form of “rape” would be a most unpleasant yet fulfilling sight.
So we kept on, me yelling the slightly rude “Tasty, tasty mutilation!”, as we grabbed our passes and made our way into the cured pork fray.
|Let's do this!|
This year’s AZ Bacon Fest was held at Kino Park (http://www.kinosportscomplex.com, 2500 E Ajo Way, Tucson, AZ) which is usually home to the baseball team the Tucson Padres; a team so feared and admired at the same time that at one instance they managed to sell out almost half the stadium when they played a likeminded team from Las Vegas. It was a veritable shut out, 1-2, with the Padres winning and a crowd member went mildly wild seeing as he had some cash riding on the event and his bar tab was close to $100. It’s a very green field. Not just the grass but it’s the seats, the backboards and a sort of “green monster” tribute, giving nod to an actual baseball field to an actual baseball team out in the reaches of Boston.
When we arrived a few minutes after the doors opened at 6pm, the field view from the top tier made it appear sparse with attendees. We could see the perimeter of the field lined with food and beer vendors, we could hear the echoing strains of a band covering “You Can Go Your Own Way” and the tented VIP area in the center filled with food judges and those that shelled out $125 to sit in said area who also received a special beer holder that you wrap around your neck allowing you to eat freely while not having to juggle your beer sample or, god forbid, put it on the ground for a second. But as we descended the steep stairs through the seats and bleachers, which were already dotted with large people that couldn’t complete the lengthy jaunt (this is a bacon festival keep in mind, Jillian Michaels did not RSVP I take it) or those that were already too drunk to stand erect on a soft grassy field. Which got me to thinking: Did folks actually pre-party before coming to the Bacon Festival, a place where free beer is doled out at every other kiosk? That would be madness. That is the same mentality as doing a bunch of blow before entering the great Illinois Cocaine Jamboree, an event where you literally stand on a giant mirror, are handed a straw that can extend up to 5 feet and Roombas set on ‘reverse’ that poop out fat lines all night long and food vendors have been replaced by chew toys and the band covers nothing but death metal.
|Bacon wrapped shrimp...we're off to a promising start|
The crowd was bigger than I had anticipated, a thick maw of Tucson’s finest, Tucson’s service industry that got free tickets and dotted with those that seemed to have saved up for this because at $50 a pop just to get in, there sure were a lot of bad faded tattoos, scruffy midriffs, neo-gangster attire and confused looks as to what to do or where to go. Most of them congregated in tight groups, holding desperately onto their 2oz plastic beer mugs, shivering from a gusty late afternoon breeze asking each other what ‘pork belly’ was.
|Well...this line isn't too bad. I guess.|
“It’s like bacon,” I overheard one dude say wearing an Insane Clown Posse shirt. “Only different. It’s sort of like bacon, but on a different level.”
He was right actually. It’s the same region here in America, but it is a completely different cut and cure method. Then I got the food knowledge shivers. Is everything here at the “Bacon Festival” going to be pork belly, that fatty and trendy pork product that neo-hipsters put in everything? Even before trying anything I started to get upset. So I calmed myself down, got us two beers and stood in line for…something.
|That's not pork belly is it? It's bacon! Yes please...|
That was one of the first things we noticed: We really didn’t know who was here and what they were serving. Sure on the website they give a few hints, like Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ, Lindy’s and Augustin Kitchen, but there were clearly more than the ten or so restaurants lining the stadium than was listed on the homepage. A map would have been nice. It became clear, quite quickly, that attendees were subject to their own plight and would just have to stand in line to see what was at the other end.
|We were lucky to get food from these guys. So good...|
As we scanned the whole festival that was another factor that we were hit with: Lines. The whole field was awash with people standing there trying to get a gaze as to what they were queueing up for in the first place. My initial impression of the Bacon Festival was that of one filled with open pits of fire, large manly grills sizzling with twisting meats and bacon literally filling the Southern Arizona sky as patrons partook in an orgy of cured pork gastronomy and got high from the levels of smoke and smoke brined flesh and fat that would eventually give them a sweaty hangover for days to come.
Nope. Just lines.
