I used to be a young kid with a whole bunch of energy. From the ages of 16-24, most of my free time was spent going to punk rock shows. I’ve lived in the pit and emerged unscathed (most of the time). I can be sure that there was a change in the tide around 2005 when I slowed my concert attendance. I honestly believe that’s when my favorite genres of music started going stale. There are still great bands out there, but for me, they either aren’t fun to see live, don’t put out new music, don’t play near me regularly or they stopped touring all together. That was also the time that food programming and food and drink based personalities began to gain popularity. They became household names in the American psyche. I’m sure many of you could rattle off a dozen names no problem. Now we have food based shows on their own networks running 24/7. Chances are some of you may have just stopped watching Master Chef Junior Jr. to read this masterpiece. Anyway, at that same time, I became more and more interested in food culture, studying technique and becoming a fan boy to just about every great cook out there. Now there’s a circuit across the country of festivals and special events where chefs can promote themselves like a band through demos, interviews or exclusive dinners.
Disney as I know it, is not about jumping on the bandwagon. They are about being on the forefront of innovation and trend. That’s why they have long since created what should be viewed as the Space Mountain of Food And Wine Festivals. Their annual fall time parade for the senses usually runs for about a month and a half, right when fall hits at the Epcot world showcase in Walt Disney World. If memory serves me correctly, this is the 18th year running, and it could quite possibly be the largest yet, as I witnessed on my first day.
What should you expect? In two words, sensory overload. The crowds can be daunting if you’re not used to swimming your way through a mosh pit like a king salmon on its way upstream to produce its delicious roe. In my experience over the past decade and a half, they’ve never run out of a single menu item, ever. I can’t compute how they keep the quality at such a high level given how quickly they move through the incredibly long lines.
I would advise you to do a bit of research, especially if you’re on a budget. Figure out how much you can spend per person. For example if $30 a person is your goal, you’re of age and chose to drink, your experience might consist of 4-5 different samplings of food and a couple tastings of wine or beer. Print out a guide, or get one from the front and begin mapping out a strategy. Try and pick some stuff that you can’t get where you live. I think you’ll be pleased by some of the more exotic offerings. As you wade into the fray, you have two options, right or left? I always have a phantom inclination to go left when I’m at Epcot. Maybe its science, I should ask Figment. In any case, my intuition served me well.
The first stall I visited was inspired by Brazil. Each booth has 2-4 food choices and a couple of drinks as well. Most of which are indigenous to the theme country. I chose based on pressure from my good friend Jeff Houck, the crispy pork belly with avocado on a mattress of thickened black beans. Listening to your peers pays off people. Jeff’s play calling was brilliant, reminiscent of Weeb Ewbank in Super Bowl III. The belly was indeed crispy, yet it had been cooked for almost a full work week so that the fat had rendered away just enough to keep my wife interested. She doesn’t like her bacon too fatty. It was rich and tender and was a wonderful contrast to all the vibrant flavor surrounding it. I would take my advice through Jeff’s advice. Make an all out ground assault on Brazil. Attack the belly!
At this point, I was searching for some Seoul food, by way of the infamous kimchi dog. The addition of Korea to Food and Wine’s stable of countries couldn’t have come at a better time, as I am presently embroiled in a public love affair with Korean cuisine. Meeting the kimchi dog was a premeditated rendevous I have no shame admitting. This might seem to be a normal looking hot dog at a first glance. When you dig into the meat, so to speak, you’ll find all those familiar tastes synonymous to the region. Spicy of course, as there is kimchi throughout, in the meat, in the slaw, in the mustard sauce, on my shirt. The bun and the encased meat lends itself to the sweeter side. Even though this is a festival for the public, you still have a touch of the Tyramine effect from the slightly fermented cabbage. Don’t be off put, it’s a wonderful sensation!
It didn’t take long, once I’d cleaned my shirt, to stumble upon the cheese tent. They offered a selection of cheeses, some of which we might discuss at a later date. I completely overlooked the almond crusted soufflé paired with fig jam. For three bucks, How could I pass it up? I waited in a shorter line than normal, getting looks at what everyone else was leaving with. At least 10 cheese courses flew by with little samples of Disney themed wines. I can’t remember the names, maybe one was Snow White Zinfindel or something. Write that down, I may need to get a trademark! I didn’t see anyone else order the soufflé, so I began to curb my excitement, as there have been a misstep in my future. After I found a quiet spot to take my first bite, I found a little old lady eating a soufflé by herself. I asked what she thought of it. She said in a sweety pie southern accent “I didn’t realize it had blue cheese when I ordered it, otherwise, I wouldn’t have”, but did she like it or not? Who cares if it was a mistake or planned, right? “I loved it! One of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten, but it was mighty tasty”. I couldn’t have agreed more. Approach this soufflé as more of the crustless quiche that it is.
I made a conscious effort to stop at four dishes this trip because I knew I’d be back before long. So for my last dish, I set my coordinates to Belgium, arriving close to dusk. The sun was fading but the crowds were growing. Rock moms were flooding the walkways and food stalls, perhaps hoping Ken Block might make a surprise appearance. Upon our arrival in Belgium, I presented my papers and promptly joined the longest line of the day. If the Belgians know how to make one thing right…, it’s frites. But if the Belgiumese know how to make a second thing well, waffles or gaufres would solidify the number 2 spot. People were going waffle crazy, with three different variations, two sweet, one savory. I went rogue, trying my hand at a mashed potato and leek waffle topped with braised beef and a smattering of salty butter. I never thought of taking mashed potatoes and wafflizing them. I have had savory waffles many times, but not like this. It was a testament to creative thinking.
There’s so much good stuff to be had at this festival, and as I said before, no matter the crowd size, they’ve never run out of food or drink on me. Besides the obvious quality in product Disney is always going to be known for, to me, that is the most impressive part of the whole event.
You can be a fan of food, wine, beer or a combination of all three like me, and have a blast. Our culture is evolving to include these kinds of gatherings to attract just as many people as the traveling musical festivals that have grown stale. Maybe I’m getting too old to be in a circle pit, or maybe it’s because it’s easier to bring the family.
Stay tuned next week as the boys of Eat a Duck sink their teeth into a food filled day two at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival! If you want to plan your own outing, the festival runs through November 11th, so there’s plenty of time!