Well, we’re back. And we’re exhausted. As there is every year, there is just waaaayyyyy too much to see, do, eat, drink and tell that it gets hard to sort it all out. But since it’s still fresh in my mind and I have some rather strong impressions, I figured I’d give it a try with this list.
#1 – Jersey craft beer is coming into its own, just like (or maybe even sooner than) Jersey wines. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have experienced the “New Jersey Says ‘Drink My Beer'” event. Picture this: a rooftop, poolside terrace under the stars (Caesar’s “Spa Deck” and new dance club, Suite 7400), more than 10 Jersey breweries pouring freely (such as Tuckahoe, Turtle Stone, Boaks, Flying Fish, etc.), and little snacks being passed about, such as marinated grilled prawns and ceviche. And unlike the Beer Festival, no lines. Gary Monterosso, a sweetheart of a man and a walking encyclopedia of beer knowledge, was on hand to MC and chat all things beer. The highlight of my night was listening to his stories about the late beer master, Michael Jackson (and no, I ain’t talking about the late King of Pop). The next day, local Jersey and Philly BBQ masters strutted their stuff, alongside those same brewers at the “Blues, Brews, and BBQ” event. Though I like Paula Deen and her emceeing was great to watch, the spotlight really was on the local food and fabulous beers- half of which were from the Garden State. Turtle Stone’s American Stout and Tuckahoe’s Smoked Porter were pairings that put me in BBQ heaven. Also overheard at the fest was a very happy rumor of another big AC beer event (and I mean BIG) in the works. I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, but I just love causing anticipation and unrest. 🙂
#2 – Some celebrity chefs are simply about the food and fun, and some are out to do a little bit more. We get to meet with a lot of these folks at the festival, and you get to know a tad about the different personalities; but occasionally, there are those who are the real deal, who are looking to take responsibility and make a better world with what they do. Andrew Zimmern, the star of Bizarre Foods, is our new favorite this year. We got to sit in on a media roundtable with him, and loved his attitude. He explains the unusual food on the show is just the hook; the real story is the people and their culture. He’s also on a mission. We all know that our food sources are in trouble, and there’s a lot of talk about “sustainability”. But part of the change required for sustainability isn’t in just feeding cattle grass or eating the “right” fish: it’s about broadening our view of what is “good” and “acceptable” to eat, and not being so set on the idea of chicken, beef, pork, or fish as being the only pool of proteins we have to choose from. And to encourage the next generation to do just that, he’s coming out with a children’s book in October. And although he holds strong opinions and doesn’t suffer apathy (or fools) lightly, his attitude of gratitude and graciousness extended from the media notebooks and cameras all the way to the elevator ride that we happened to share with him on the way out …Paula Deen is another one who, time and again, shows us she is bona fide. All through the festival, she owned up to her Type 2 Diabetes, her initial denial, her acceptance, and how she decided “to do something about it, so that I could help other people, too.” All with her own particular brand of humor. Oh, and by the way- Robert Irvine acts like a tough guy for the cameras, but in reality everyone who deals with him says he’s a teddy bear.
#3 – If you haven’t been, you need to go to the House of Blues Gospel Brunch. It isn’t just for the Food Fest, kiddies. Though today’s brunch was hosted by Ms. Paula Deen, Showboat’s HOB runs this event sporadically throughout the year. First, the food is phenomenal: fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, chorizo grits, mac n cheese, strawberry rhubarb cobbler and bread pudding (and this list doesn’t even begin to cover the full array available). Second, the gospel choir will give you goosebumps, even if you’re a sworn atheist. One woman sang a solo of the “The Lord’s Prayer” that was so beautiful that it drove me to tears (Andrea Bocelli eat your heart out). Keep your eyes peeled on Showboat for announcements, there is nothing else like it in Jersey.
#4 – People get touchy about their cheesesteaks. Well, at least some of the chefs do. During the “Define Cheese-Steak” event Friday night, the folks at Scarduzio’s were shouting to all who could hear: “Who wants a REAL cheesesteak?” Evidently they were not as impressed with some of the variations on the cheesesteak theme. Sammy D’s made cheesesteak dumplings with a sriracha ketchup. Andrew Zimmern and his assembled team from Showboat put together beef tongue cheesesteaks. Liked the dumplings a lot; the beef tongue…not bad, but not the best sammich of the night. It was hard to beat the smoked brisket cheesesteaks that Percy Street Barbecue from Philly was serving up.
#5 – Is it just our imagination, or are the casinos trying to be more involved with the local community? One of the biggest criticisms of the Atlantic City’s casinos is that they keep strictly to themselves, are only about themselves, and have no interest in relationships with the local community or providing any true local color to the tourists who flock there. That’s been our concern, too. But there were an awful lot of interesting little details catching my interest this year, from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey as the “official charity sponsor” of the fest; to the exclusively NJ/Philly offerings at the big “Sweet and Stylish” Event (by the way, you must have a cupcake push-up pop from House of Cupcakes in Princeton and the ethereal Boozer Brownie-rich dark chocolate and Scotch- from Flying Monkey Bakery in Philly); to the local New Jersey wines and beers sold at Caesar’s cute new shop, A Time for Wine. Do they still have a ways to go? Sure. But it’s nice to see that the times, they are a-(hopefully) changing.