Sunday, July 3, 2011

No reason to waste money or time at Taste of Chicago

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When it all started with Mayor Mike Bilandic in 1978, the idea of a downtown festival was unique and badly needed. The purpose was to bring everyone together and try to restore the Loop as a family fun attraction. So Bilandic launched ChicagoFest. It lasted two weeks and it featured some of the great entertainers like Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers and Carole King just to name a few of the hundreds. There were some 600 performances each year.

The big benefactors at that time were the beer companies that sponsored the stages. They are the ones that made fortunes and they donated to the politicians. Isn't it always about the campaign contribution?

Taste of ChicagoImage by jericho1ne via Flickr
When Jane Byrne became mayor, she vowed to dump ChicagoFest and then changed her mind and turned it in to a world class event of music, food and entertainment. Of course, several of her closest aides ended up getting the food concession franchise that sat right at the front entrance where she held her opening day press conference.

Byrne politicized the festival during her four years in office, giving reporters she liked books of free tickets for food and the event and they ones she despised -- like me -- had to go on my own dime. It was cheap back then.

When Harold Washington came to office, he ended up cancelling ChicagoFest. There was too much criticism that the festival was intended for White residents of Chicago who packed the entertainment, even though there were lots of African American entertainers and the Blues.

Then, ChicagoFest morphed into Taste of Chicago and something changed with it. The focus, which was supposed to be on family, suddenly shifted to the big shot restaurants and food companies. Taste of Chicago became a promotion not for families and the city but for the restaurants that had deep campaign roots with the office of the Mayor. The costs started to rise.

It was a simple transition. Taste began while Byrne was mayor, intended to be the alternative to ChicagoFest. CHicagoFest was the baby of the Chicago Tribune, which was one of the big sponsors and they campaigned against Byrne to prevent her from cancelling it. But Byrne had her restaurant pal Arnie Morton come up with the idea to do a Taste of Chicago in 1980. The political transition started from that.

It all became about the money and making the restaurant owners happy, because some of those restaurants had real clout. And the news media started to fall in line, turning their backs on exposes about clout and politics at the Taste each year because their advertising revenues were dropping and they couldn't afford to criticize the restaurants, who were their biggest advertisers.

And then crime started to happen at Taste. And that grew too.

The only thing that didn't grow was the food. The portions got smaller and smaller as the restaurants got greedy. Prices kept jumping. And the quality of the food started to fall too. Honestly, the whole reason to attend Taste of Chicago was to see what it was like to be a sardine without any aluminum walls. No can. Just space packed with people. It became a game. Could you walk through Taste of Chicago without having your pocket picked by a pick pocket?

And the biggest game of all, how much money would you have to lay out by the end of the Taste of Chicago tiring trip. Walking back and forth and all you really got for your time was the opportunity to spend a lot of money -- as much as $200 for two adults and one child -- to sample the sometimes lousy food samples.

The way money went through the Taste of Chicago experience was similar to the way money flows out of your hands in to the casino slot machines, with very little to show for it but body odor and sweat. Well, at Taste of Chicago, over the 4th of July weekend, it was caused by the hot summer. At the casinos, the B.O. is from the level of patrons who have begun dominating the gaming experience. The poor need the money so bad they are willing to risk what little they have on gambling, not spending it on food and other things they really need because it isn't enough anyway.

This is the second year we didn't go to Taste of Chicago and frankly I don't feel like I missed anything. There is nothing to see. I don't need to lay out hundreds of dollars just to be able to sample a measly portion of crappy food.

This year's tickets sold for 12 for $8, up from last year. Each strip of tickets basically pays for one dish of food. So, to stop at four of the 59 restaurants, you would probably need 12 strips or about $96 just for the samples. And that is NOT much food at all, believe me. They did come up with some called "Samples where you pay the equivalent of $2 to get a tiny "sample" of food. But when you are done "sampling" 10 different places, you will have spent $20 -- supposedly because it is all based on tickets and each ticket is about 67 cents per ticket. So a $2 group of tickets would be three or four tickets, or really $1.97 for three tickets or $2.64 for four tickets. Believe me, it is all a scam to get your money.

Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff, form...Image via Wikipedia
Hey, at least this year the ban against having an American Arab vendor was lifted and alHambra Palace was allowed to participate. Oh yes. Arab vendors have been banned by the city by practice not by stated policy. What looked like Arab vendors in the past were not really Arab at all. And that is kind of ironic considering that under the new administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose father was a member of the terrorist organization the Irgun during the 1940s Arab-Israeli wars before the creation of Israel in 1948, all things Arab have begun disappearing (the annual Arabesque Festival ended this year; no major Arab appointments to the city administration; and the targeting of Arab owned small grocery stores in the inner city, among the many anti-Arab policies of the Emanuel Administration. Read about it all.)

Well, no one really cares much about the Arabs, including many of the Arabs who are happy to get whatever crumbs they can from the Mayor's Office under Daley and even less from Emanuel. Chicago supposedly is the role model of diversity and cultural richness but some how the Arabs get stiffed every year when it comes to grants, cultural programs (the city considers "Israeli" events to be "Arab" when you FOIA the paltry list of funded real Arab events). In truth although Emanuel's administration by design or by accident is anti-Arab, Mayor Daley did his best to only give us as little as was needed to keep the Arabs of Chicago happy. (I wrote the book on Arabs of Chicagoland, so I know.)

But I digress, of course, because when you are American Arab, digressing is about the only way you can get someone to consider your challenges.

The bottom line is this. Taste of Chicago sucks. It is too expensive, it is not family-friendly. The entertainment is not the priority and the campaign contributions to the politicians are all that really matter. And even though Mayor Emanuel has beefed up the police presence at the festival, crime is always a major issue -- crime that often gets under reported by the media which are partners in the festival to make money, too.

Save your $200. You are better off using it to by fresh food and the barbecue it at your home, somethign you could do five times on t hat budget as a much more family-focused alternative.

(But I do think that you will have more fun out in the suburbs like at Naperville's RibFest and Orland's Taste of Orland.)

-- Ray Hanania

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