In case you hadn’t noticed, you can pretty much decide to celebrate local food just about any old time you wish these days. The Summer is no exception, especially.
Champaign Park District’s Taste of Champaign is around the corner, as is the newly moved to Downtown Champaign Blues, Brews, and BBQ Festival. Come August and September, you can eat corn by the bushel at the Sweetcorn Festival, and possibly even drive a bit to the Broomcorn Festival in Arcola or the Cheese Festival in Arthur.
But when it comes to events that are a little more intimate, a little more private, we no longer have to wait for very long for them to come to us.
That’s why, if you are looking for them, gatherings like this weekend’s Crawfish Boil at Crane Alley are hard to ignore. There are few things more enjoyable than actively seeking out specialty foods in massive doses as a social function. And it’s really starting to catch on.
Carmon’s Fried Chicken dinner on Monday is a perfect example. The Slow Food group here in town has a multitude of events planned for this Summer, and by anyone’s measurement, they will be well attended and revered. They usually are.
Furthermore, Prairie Fruits Farms has pretty well outgrown itself with this season’s Farm Dinners, held every few weekends at their idyllic countryside goat farm. The first batch went on sale and sold faster than a Metallica concert circa 1992. Literally, the seats were gone within minutes.
We wanted to learn more about why these events seem to hold such a special place in people’s hearts, so we asked the Executive Chef of the Farm Dinners, Alisa DeMarco a little bit more about the reasons why.
Smile Politely: How long have you been a chef? Where were you educated? And what restaurants have you worked in around C-U?
Alisa DeMarco: I have been cooking since 1997. I first learned to cook in the kitchen of the old, old Great Impasta under Harold. I went to the Culinary Institute of America and graduated in January of 2001. I returned to C-U in 2005 and cooked again at the GI for about two years.
SP: How do you see food-based social events by comparison to something like a music festival, or an arts fair? Is there a different type of mentality that people have going into it?
DeMarco: I think people approach food in different ways. Most of our patrons are foodies so I think that they appreciate the “art” of fine cooking. I think that some of the larger food related festivals in C-U, like the taste, blues bbq, and sweet corn draw from a larger fan base since they offer additional entertainment with the food that appeals to all age groups. I don’t think I could compare our farm dinners to a music festival or an art fair.
SP: What does it mean to a culture to embrace this type of event? Do you feel as though it can be used educationally as well as a source of nourishment?
DeMarco: I think it is very natural for us as humans to embrace what is happening at our farm dinners. Throughout history, food has brought people together on so many levels. I personally think that the satiation and enjoyment we experience from eating great food is nearly primal and greatly sought after. On another level, it makes people feel great to support a local business that they believe in and they feel a sense of pride that the meals are sourced locally from great farmers.
Our dinners are definitely educational. We like to introduce people to vegetables or cuts of meat that they may not buy that often and show them that simple preparations with great ingredients can turn into something great. We talk about the local farms and farmers and try encourage people to cook for friends.
I actually think that C-U has a wonderful collection of interesting. food driven events going on lately, with the pop-up restaurant ideas at Carmon’s and Black Dog, the dinners and tastings at Buvons, and the classes at Common Ground. Illinois Stewardship Alliance is promoting local foods dinners every third Thursday through October. Market Mondays at Bacaro, the Memorial Day pig roast at Carmon’s, the St. Patricks Day event at the Irish Pub. I think all of these have been wonderful additions to the community. Can’t wait to see what develops at Big Grove Tavern … I didn’t even know about the crawfish boil.
SP: What is C-U missing in terms of events like the farm dinners and the crawfish boil at Crane Alley? Any sort of wish list as a chef with local ties?
DeMarco: As for wishes — food trucks, and parking lots full of food trucks.
Food happenings this weekend
In Louisiana this weekend, someone will catch 375 pounds of crawfish, pack them into crates, and ship them overnight to Urbana. Starting at 1 p.m. on Sunday, you can eat them at Crane Alley during their Fourth Annual Crawfish Boil. And you can eat as much as you want.
Scott Glassman, owner of Crane Alley, said the idea for the crawfish boil came about four years ago during a brainstorming session with the staff about outdoor events, and he decided, “If we’re going to do this right, we’ve got to get the crawfish from Louisiana.” About 80 people attended the first crawfish boil, and by the third year, the increasing success of the event drew a crowd of well over 200 people.
Top to bottom, Crane Alley tries to produce the most authentic Louisiana crawfish boil experience that a person can find in the Midwest, from the sides (corn, potatoes, peppers, and onions) to the spices (also shipped with the crawfish from Louisiana). They cook everything in the alley outside, like a traditional crawfish boil, and they make everything to order. Hundreds of pounds of locally made Andouille sausage are also on the outdoor menu for those not fond of crawfish, and they will also serve food specials inside. But with hurricane specials at the bar and an all-day bags tournament, the food doesn’t serve as the only draw.
To enhance the authenticity, Glassman even searched for a live Zydeco band, but as you might imagine, the Louisiana Zydeco band shortage in central Illinois thwarts his quest to round out the event. Nonetheless, Zydeco music will spill from the outdoor speakers surrounding the crawfish boil as it has in past years.
Crane Alley’s Fourth Annual Crawfish Boil begins at 1 p.m. and the food continues through about 8 or 9 p.m., or whenever they run out. The outdoor bar will stay open a bit later, until people wind down. The event is family friendly during the day and more of a bar atmosphere later.
Buy tickets at Crane Alley prior to the day of the event for $18, or for $23 on the day of the crawfish boil. Yes, Sunday, June 17 is Father’s Day, the day the event falls every year, so bring your dad (or your kids, or both) and start an annual tradition. Or just ask dad to take a rain check on Father’s Day if he doesn’t like crawfish or Andouille sausage.
Susanna Kline and Seth Fein contributed to this story. Photos of Prairie Fruits Farms courtesy of prairiefruits.com