A foodie’s festival

Gasparilla Music Festival tasted as good as it sounded.

click to enlarge KING CONE: Ella’s chicken and waffle cone was so popular they ran through their day’s supply in just a few hours and had to restock. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
KING CONE: Ella’s chicken and waffle cone was so popular they ran through their day’s supply in just a few hours and had to restock.

Most audiophiles are also foodies. I can trace some of my most treasured culinary memories to meals with musical guests on my former WMNF radio program, Artful Dodgings. Sons of Hippies and I had a memorable nosh at the Taco Bus around 4 a.m. Will Quinlan ordered me my first plate of fatty white tuna. Max Norton (drummer for Laurel Canyon and Rebekah Pulley) was there for my maiden Ethiopian voyage at Queen of Sheba. Good food and good music just go hand in hand.

That axiom proved more than true at this year's Gasparilla Music Festival. Having attended two Bonnaroo Festivals and a Lollapalooza, I can safely say that GMF had the best food and drink selection of all my festival experiences. Yes, the number of attendees impacts what foods can be made available, but if a smaller festival means better food, I’m in.

Each stand had only a couple items; there were no lengthy menus or long waiting times. Food and drink venues were separate. The prices were unbelievably fair, almost nothing over $10 with most items costing $5-7. With just about 20 vendors (there were a few mobile stands as well), getting something to eat was incredibly easy and fun.

The festival feast began with the Refinery’s Thai Pulled Pork Taco, and the “Indie” grilled cheese with gouda and pears from the Independent Bar and Café. Malio’s Prime Steakhouse served up a mountain-sized steak sandwich, piled high with meat, peppers, mushrooms inside a fresh hoagie roll for $11 (the most expensive offering of the whole festival).

To satisfy our sweet tooth, Lakeland’s Poor Porker served beignets three to a brown paper bag, covered in a thicket of powdered sugar.

Choosing a beverage to wash it all down was a happy task. Should I sip on a fresh pint of Saint Somewhere or Cigar City Helle’s Lager? Maybe a vodka tonic made with Austin’s own Tito’s handmade vodka. Perhaps a handmade George Dickel whiskey cocktail with green or black tea and lemonade, crafted by Left Coast Bartenders Guild bartender (and Best of the Bay award winner) Danny Guess. Even the water was served stylishly, in small boxes that looked like milk cartons. The devil is in the details, but GMF’s details all had halos and angel wings.

But in the end, it was all about Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café chicken and waffle cone. But doesn’t it always come back to chicken and waffles? The crispy waffle cone filled with bite-sized pieces of fried chicken was nestled in bacon apple jam (with hearty hunks of bacon-soaked apples) and a waterfall of ranch dressing, topped with crispy bacon strips.

It was the perfect festival food, my own handheld gluttony. Lady Liberty’s statue ought to read, “Give me your tired, your poor … and we will give them chicken and waffle cones.”

While Ella’s owner and chef Ernie Locke thrashed and moaned at nearby Kiley Gardens stage with his band Nervous Turkey, word of the chicken and waffle cone spread fast. The simple act of holding a waffle cone filled with fried chicken has that effect on people. It was the only food that merited an onstage song dedication from Dr. Dog.

“This next song goes out to Ella’s chicken and waffles,” Scott McMicken crooned before launching into “Jackie wants a black eye.” As McMicken and the band sang “We’re all in it together now,” I couldn’t help but think how far our little city on the river has come. Just a few years ago, I remember fearing for my hometown. But Saturday’s festival is living proof of just how damn resilient this place is.

We are all in this together now and we happen to have very good taste.

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