Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Picnic to Remember

County fairs aren't really my thing. The rows upon rows of apple pies and jam jars and foppishly coifed horses awaiting inspection seem a bit silly to me. And the petty dramas (will Mrs. Finnywick win the home preserves competition this year, or will the upstart Mrs. Winndefrock take the ribbon?) aren't my thing either. I grew up in the suburbs and now I live in the city and my mother never made jam, so I've always envisioned county fairs as a very rural, very Norman Rockwell thing. (That said, I did see a pretty good Guess Who concert at the San Mateo County Fair a few years ago...)

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw fliers for the "San Francisco Giants County Fair" posted along the Embarcadero right here in cosmopolitan San Francisco! Not only would there be ferris wheels and funnel cakes, but there would be an "Urban Eats" tent sponsored by CUESA with competitions for the best harvest basket, best homemade jam, best city-raised chicken eggs. That was more my style, and a great way to give urban food producers a taste of good old fashioned community.

Read on to see how things didn't work out quite the way I expected...

I wanted most to compete in the harvest basket competition, but nothing in my garden was nearing ripeness, so I settled on one of the more interesting categories: the seasonal picnic basket for two. It looked like the kind of thing we might be good at, so Tiffany and I set to work developing a menu of classic picnic dishes with a California/Mediterranean twist that would feature organic June produce available in the city's farmer's markets. We came up with the following:

Chicken Salad Sandwiches:
Grilled chicken tossed in salsa verde with radishes and artichoke hearts on a homemade pretzel roll.

Carrot Salad:
Roast baby carrots and snap peas with mint and scallions.

Potato Salad:
Roast potatoes and cauliflower tossed with capers, onions and olive oil.

Spicy frozen blueberry juice, with lime juice and cayenne pepper.

The salads were cribbed from recipes in Nate Appleman's A16 Food+Wine, and the juice was from Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen. We've created a PDF copy of the packet we submitted for judging with the recipes for all of the dishes, which you can download here. The next step was to pack and present everything. We decided to use half-pint mason jars to pack things in individual portions and to reduce waste by eliminating the need for paper plates or cups. We stayed up late getting things just right, making the basket beautiful, and writing up recipes and sourcing information for all of the produce. We crossed our fingers and hoped that our hard work would go rewarded the next day...
...and I'm happy to say we won! In fact, ours was the only entry. In fact, the whole fair did turn out to be a bit of a disappointment. There were only a few entries in each section and things were looking pretty lonely. And the worst part was that everything was completely untouched: the jars were unopened, the pies were pristine, and our sandwiches were unopened! All that work adjusting the salt in the potatoes and making sure the chicken salad wasn't too oily went to waste, because the judges didn't want to "spoil the presentation"! Given that we laid out almost $35 at the Ferry Building farmer's market (rather that our usual, more populist Alemany) and lost some sleep to boot, it was a real disappointment. (But two Giant's tickets, $5 in credit to the CUESA farmer's market and a new Giant's hat were all nice prizes.)

I suppose that's the way that a lot of county fairs work, and it's an admirable attempt to create a community around urban food producers, but it seems a waste of effort on the competitor's part and a waste of opportunity on theirs. Nothing seems to confirm the idea idea that organic food is not a viable, everyday option for ordinary people more than putting beautiful, unopened food on display. Perhaps the "Boss of the Sauce" competition, which pits North Beach Italian restaurants against each other to discover the best pasta sauce in the city, would be a good template. At "Boss" the first 100 hundred audience members to get to the event get to be judges! We did it a few years ago and it was great fun (Emmy's Spaghetti Shack and Zuppa were our favorites, by the way).

Either way, we're glad to have had the chance to show off our skills and hope that this idea catches on like wildfire. Imagine a combination Boss of the Sauce, Maker's Faire, County Fair and BBQ competition... kinda makes you feel like eating right?! Hopefully we'll see enough interest in this kind of idea to see it blow up and rejuvenate the county fair scene, until then we'll be the ones with the fancy picnic basket, trying to figure out how to smuggle out a snack of spicy blueberry juice and chicken salad without the judges noticing!

1 comments: said...

Oh no! How disappointing that all that effort went to waste. But good for you for trying, in the long run, that's all that matters, right? I applaud you regardless. And I am quite envious that you live in San Francisco. I love that area. My sister lives in Novato nearby but I haven't been out to visit in years!