Smile Politely

Adventures in tasting Champaign

I am happy to report that my first trip to Taste of Champaign was a pretty enjoyable experience. Having scoped out the lists of vendors and ticket prices earlier in the week, I was eagerly anticipating the festivities in West Side Park on Friday evening, and I was pretty sure that a Schwan’s ice cream treat was calling my name. Unfortunately, Mother Nature, obviously in a tempestuous mood, foiled my plans for a visit, knocking down several old and noble neighborhood trees in the process. (As a Richmond, VA transplant in C-U, I’m pretty sure that Mother Nature is out to get me, using arctic winds, cottony humidity, and tornado warnings, to beat down all my defenses. But that’s a story for another day.)

Fortunately, I managed to meet up with some friends to check things out on Saturday evening. Having been at work all afternoon, I was tired and starving for a taste of Champaign, or really, a taste of anything, even if it meant gnawing off my own arm. After getting three sheets of “legal tender” tickets, my boyfriend and I set off in search of delicious victuals.

The boyfriend’s strategy was simple: the most bang for his buck… er… ticket. After scoping out both wings of food vendors, he was tipped off by a smart girl in my department that Fryer Tuck’s was a pretty decent deal and tasty to boot. This was how he ended up consuming two corn dogs, fresh out of the deep fryer. He later decided that two salty corn dogs, though delicious, do not make the best meal on the night before what has become a Sunday tradition for us: a long run.

Still wanting to gnaw, I forced my way through the throngs of fair-goers, pushing babies in strollers. Having deemed the corn dogs too salty and the barbecue line too long, I started to feel a sense of panic. I was going to starve to death in the middle of an event devoted to local food! I was going to faint from hunger, exhaustion, and humidity and most certainly be trampled to death by people munching their way through the park.

Finally, I decided on firecracker chicken from Nitaya Thai. The restaurant is right down the street from my apartment, so I had already had multiple tastes of its offerings and knew that it was a safe bet. Overall, the firecracker chicken was pretty tasty, though I can’t vouch for the authenticity of a Thai dish named after a flammable accoutrement of patriotism. In fact, I would probably move to rename the dish “sparkler chicken”, as it failed to live up to the spiciness that its name suggested.

With eight tickets burning a proverbial hole in our pockets, the boyfriend and I set off in search of dessert. He splurged on a mint-chocolate Slab-wich from Marble Slab Creamery, and I finally got my sticky paws on a Schwan’s fudge stick, which I noted was a pretty good bang for its caloric buck.

Using our two remaining tickets, the boyfriend and I both got three-ounce cones of custard from Junior’s stand. While the cone melted in the humid summer air and left drops of dairy on my already sticky hand, I came to the conclusion that frozen custard alone could probably sustain me through the inevitable ups and downs of graduate school. Some people drown their sorrows in cigarettes or alcohol, but frozen custard is my drug of choice. (And, yes, I did eat two ice cream desserts on Saturday. I like to think that it was carbo-loading for running.)

While sitting in the semi-dry grass and wandering through the sales booths with a few fellow grad students from U of I, I was able to do a lot of my favorite thing: people watching. I was pleased to observe that Midwesterners really aren’t so different from East coasters. Sure, they might say “pop” instead of “soda” or tell me that the shores of Lake Michigan are a good substitute for the beach (patently false, unless you are afraid of sharks), but in the end, we can all agree upon the simple joys of eating slightly overpriced food in a crowded park, surrounded by pony rides and moon bounces. I may complain about Mother Nature’s exaggerated behavior in the Midwest and the regrettable lack of spicy food, but in truth, I look forward to many more tastes of C-U. I’m going to be pursuing a degree here for a long time, so I might as well make my C-U experience a fun and tasty one.

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