Smile Politely

On and off the cob: The Urbana Sweetcorn Festival 2013

Friday evening was beautiful — the sun was shining, the air was clear, and the smell of food permeated the air. The weather on Saturday was equally as lovely. Although it was a little warm, this weekend couldn’t have been more perfect for Urbana’s 38th annual Sweetcorn Festival. I attended the Sweetcorn Festival on Friday evening, and the further the sun set on Main Street, the more people packed in the streets, eager to get a start on the corn-holiness of the weekend.

I arrived right around 5 p.m., and the streets were blocked off, garbage cans were lined and strategically placed, ticket tents were staffed, and the vendors were more or less ready to go. The vendors were lined along Main Street, with a few on Broadway. The music stages were appropriately placed so that there’d be limited audio interference or competing sounds. The smaller of the two stages was posted at North Broadway and the larger stage and VIP tent was on the east side of the courthouse. The music reluctantly started around 5:30 p.m., but was in full force by 6:30 p.m.

The environment, aura, and general atmosphere felt like a summer festival, in a way that the other two big C-U summer events — Taste of Champaign-Urbana and Blues, Brews, and BBQ —  don’t. Taste of C-U is cursed with bad weather; it rains every year. BBBBQ feels similar to the Sweetcorn Festival in that there’s an energy when you cram people into the contained spaces of city streets and city parking lots. It’s almost as if the buildings are giving the crowd a polite hug. BBBBQ, though, functions and feels more like a concert than a festival or street fair and that’s because it is. Urbana Sweetcorn tries to find the balance between those two “feelings”: wide open event and outdoor concert. The Sweetcorn Festival has an advantage in the timing of the event. It’s late enough in the summer that it’s hot and fairly dry. I can’t remember any rain in the handful of years I’ve attended. Downtown Urbana is a charming, quaint, and old fashioned, and the historic buildings provide an intangible sweetness that is not reproducible elsewhere.

Tickets were required for the food and entertainment items, and before I arrived, I set my budget at ten dollars — tickets were a dollar each. I figured that would allow me to taste several different items and report back to you eager readers. I bought my tickets, grabbed an event map and set out.

As reviewed my event map, I realized that the vendors — food and otherwise — were not marked. Everything else was clearly marked on the map, including local businesses. I’m all for promoting the businesses in the area, but I can’t understand why listing businesses that aren’t open during festival hours — West Main Dental (not open on Friday or Saturday and will certainly require an appointment), or H20 Salon (closes at 4 p.m. on Fridays) — was relevant to me, the Sweetcorn Festival patron. Perhaps I wanted a haircut in between eating my cobs? Would they have even had time for me on a busy Saturday without an appointment? I don’t really know. There are several businesses in Lincoln Square Mall, but only three were included: Wind, Water & Light gallery, the Art Coop, and Common Ground Food Co-op. Why those three and not the rest? Where’s Art Mart? Did Art Mart not fit on the map, or did they not pay to be included? All of this seemed poorly planned, or operating under some logic of which I was not aware. There needed to be a better way of indicating where the vendors were, and where the downtown Urbana businesses were. Perhaps two maps were needed, or just better graphic design. It also seemed unnecessary to have an icon for the corn-composting bin – there was only one compositing bin and it was right in front of the corn tent, where most folks ate their corn. I don’t intend for this to be a tirade about the Urbana Business Association (the event organizers), but I do think that it’s important to point out the areas where these things can be improved for future festivals.

Even though I knew which food vendors would be present, when I got there they seemed to be few. The regular carnival/fair food vendors were present and dominating my eye space with their loud, conspicuous signage and large-font words. None of them seem to have a name. You can only tell them apart by which combination of the following are splayed across their headers: CORN DOGS, PHILLY CHEESE, GYROS, GREEK FOOD, CHEESE BURGER, and NACHOS. I didn’t bother eating at these places. They aren’t local and they have nothing vested in this community. On the flip side, there were a few community groups selling food as a fundraiser, including Urbana boys’ basketball, Urbana girls’ softball, and the Bible Education Center. I’m all for supporting youth sports and whatnot, but under no circumstances will I purchase food items from a religious organization. I think that there are better ways for the sports teams to raise money, and as none of those groups are in the business of selling, cooking, or distributing food, perhaps they shouldn’t do so for 24 hours once a year.

