Food Festivals Like Taste of West Village Aren't Necessarily About Food

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Since news about Texas food tends to find its way to my inbox, I know way more than I should about Texas Roadhouse happenings.

I don't usually find too much in the Roadhouse oeuvre that's worth sharing, but I was oddly riveted by a recent announcement regarding the restaurant chain's participation in a southeast Michigan food festival. If you were in Westland today, you could wile away the evening at a "Taste of"-style event, sampling dishes from Applebee's, McDonald's, Olga's Kitchen (a three-state chain of Greek restaurants beloved by Michiganders for its puffy grilled pita bread and orange cream coolers), Qdoba Mexican Grill and Texas Roadhouse.

I pride myself on my franchise restaurant appreciation, but the idea of celebrating multibillion dollar food empires in a fair format seemed out of step with what I thought was the impetus for the "Taste of" model, which every locale with a publicity department and a commercial kitchen has apparently adopted. Here in Dallas, tonight's "Taste of West Village" event marks the third such festival in three months

I'd always assumed "Taste of"'s were designed to stimulate the eating-out economy by showcasing local culinary talent. As it turns out, food doesn't have all that much to do with it.

Cindy Gatziolis helps organize "Taste of Chicago," which this year drew more than 2.5 million people to Columbus Drive. Taste of Chicago this year celebrated its 30th anniversary, and its staff regularly consults with wannabe edible event organizers from places like Dubai. When I asked Gatziolis what made the festival work, she didn't immediately cite anything the 52 food booths served.

After praising the paramedics and the sanitation department (this is Chicago, after all), Gatziolis attributed the festival's success to the free entertainment -- Salt-n-Pepa, Bell Biv DeVoe and Robert Plant played this year -- and children's activities.

"As much as we want everybody to enjoy the food, you can just come and have a good time," she explains.

Gatziolis' attitude is in keeping with the ethos of what may have been the very first significant "Taste of" restaurant event, "A Taste of the Big Apple," held in Central Park in 1976.

The food served in New York was fancy: "A Taste of the Big Apple was no place for a hapless heartlander with a taste for chicken fried steak," Molly Ivins wrote. Sardis served cannelloni, Love and Quiches sliced spinach quiche, the Grand Central Oyster Bar shucked oysters and Benihana relocated its hibachi floor show to a spot near the stage, where 1930s songstress Lucy Lowe sang "She's Only a Shopgirl at Macy's." Beer and wine and frozen banana daiquiris were served.

But there were also magicians and mimes and puppeteers. As a New York Times reporter wrote in a festival preview: "The restaurant people are trying to emphasize that it will be of interest even to those who really don't care if their eggs are served with Hollandaise or sunny side up."

The mission of the event, organizer Stuart Levin told the paper, was "to communicate to the country that New York City, despite all its troubles, is still one of the most vital and exciting cities in the world."

Vital and exciting: not tasty and delicious. Much as I might wish it was otherwise, all we food lovers who flock to "Taste of" festivals seeking transcendent bruschetta are missing the point: These events were designed as family fun-loving community gatherings, an objective that's hardly inhibited by McDonald's and Texas Roadhouse doing the cooking.

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