After grabbing a much needed beer from the Sierra Nevada booth (http://www.sierranevada.com) we were lucky to find a food tent that wasn’t too busy. Unfortunately they were too busy playing catch up on their food samples to tell me who they were and what they were serving up, seeing as there was no signage indicating such, we grabbed a cup of whatever they were dishing up and dug in. Mind you, there isn’t a whole lot of “digging in” since these are just samples and tastings of their wares but….you get the picture.
|Delicious mystery bacon soup from a mysterious vendor|
It was a spicy and really delicious bean and bacon soup with huge cuts of the meat sticking out of the tasty broth. Oh man. Nevermind what I was just thinking. If the food at the Bacon Festival is in this ilk, then we are going to be fine. Man it was tasty. So much that we went back for seconds. Who are these guys?
Next up we found a quaint and slightly busier venture called Evolve that were serving up some bacon wrapped burger realness. Again, the taste and quality was amazing. The bacon that surrounded the ground chuck was thick and dripping on my hands with pork fatty goodness. Like the first booth we ate from, I wanted seconds but the burgers were going fast seeing as more and more people were walking down the steps and onto the field. At 6:30pm, the Bacon festival was starting to get busy.
|Chef Jay layin' it down...|
Luckily I had a chance to speak with the owner of Evolve, Chef Jay, who informed me that they are a new startup and plan on changing the way we eat locally here in Tucson, especially with the meat. That’s a tall order seeing as our fair and dusty little hamlet is already a boon to the “farm to fork” concept with our thriving local merchants, seed libraries, orchards, co-ops and so on. But I had to give props to Chef Jay as his burger concept was one of the best I have had in Tucson. Then he scampered off because they were running out of food and the line was growing longer.
Just as we were coming down from our pre-conceived judging of the event after ingesting a few delicious samples of food, we were immediately met with another obvious oversight.
|This was only the beginning...|
There was literally one trash barrel to every, say, three to four vendors, all of which were cranking out samples of food and beer at a, now, alarming rate. It was as if we had to play Trash Jenga to not litter the grounds so much. I was actually impressed at the levels of balance ingenuity the eaters and drinkers had at this stage. But it would only get worse and by close to 7pm, Kino Stadium was pretty packed.
At this still fairly early stage of the event, the grounds were now a swirling mélange of bacon goers and the lines were teetering on the idea of ludicrous speed. So much in fact we would just walk up to the table and ask what they were serving up before enduring a tummy grumbling wait.
“Well, what we have for you today is a pork belly…”
“Today we are serving up a pork infused….”
“This is a pork belly terrine with…”
And, my personal favorite: “This is a pulled pork sandwich.”
That’s it? Is it mixed with bacon? Is there a bacon jam? Is the sauce a sort of bacon marinade? Tell me kind sir….is there bacon in your pulled pork sandwich?
A dead stare. “No.”
|Another line? C'mon!|
So people are waiting for at least a half hour, if not more, to bite into something that isn’t even mingled or even near bacon. At a bacon festival. Unreal. Pork does not automatically equal bacon, especially pork belly. What was most disappointing was a Tucson favorite helmed by a local “celebrity” chef that were handing out tiny pork belly banh mi sandwiches. Now, this came as a particularly funny prospect as I had just written an article on the banh mi sandwich (a Vietnamese creation featuring a savory protein, usually pork, ironically, on a soft roll including jalapenos, cilantro and the like) and more than half of the restaurants that I featured in banh mi piece used pork belly. It got boring really quick. So it felt to me that this hot shot chef was all, “Oh. Bacon fest. Again? So soon? Okay, um…what’s everyone else doing? Pork belly? Sounds good. What’s that popular brunch place do with pork belly? A banh mi! Let’s do that…”
|This is getting ridiculous...|
Then this started happening.
|Wait. We just got here.|
At around the7:30/8pm mark, almost half of the vendors went dark due to running out of food. I really wanted to try a jalapeno bacon sushi roll but they were dry. There was yet another that was already packing it in because they had made a few hundred samples of some bacon….thing, and sold out. Did the vendors not keep up with ticket sales or was the “Bacon Festival” the sort of food-served-for-an-hour-then-its-all-beer-drinking-from-there type of congress? I couldn’t figure it out.
|It sounded good but....oh well.|
Stopping by the ever amazing Lindy’s (http://www.lo4th.com, 431 N 4th Ave, Tucson, AZ) I found the owner and namesake Tweeting on his phone.