I sampled food from Silvercreek, Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas, Aunt Kim’s Kettle Corn, and of course, the corn on the cob. I fully intended to finally try the gator bites from Louie’s Dixie Kitchen, as I’ve been denied twice this summer already. In fact, Louie’s was my first stop after picking up my tickets. The menu was posted and the gator bites were listed for eight tickets. That’s right, for eight dollars I could try the gator bites and a side. It seemed like a lot, but I was going for it anyway. When I inquired about them right around 5 p.m., I was informed they were “on their way.” I circled around, came back to them around 5:30 p.m., they did have them, but were unable to serve any food because they were shut down for not meeting the health code. Yikes. When I left for the evening, they still weren’t able to serve food, which sucks for them. I think that it’s the universe interfering, as I’ve now thrice been denied these damned gator bites. Perhaps they’re terrible. Perhaps they would have made me sick or something. It doesn’t really matter. I’m over trying to try them.

Silvercreek was an unusual vendor. I was not expecting to see them there, and the restaurant is right up the street, so it almost seemed redundant for them to have a booth. Silvercreek had very prominent positioning: they were one of four booths to be at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway. This was primo parking as the corn tent was located at the intersection of Elm and Broadway, just one block south. On the diagonal from Silvercreek was a ticket tent, so once you purchased your tickets and turned around, you were literally standing at a crossroads, and like a siren’s call, you couldn’t help but move toward the big Silvercreek booth.

Silvercreek was serving up pork tacos, grilled avocado tacos, cornbread with marmalade, chipotle glazed shrimp, and elotes. I ordered a pork taco and the cornbread, and with that simple order, spent six tickets. It was four tickets for one taco, and another two tickets for the cornbread. Just like that, I more or less blew my ten-ticket budget.

The pork taco was served in a soft white corn tortilla with a bit of what they were calling corn salsa. I’d call it a corn salad or pico de gallo — there wasn’t any wetness to it. As a whole, the taco was OK. I can’t really say it was great or terrible, because it really was just OK. Mediocre. Boring, even. The taco was incredibly dry. The pork was very nicely charred, and on its own, it was well cooked and fairly moist, if lacking a bit in flavor. The corn salsa added nothing in the way of lubrication, and the grilled tortilla wicked away any moisture in the food and in my mouth. All I could taste was the flavor of grill char — the meat and the salsa needed more seasonings, specifically heat and acid. 

When they passed me the cornbread I was immediately delighted by the sight: it was shaped like a little corn on the cob and beautifully drizzled with a blackberry “marmalade”. It was definitely not marmalade. Marmalade is a type of fruit preserve made from citrus fruit and its peel, and at least as far as I’m concerned, it spreadable. Blackberries are neither citrus fruit, nor have a peel. Furthermore, this sauce was not spreadable, as one would expect of marmalade. This was a drizzle or a coulis, with a few blackberry drupelets (the berry flesh, if you will). Semantics aside, the sauce was quite tasty,with a nice balance of sweet and tart. The cornbread, too, was quite tasty. The ends were a little bit dry, but the thicker middle of the cornbread was moist. It was mealy as cornbread should be and not too sweet, which I appreciated. 

I’m not really sure why Silvercreek would offer up elotes — which are more than grilled corn – for four tickets at a festival where you can get a cob for one ticket. Also, “Smoked Street Pork Tacos” doesn’t make any sense. I don’t really know what street pork is, but it sounds unruly and in need of an intervention. My final thought on their menu is that while I understand it’s a corn festival and that they were using corn as an ingredient, why stray so much from what they do normally? Why not use corn in an interesting way to adjust or showcase one of their regular menu items? If I really loved the taco and I went to the restaurant for tacos, I’d be sorely disappointed. 

