Lime Pies and Tasteless Polymers

What, exactly, should Oakland taste like, anyway?

On the Thursday before last, the third level of the Oakland Marriott parking garage smelled delicious. What exactly it smelled like was harder to determine: It was a scent reminiscent of a Moroccan spice market, minus the nasty Third World smells and the din of haggling merchants. There was a sharp hint of curry or cumin in the air … or maybe it was tires. Whatever. It was the first indication that the second annual “A Taste of Oakland” trade show was gonna be good.

(That’s opposed to the extravaganza’s ill-chosen name, which sets the mind reeling with possibilities of what Oakland might taste like — none of them very pleasant. Could the planners please think up something a bit more appetizing for next year? Just a helpful suggestion.)

At the Marriott’s entrance, big tables were piled high with name tags. Down the hall was a makeshift bar where tuxedoed bartenders were selling heavily marked-up drinks (a tiny plastic cupful of Pinot Grigio went for six bucks) — a big mistake, considering beverage makers including Brothers Brewing Company, Pacific Coast Brewery, and Wyder’s Cider were dispensing free product at the food fest.

Just inside the East Hall was a large cutout of an idealized and stylized skyline — all the familiar city landmarks lumped together in one big hearty “I Heart Oakland!” display. In this happy world, a shiny silver BART train swoops past a gleaming Bay Bridge. The Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau had endeavored to provide its guests with the illusion of a perfect Sunday in the park, and mostly succeeded. Wrought iron chairs and benches (too few) were scattered about, and portable trees provided a haven from the heat of an imaginary sun. A blues band from the Bay Area Blues Society played very loudly in the background.

For once, Oaktown park-goers didn’t have to worry about annoying real-life things like birds flying around and pooping on your head, dogs that might bite, or homeless people asking for spare change. This food-laden park was free of graffiti and urban blight and everyone was enjoying it. Some couples were even spotted cuttin’ the rug, but most people just strolled around and ate and ate and ate. Because what else are you supposed to do when you’re surrounded with savory appetizers?

Even though “A Taste of Oakland” had the slightly lonesome and exclusive feel of a trade show, the event was open to the public. It didn’t seem like much of the public was there; it was difficult to tell because everyone was issued a convention-like name tag. As long as you ponied up the $35 to $40 admission, you were welcome. It was either a really good deal or a really bad one, depending on how fast you could scarf free samples.

Jerry Brown was there, or so someone said. Indeed, when the music wasn’t playing, there were muffled voices coming through the loudspeakers like an adult in a Charlie Brown TV special. It seems safe to assume there was some kind of speechifying going on, but it all seemed very far away and somehow unimportant. Who could listen to politicos talk about city planning or zoning when there were slices of key lime pie with whipped cream just two feet away? John F. Kennedy could have strolled by with Abe Lincoln and Food Fetish wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Not all the exhibitors hailed from the food industry. Jet Blue reps were holding a raffle for free plane tickets, and the folks from Covenant House, a counseling and outreach center, had a booth too. “Don’t you guys have any food?” a hungry citizen pleaded at the display for Chabot Space and Science Center. “No, we do not have any food, but we do have this polymer substance,” replied the helpful Chabot rep. He then demonstrated a thing where you poured the polymer substance into something and then something else happened where the polymer did something in a test tube and … it all gets very hazy at this point. But since you couldn’t eat it, what was the point?

Another foodless exhibitor was the Raiders, who brought no tasty appetizers — nary a petit four to speak of — and tried to make up for its faux pas by giving away highlight videos of the 2002 Raider season.

All this thinking about science and football inspired an incredible appetite, and, as champion eater and Food Fetish idol Anna Nicole Smith might say, thank God sustenance wasn’t too far away. Steps from the Chabot booth, someone from East Bay Regional Parks was demonstrating the fine and edible art of making sushi. (The parks district offers all kinds of great classes. Enroll now before Governor Davis finds out.)

Next door to the sushi, M&M Catering displayed all kinds of delicious little puffy things filled with savory ingredients such as salmon mousse and crab and blue cheese. Every food table held something scrumptious. There were fried snapper, catfish, and hush puppies from Jesso’s, and the folks at Compadres Bar and Grill looked exhausted from steaming countless tamales.

The Wyder’s Cider guys, meanwhile, busily shucked caps off bottles, and local wholesale bakery Color Me Plump laid out samples of sublime banana praline cheesecake. The portions, though, were way too small. For that matter, several people were slyly sneaking third helpings of Barclay’s miniature shepherd’s pies “with minced beef and pork prepared the traditional way.” Restaurants Verbena and Aroma were both doing good things with crustaceans: Verbena offered a Thai shrimp appetizer while Aroma fried theirs in a light batter. And new Montclair restaurant Canvas had little chocolate pillowy things filled with whipped cream.

There was one booth around which everyone was crowded. After muscling up, it became apparent why it was so popular: free booze. The guys behind the counter were busy whipping up cocktails. Apparently, there’s a new vodka out on the market called “Shakers,” and that’s what they were busy demo-ing. Does the local Bev’ Mo even have space for yet another vodka? Guess so. And no, it’s not called Shakers because the drinker gets a bad case of delirium tremens after indulging; it’s so named because the bottle is the shape of a martini shaker. And this vodka is made from wheat. (FYI: Nobody makes vodka from the lowly potato anymore — that’s, like, so Czarist Russia.) And they don’t use just any old wheat, mind you, but the very proud and amber wheat of Northern Minnesota. As Gypsy Rose Lee so famously said, everyone needs a gimmick. Especially those who choose to make vodka.

A woman who apparently hadn’t hopped the martini bandwagon was overheard earnestly asking her friend, “Do people really like martinis or are they just pretending?” A very good question. Maybe she noticed that several people had discreetly dumped their half-drunk Appletinis and dirty martinis into planters. But to be fair, the drinks were very generous, almost too generous.

Laney College Culinary Arts had the best display, hands down. Everyday vegetables and fruit were skillfully transformed into fanciful beasts of sea and land. It’s simply amazing what a person can do with a carrot and a knife when young and bored. Besides the artistic and colorful display, their boneless pork barbecue was fine as all get-out. The deviled eggs looked good too, but someone snatched the last one away, damn their evil soul to hell.

As evening approached, a few chefs could be spotted, toques askew and brows damp with sweat, chatting up a group of young girls in high heels. The girls teetered and sipped on dark wine from Alameda’s Rosenblum Cellars and tried to look coy while the chefs did their best impressions of celebrity bad boy chef and Food Network host Anthony Bourdain.

At 7:30, the crowds started packing up their leftovers. Last-minute drinkers lined up for last call, and others roamed around foraging for last-minute morsels. It seemed so early — was it over so soon? It didn’t quite seem fair. Apparently many people were still trying to recover from a day stuck in a cubicle and hadn’t yet rid themselves of the stench of work. Worse, not all the cheesecake, barbecue, and key lime pie had been eaten! Hopefully next year’s food fest will end at a more civilized hour — like midnight — or until every last slice of key lime pie finds a comfortable home in someone’s belly.

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