Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Weekend of Disappointments

I had such great expectations for this weekend....

Yesterday afternoon was a gorgeous spring day, warm and sunny without the oppressive humidity that comes later in the season and dominates the summer in North Carolina. I decided to spend part of the afternoon in Hillsborough at the annual Hog Days festival, which was wisely moved this year from its traditional late-June weekend to the 3rd weekend of May. Despite the gorgeous weather--or perhaps because of it?--this year's festival seemed to have only half as many visitors as last year's. While this meant shorter (or no) lines for food or at the various vendors, it also meant less support and exposure for the local businesses and nonprofits that had set up their tents, booths and concessions stands. Sadly, there seemed to be significantly fewer vendors this year as well, and I couldn't help but wonder if that meant that some of the folks who had brought their handmade soaps, jewelry, art and other crafts last year had since become casualties of the economy. Hopefully the reduction in festival size and attendance was due to the new date for the event, which also coincided with two much larger events in Raleigh (Artsplosure and the Got to be NC Festival--more on the latter later).

My biggest disappointment at Hog Days, however, was the BBQ that was offered for sale: As always, it was an amalgamation of the barbecue cooked by the competitors the night before. But unlike the tasty BBQ sandwich I enjoyed last year, this year's BBQ was completely lacking in any smoky flavor. Pit-cooked BBQ should have at least a hint of smoke. While the pork was moist, I couldn't discern any smokiness. The sauce used this year (already mixed into the pulled pork) was sweeter than what I personally prefer, and lacked spice or character. The nail in the coffin was the gigantic piece of gristle--not skin, but tough, inedible cartilage--that I had the misfortune of finding in my BBQ sandwich. Oh well, maybe next year will be better. At least the Orange County sheriff who gave me a "Junior Deputy Sheriff" star was a charming Southern gentleman who made me smile as I left the festival.

My second disappointment came today at the Got to be NC Festival in Raleigh. In contrast to Hillsborough Hog Days, this year's Got to be NC Festival was significantly expanded from last year's event, with more attractions for kids (carnival rides, farm animals to pet), more live entertainment (music and other acts/performances), more "fair foods" (a mini version of the State Fair), and a fantastic fish fry hosted by the Shriners. The lunch they served was the high point of my day: Hand-breaded fish and shrimp that were expertly fried so that they were tender and not greasy, plus creamy cole slaw, crispy sweet potato fries, and humongous round hushpuppies larger than golf balls, also perfectly fried without any greasiness. North Carolina agriculture at its finest was on display, both in terms of animals and produce. The "Fiberfest" was fascinating, with a multitude of yarns & clothing made from sheep's wool, alpaca, and even rabbit and bison hair. Spinners and tatters were demonstrating their respective crafts while I walked the area.

The main attraction for me, however, was the NC Food & Wine Expo, which charged a $2 admission this year. Perhaps that's why the building felt less-crowded than last year's event. I enjoyed saying hello to some of the great folks I have the pleasure of doing business with, including Scott Granai of Outta the Park BBQ Sauce and Pluto who makes Pluto's Caribbean Bliss Spice Blends. I was encouraged to see so many new food businesses at the festival this year, and the samples I tasted ranged from quite good to superb. My disappointment, however, was in how few people were actually buying any of the wonderful North Carolina products that were being sampled and displayed. While nearly everyone seemed to be partaking of the free samples, hardly anyone was purchasing any of the products. I was quite disappointed, especially since this year's festival focus seemed to be "buy local" and yet people weren't putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak. With all the talk these days about "buying local" and supporting small farms and businesses, I would have expected more actual support--rather than mere lip service--for the hardworking local food companies participating in this year's festival.

My final disappointment this weekend came tonight, and admittedly it's a trivial one, and most likely only temporary. I had such high hopes for the sublimely delicious recipe I had planned as part of tonight's dinner, and I was convinced that it would prove to be an excellent recipe to post on this blog. After all, how could anyone--much less a pretty decent creative cook like myself--go wrong with ingredients like bacon, baby squash, fresh asparagus, sundried tomatoes, garlic, feta cheese and red wine, among others? Well, I did go wrong. While the end result was perfectly edible, it was far from visually appealing, and the texture was all wrong (soggy squash is not my cup of tea). So, rather than posting a wonderful new recipe tonight, I've suffered a minor blow to my epicurean ego and will need to go back to the drawing board (or stove) before I share the recipe that I had hoped to post tonight.

Although my weekend didn't quite live up to its expectations, at least it was enjoyable--and the world didn't end on Saturday, so I get to keep experimenting in the kitchen next weekend!

Zestfully yours,

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