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I really thought I was ready for Baconfest.
I’d been dreaming of it, drooling, for months. I knew that on April 14th, that Holiest of Nights, about fifteen hundred of my fellow Baconites and I would embark on a truly religious experience. We’d have just under three hours to taste, critique and worship the bacon creations of more than fifty of Chicago’s hottest restaurants in a sold-out benefit event that would raise a ton of money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. I’d done my research — I knew exactly which chefs would be there, and what they’d each be serving. I’d drawn out a clear plan of attack, with my “must-eats” carefully mapped out on a clipboard, and I’d made copies for my companions, too. I planned to make tasting notes, for God’s sake, maybe use terms like “mouth-feel” and “flavor profile.”
But as soon as the doors opened and we were unleashed into the bacon orgy inside, all that genteel planning went right out the window. I immediately lost any hope of an organized assault, and was thrust instead into a balls-out, stuff-your-face, marathon bacon binge — a full-immersion rampage that was absolutely dizzying. Everywhere I turned, plates and skewers and cauldrons and platters and bags and slabs and cups and boxes and bottles of bacon were being ogled and compared and passed around and devoured and photographed and judged and awarded. Over here, Top Chef veteran Sarah Gruenenberg of Cafe Spiaggia was plating bites of cheddar gnudi with bacon and spring ramps for a long line of adoring fans. Two booths down, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard of Girl & The Goat was pouring tiny cups of an intricate bacon soup topped with crispy corn flakes for her own long line of adoring fans. Over there, Cory Morris from Mercat a la Planxa was dishing out cider braised pork belly pinxos, while across the aisle the crew of sentimental favorite 676 was serving delicate portions of an explosive Catalpa Grove lamb bacon — a dish that earned them a Golden Rasher Award for best presentation.
My mind spun. My taste buds reeled. There was no time to take pictures, no time to make notes. So many fabulous incarnations of pork belly to savor, and quickly: bacon beignets from The Bedford, tequila bacon tacos by Cantina Laredo, bacon and rapini stromboli from Francesca’s Forno Restaurant, a bacon spring roll topped with a delicate quail’s egg, courtesy of Quince. I tasted each, rolled my eyes in bliss, tossed the plate and went on to the next: a sexy cayenne bacon bread pudding by J Lafayette Catering, salty bacon pretzels from Sable, a heavy “Wobble Stopper” Bloody Mary by The Fifty/50 that turned out to be a meal in itself .
I’d completely lost my companions by now, and I didn’t care. Hoped they were having fun. I rampaged on.
Ooo….here was bacon mac & cheese by Witts. And omigod! Are those bacon doughnuts from Townhouse? And ya gotta try this bacon milkshake by those lusty pirates at Three Aces. (For the record, their milkshake did indeed bring all the boys to the yard — it went on to win the Golden Rasher Award for “Best of Show.”) At one point I checked my watch and saw we were in good shape - still an hour and a half left to go! So it was on to the steamed pork bao from Wow Bao, then pork carnitas from Zapatista. I even foraged a cherrywood bacon truffle out of a trough of garden “dirt” (crushed oreo crumbs) at State & Lake’s booth and happily popped that little sucker in my mouth. Freakin’ yum.
I had just gone back for a second skewer of the crack-like and potentially lethal bacon sausage-stuffed organic dates wrapped in more bacon (Butcher & The Burger) when I hit what I’m sure marathon runners like to call “the wall.”
I was done.
I simply could not eat another bite. I could not take another sip. I wasn’t sure I could take another step. My stomach was suddenly, unabashedly closed, folded up like a cheap mortgage company and gone in the night, completely out of business. I remember thinking earlier, somewhere between the root beer-glazed pork belly from Epic and the bacon-scented African lobster cappuccino from Jordan’s Foods of Distinction, that I could happily die at that moment, here at Baconfest, a huge and greasy grin on my face. Now it seemed I actually might. I caught Ham’s eye and gestured toward the door. Let’s go sit down for a minute.
And, honestly, that was fun, too. We sat out in front of the UIC Forum and watched scores of over-stuffed Baconites waddle out the doors, groaning and holding their distended bellies in pleasure/pain, just as we had done. Some sat down and lit up a smoke. Others lay on the grass in an obvious stupor. A few picked their teeth. Everyone was very quiet, a bit reverent.
Ham and I sat out there for quite a while, content in our own food comas. Then we finally heaved ourselves up — aaarrRUMPH! — and picked our way back inside to watch the raffle and Baconfest’s closing ceremonies. I lamented the fact that I never had the chance to taste the bacon pho from Saigon Sisters, or the bacon chili from Rockit Bar — in fact, there were a good twenty or so restaurants whose booths I never made it to, whose bacon creations I never knew. May never, ever know. But I guess I’ll just have to let those experiences go. There’s always next year, after all, and Baconfest Chicago 2013 might very well be even bigger and better than this year’s wonderous extravaganza, especially if organizers Seth, Andre and Mike are still in charge.
And if I start preparing now, I just might be ready.