“Dude,” Lindy said, “I had fifteen hundred bacon wrapped pork Sonoran hot dogs…we sold out in an hour. Unreal.”
1500 Sonoran dogs. I don’t blame Lindy at all because that sounds prepared. Obviously when folks hit the turf they ran to where they knew they would get their money’s worth but those that even lagged a bit behind were met with the man himself Instagraming his success and amazement at the rapid rate his wares were handed out and then gone.
|Lindy posting about his 1500 samples gone in an hour|
Luckily I did get to try the crabcakes with bacon aioli from Elliott’s (http://elliottsoncongress.com, 135 E. Congress Street Tucson, AZ) and Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ (http://www.mamashawaiianbbq.com, various locations across Arizona) which served up a tropical bacon wrapped pineapple feat, both of which were entirely delicious, savory and, thankfully, available.
|Elliott's crabcakes with bacon aioli was bomb|
Okay, now that I had a bit of food in me and a few more beers, I started to settle down and relax. Sure it was crowded, sure the band was meandering on in A.M. lite rock expectancy and, yeah, a bunch of restaurants and food emporiums were shutting down, but it was a beautiful night, I ran into a few friends and my meat and beer buzz was afloat so I decided to ride out the rest of the festival with judgment free aplomb.
But that ended rather quickly.
The crowd, who for the most part appeared to be the Bud/Miller/Coors Lite drinking mob, were subject to sucking down beer that was far and above the 2 or 3% ABV (alcohol by volume) they were used to. Most of the beer they were sampling were in the 7 to 9% APV and the effects were starting to reveal itself.
|I can't believe my favorite brewery and beer was here!|
They were getting louder. Some were falling down. Other retreated to the seats to pass out. There was some bro-tastic yelling and their dates yodeling the obligatory “Wooo!” As darkness approached, the seething mass was gurgling with apparent intoxication and now the Bacon Festival had transformed itself into a Beer Farts and Caterwauling Extravaganza. Leather garbed bikers emerged from out of nowhere asking “I wonder if there’s bacon beer!” Only later did I find the Harley Davidson tent so I’m sure certain “clubs” were given free passes and now they cohabitated, briefly, with fraternal drunkards that swayed in the gentle night air and to the band squeaking out a version of “Night Moves”.
|Do you know any Slayer?|
Then through the night sky, a cloud emerged. At first I thought it could be Tucson’s lazy ruling on pot smoking laws….but no. It was the terrible whiff of cheap cigars, coming from somewhere in the center lanes. Walking by there I found a vendor selling El Ropo style cigars to beer soaked wannabe mack daddy kids that think by donning a smoldering turd in your mouth you are automatically a playa in a rap video being shot in slow motion. Mixed with piling trash, beer puke and desperation, the smell had overcome my short lived giddy mood and I knew the time had come to call it.
We mashed our way out, giving away our unused beer tickets to random friends that we passed and were eventually set free in the glorious fresh air above the regaling territory below.
|Bye buster Felicia...|
“See you next year!” toned one of the gate keepers in a chittery inflection as we exited. I’m not too sure about that, I thought to myself.
The Arizona Bacon Festival isn’t terrible, but it is a work in progress. Obviously the good people of Tucson and the surrounding areas are willing to shell out a good amount of hard earned dough to eat fatty pork products and drink endless supplies of stiff ales and lagers, but the execution that we were witness to needs a bit of stitching up.
|I can't explain the terror we felt.|
Vendors need to step up their supply game and work in communicating with the organizers. Staff up the event, hire volunteers and for craps sake get more trash cans. I mean, for real. There were times where it felt we were in the middle of a garbage strike and to deal with the grim reality of smelly piles all around us those in power decided to throw a bar-be-que and beer picnic to ease the pain. It wasn’t bad it just wasn’t…great. Maybe next year as the lady had prescribed to us.
Maybe next year.
Luckily there was an In-N-Out on the way home and consuming a double-double made things right. But to leave a bacon carnival hungry? C’mon. I just wished there was more pork in my belly when we left.
Wait a minute….
Camera and Typing by
Cannibal Corpse, "Eaten Back To Life"
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