My next stop was Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas. These guys are serious — they attend every local festival and event where food vendors are invited, and we’ve talked about them most recently this summer in the Taste of C-U review. Manolo’s is pretty good, but I nevertheless thought I’d check for consistency. I tried the turkey dinner and the chocolate brownie empanadas. Both were steaming hot and seemed as fresh as they could be considering the set up. The turkey dinner empanada tasted like turkey pot pie sans veggies. It was pretty good, but a little salty. The pastry was flaky and tender without being too buttery or flaccid. If you’re into poultry pot pies, I’d recommend giving it a go. The chocolate brownie empanada contained the brownie batter, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and caramel all mixed together. The filling was incredibly rich and chocolatey, and I could taste the slight bitterness of the semi-sweet chocolate, which played nicely against the subtle caramel sweetness. The pasty dough was flaky, and again not too buttery. It too held up nicely against the thick brownie interior and cut through the rich chocolate in texture and flavor. Empanadas were three tickets each, or two for five tickets. This is a bit of mark-up from their restaurant menu, where empanadas are $2.29 each or three for $5.99. 

Next on the list of things to try was the highlight of the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival: the corn on the cob. In all of the years I’ve attended this event, I have never actually had the corn. The line was always entirely way too long, and I don’t really like corn, especially corn on the cob, so I wasn’t going to wait for it. This time, though, I was on a mission to eat the corn, and lucky for me, there wasn’t a line at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. The corn was only one ticket (running total: $12). It was piping (burning) hot and drenched, doused, hosed, and otherwise covered and smothered with butter. I took my burning butter cob to the salt and pepper table and unraveled the plastic wrap encasing it. This was a particularly challenging task given the temperature and slipperiness of the corn, but somehow I managed to add a little bit of salt. As I did so, I realized that other people were using this table to season their buttery cob, and was immediately disgusted by the thought of other people’s sweaty, buttery hands all over the salt, pepper, table, and napkin piles. Gross.

Despite my growing disgust, I bit into the corn and all terrible thoughts disappeared. The corn was so sweet and tender, and the butter and salt made it sinful. The corn would have been delicious without the fat and seasoning, but those two items took it over the edge. I think this was the best corn I’ve ever had. Really.

My final food tasting was the kettle corn from Aunt Kim’s, based in Mattoon. (The other kettle corn people, Jackie’s Kettle Korn, were from Missouri). Kim’s kettle cornwas really, really good. It was sweet and salty, like any good kettle corn. What made this kettle corn extra delicious was the addition of a little bit of vanilla and cinnamon. The combination of flavors — a favorite of mine — was sophisticated, and shifted normal carnival kettle corn to something a little more interesting. I used my remaining four tickets to buy a bag of the corn for future indulging.

The Urbana Sweetcorn Festival seems confused in its mission. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do while I’m there. I can’t afford to eat at all of the food vendors, so should I grab one food thing, a cob, and watch the band? Or am I there to explore downtown Urbana and all that it has to offer, as is implied in the event guide? Why are there so many dog biscuit vendors when I’m not permitted to bring my dog? Finally, I don’t want to try out some yoga poses while I’m sweating from the heat, covered in butter, and full of corndogs and Philly cheesesteaks — it won’t be pretty for anyone involved.

It’s my experience that people like to be told what to do in these situations. I am a festival lemming; give me a guide and three or less options. Otherwise, I just wander the festival area purposeless, and the vendors on the ends are forgotten because I don’t know where to go to get food and sit and eat it. Each time I’ve gone in the past I’ve walked around in a circle two or three times, become frustrated, and gone to sitand eat at Crane Alley. I think that in order for the event to be awesome in the future, it should fully commit to the corn theme. Everything else is just filler, and I don’t think that the concept of the event is to comment on the use of corn as a filler ingredient for all sorts of food items.

The Urbana Sweetcorn Festival was mostly a hit with a few misses. I had some good food, which I enjoyed thoroughly, even if I did spend $16 instead of $10. I don’t really get the vendor curation (or lack there of). It was great to wander around Downtown Urbana — it really is so nice. I look forward to next year’s event with the addition of Urbana restaurants like Pizza M, Flying Machine Coffee, and The Butcher that will set up shop in the new Cafeteria and Company. There are changes happening in downtown Urbana, and if Sweetcorn can adapt to these changes and make a few of its own, it will be a really great event instead of a good one.

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All photos courtsey of Chelsea Fisher, except for the event map and the Silvercreek menu, which are by the author.


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