eating in emporia

yes, it's true.

i went to a pork festival this week.

it was one of the oddest culinary/food experiences i can remember ever attending.

the former vegetarian in me is still shaking her head in disbelief. the carbo-carnivore in me, who normally just comes out for pizza, is still thinking (two days later), "what the hell was that?!"

let's start with the basic information:

the va pork festival is held once a year in emporia, va. (that's right near the nc border, if you need a point of reference.) the festival features about 43,000 pounds of pork prepared in various ways (although chitterlings, which i have decided are not for me, are clearly the most popular - there were three booths serving those up while most other foods only had one). the last number count i saw said over 15,000 people attend from over 32 states. tickets were $32 (cheaper if you preordered well in advance) and included unlimited food and drink. there were five stages for live bands (or, in a couple of places, recorded music and a dj).

i had never heard of this event until slashfood or serious eats or one of those food blogs starting with "s" included it on a list of june food festivals. and of course, it being summer and emporia being just within driving distance, it seemed like something that someone somewhere should check out. so js and i took the day and went to see what on earth this was all about.

at this point, you are all free to say, "silly sm, it was about pork, of course. that's why it's called a pork festival," but the truth is, i'm not so sure any more. yes, pork was the primary food and ingredient, but that wasn't all that was served — you could actually be vegetarian, attend, and not completely starve. and the unlimited beer, sodas, and music made the whole atmosphere considerably more relaxed than, say, a high-end wine and cheese tasting. all of the booths were run by local community organizations and groups (and i think some or all of the proceeds went back to them).

this really was a community event that just happened to have a whole bunch of people from out of town in attendance.

so, i'm guessing you want to know about the food, right? there was a pretty wide range of what was good and what was not so good. js and i tried to try all of the pork dishes, though occasionally we split a dish and in the case of the ham and cheese i left js to his own devices.

here's a basic laundry list of what we tried:

the ironic signage.

  • "pork festival stew" (oddly enough, sponsored by the humane society. the stew was kind of bland and the pork was broken down so much, there was almost no texture.)
  • pork burgers (pretty good, actually. nicely seasoned and not dry.)
  • chitterlings, fried and boiled (ewww... ewwwwwww.... ewwwwwwwwww.... i'm sorry if i'm offending anyone, but like i said above: not for me. after trying this one, js and i were not brave enough to try the souse or the pigs feet. another day. maybe.)
  • ham biscuits (just basic. a lot of these really basic dishes were pretty salty. i'm pretty sure i got three days worth of my sodium intake eating this.)
  • huge chili pot. anyone have any ideas about the heat source?pulled pork chili (good, but it had the same problem as the stew: the pork had broken down too much. most of the texture of the chili came from the beans.)
  • country ham and red eye gravy (i was pretty surprised how thin the gravy was on this one. i tried the ham without the gravy and bread, and it was remarkable how much the taste changed. it was def. better when eaten with everything altogether. this was another okay-but-not-anything-special dish. and i got another three-days-worth-of-sodium-intake eating it.)
  • boar's head hot dogs (boar's head tends to be okay. i like them well enough. the hot dog wasn't anything special to look at, but it tasted fine.)
  • ham and cheese (when i asked js how the ham and cheese was, his response was, "it's ham and cheese." i think that says enough.)
  • sweet and sour meatballs. sweet and sour meatballs (these were probably my favorite dish we tried. the flavor was great, the meatballs weren't too dense, and it was different enough that it stood out from all the meat-and-bread foods that were being served. i only wish i'd had more of an appetite to go back for more.)
  • barbecued boston butts (i.e. pulled pork with barbecue sauce and bread to make a sandwich. by this point, js and i were just eating bites of dishes and were completely breaded out. we didn't touch the roll.)
  • grilled loin chops (js liked these a lot. i thought someone had had a bit too much fun with a pepper shaker. i guess if you average our opinions out, the loin chops were not bad, but not thrilling. they were loin chops.)
  • sausage biscuits (these were just eh. and they lied. there were not biscuits. the sausage patties were served on slider buns. this just goes to show you that if you tell the truth about your bread products, your consumers will be more inclined to appreciate your food and not nit-pick. i think we spent more time contemplating the biscuit travesty than actually eating the sausage biscuits.)
  • barbecue (yeah, we had no idea what they meant by this by the sign, so we just got in line. it turned out to be pulled pork with a horrible, horrible vinegar sauce/gravy/something gross on top.)

the overall menu (and i'm using the term "menu" lightly here because this was a very carnival/festivally event) was pretty mixed. noticeably we didn't see any ribs (and we walked the full circuit a couple times). all of the pork was prepared in basic, bulk styles. this is perfectly acceptable when you're serving 15,000 people. i wasn't expecting pork medallions or pork normandy or anything crazy like that.

there were a couple of things that really struck me as interesting about the whole event. the first was that, despite the dust and the general dirt-nature of the outdoors, this was a pretty clean event. there were plenty of trash cans and dumpsters around. there wasn't the overwhelming litter that normally takes over festival grounds. it was clean — but it wasn't green. i know it's probably not the type of event where you expect to find recycling bins — food festivals are, after all, a celebration of indulgence — but i really wished they had taken the time to designate specific bins for bottles and plastic cups. i can only image how much needless waste there was with 15,000 people running around and everything just going into dumpsters. even if only a third of the trash had gone to recycling, that would have been a good amount of waste reduced.

the other thing the struck me was something that js said early on as we wandered around the grounds. as we passed one of the beer trucks, he joked, "we're about to see a bunch of rednecks get drunk." looking around at the crowd, though, it wasn't a "bunch of rednecks." the pork-loving-community that had shown up actually seemed to be very much family-based. and those that weren't with family were an interesting mix: the "rednecks" were standing in line with hipsters; officers patrolling the ground were munching on the food along with everyone else; there were a few people in wheel-chairs braving the lumps and bumps of the festival grounds. when you have that large a group of people coming from so many different places, it seems to me that the only way you can define them as a unified entity is by what has drawn them together: pork (and beer. and music. and everything else i've talked about above). and yes, included in that group of people were js and me because we were there and we were part of it all. so the pork-eating crowd includes girls who work at libraries and guys who know too much about cell phones. it's an interesting mix.

i don't think i'll be going back to next year's pork festival. i think this experience was more than enough for me. but i'm glad i went. events like these are a good reminder that food can and should be celebrated and that we should remember to connect the foods we eat with their original, living sources. i think we forget those key ideas when we're standing in the meat section of the grocery store. it was a bit unnerving seeing a live pig hanging out at a pork festival, but it was important s/he was there. we are omnivores, and we do have food cycles. let's not forget the elements within those cycles.

that said, chitterlings are still not for me.