Sep 15, 2014

So long, summer: Scenes from 2014’s summer festival season

It was a busy summer for this commoner personally, which limited my time for enjoying many of my favorite local fairs and festivals in central Illinois.  Still, looking back at all of the food, live music and camaraderie, I had my share of fun.    

So, as the weather and calendar turn toward fall (and another festival season all its own), I decided to look back at some lasting impressions from a few festivals I always try to attend – the Chatham Sweetcorn Festival, Decatur Celebration and, marking the unofficial end of summer in Springfield, Ill., the Illinois State Fair. 

Chatham Sweetcorn Festival
To educate readers who don’t live nearby, Chatham is much more a Springfield suburb today than the small town it was when I first moved to the area 20 years ago.  Still, the annual Sweetcorn Festival held by the local Jaycees retains its small-town festival feel and pays homage to the farming heritage that is so important to the area.   And, it really does give you a taste of some of the best sweet corn around. 

The festival is held annually in mid-July at Chatham Community Park on the south end of town.  It’s very kid-friendly during the day when the playground and the kids’ area get the most attention.  

Parts of the park still look barely developed from the pasture it once probably was, which serves the festival well for activities like the cow chip throwing contest, Celtic games and, I suspect, the cornholing tournament.  Trust me, if you don’t know what cornholing is, it sounds much more provocative than it really is.

Aside from the food, my friends and I primarily come for the music and the drinks.  We tend to congregate near the mixed drinks stand near the main stage.  You can’t miss it; just look for the combination of pirate and Jagermeister flags, and try the rum punch.    

Blues is usually the music of choice for Saturday afternoon’s entertainment line-up, and this year I was especially pleased to see one of my favorite local bands – Porkpie and the Northend All-Stars. 

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.
I think they made a new fan out of the Springfield Jr. Blues mascot. Or, maybe the poor guy was suffering from the heat underneath the costume.  Either way, his dance moves have been burned into my memory banks for a long time.   

What a bunch of derelicts ... I'm surprised they let us in.
In summary, the Chatham Sweetcorn Festival is always a great event for bringing friends together. 

Decatur Celebration
I almost missed this year’s Decatur Celebration because of my trip to the Redneck Fishing Tournament, as both are held on the first weekend in August.  However, with my girlfriend being from Decatur, I couldn't miss her hometown’s celebration.   

The Decatur Celebration is essentially a weekend-long street festival that encompasses much of the city’s downtown.  All things considered, they get some fairly impressive national acts to come in and play; for instance, this year’s headliners included Jo Dee Messina, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Salt-N-Pepa.  What makes it even more impressive is that the entertainment is all free. 

My girlfriend and I skipped the entertainment this year, opting instead to go early Sunday afternoon in order to avoid the crowd and take her daughter to the carnival.  Oh yes, and to eat fair food.  A lot of fair food.

But this is where the Decatur Celebration became quite the disappointment for us both.  

Seriously, just how many chicken kabob and wrap stands does one festival need?  It seemed like there was literally one on every corner. 

Ummm ... where is everybody?
In addition to the lack of variety in food selections, we felt like there just weren't as many food vendors as in previous years.  When you also consider the food prices were at or exceeding state fair pricing, you have a disappointing experience overall, especially when you consider that the Decatur Celebration prides itself on being a food festival as much as a music festival. 

Still, we managed to find a few diamonds in the rough.  I found the Cajun-themed food stand I remembered from previous visits, and while their bourbon chicken with red beans and rice isn't prepared in what I would consider the traditional sense, they’re still very satisfying and pack a good spicy kick. 

We also tried one of the new food crazes to hit the Decatur Celebration in 2014 – the barbecue pulled pork poppers.  Even though you only got four for $7, these were worth it!  The crunchy breading on the outside, the shredded pork on the inside and the sweet cherry chipotle sauce for dipping worked incredibly well together.    

Illinois State Fair
I've documented my annual pilgrimages to the Illinois State Fair, held in my hometown of Springfield, several times before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.  Suffice to say if you’re from here, it’s in your blood to try to get to the fair at least once during the ten days in August when it takes place. 

This year, I saw a pair of good concerts at the grandstand – Boston and Steely Dan.  I must have had such a good time at both that I forgot to take any pictures. (I blame the beer concessions.)

My girlfriend and I also continued our food fair binge, starting at Ethnic Village where this year’s Mexican vendor took first prize for best tasting fair food with its steak chimichuri tacos.   

Steak chimichurri tacos, to the right of the taco salad.  To be fair, all of it looked outstanding.
They were as good as advertised.  Actually, it all looked good.  Even if the prices did not.  $7 for two tacos that take four bites total to eat?  That left a bad taste in my mouth. 

The Screamin' Vatos at the Miller Lite Tent
As usual, we also spent some time hanging out with friends at the beer tents.  Sure, they’re usually the same bands we see at the bars in town, but it’s a nice change of pace.  It also provides the bands additional exposure to new audiences. 

Now that's a fine looking Stag!
Plus, I was particularly pleased to see the old-school Stag tall boys.  Little things like that tend to excite me.  I don’t know why. 

Following the sidewalk through Conservation World
On the last day of the fair, my girlfriend and I – with kiddo in tow – spent a couple of hours roaming through Conservation World.  It’s an interesting place, especially if you like to shoot things, catch things, climb things or chop things down. 

You can also get up close and personal with a big-ass catfish …  

… or get the inside scoop on the latest soy products.

But to me the biggest surprise in Conservation World was discovering a 17th Street Barbecue stand.  I couldn't resist wolfing down a pulled pork sandwich – with slaw, of course.

He's no Arnold Ziffel.
After Conservation World, we paid further homage to the pig by taking a shortcut through the swine barn on our way to the Miller Tent to partake in the annual traditions of the Chili Cookoff and Elvis Himselvis on stage.

And yes, the Young Curmudgeon did not forget.  Just like his old man, he was not going to miss out on free chili samples.   

One should never doubt the existence of unicorns ... or Elvis.
And thanks to Elvis’ band (thanks, Dooley!), we got to spend the rest of the day taking care of a giant stuffed unicorn.  It was well worth it to see the smile of the kiddo’s face throughout the day.

Before we called it a day and an end to the 2014 state fair, we had to try a couple of new food items – new to us, anyway.  If you see the “Kandymellons” stand there next year, I highly recommend it.  Look for this guy …

Insert "juicy melons" joke here.
Fresh-cut flavored watermelon chunks!  How can you go wrong? 

You could tell this man genuinely loved his craft.  We indulged on sample after sample before setting on a full serving of cotton candy-flavored watermelon (although the rum and coconut flavors were equally delicious).  And at $5 per serving, I thought this was one of the better deals at the fair.             

A picture of decadence ... deep-fried pumpkin pie.
Finally, no fair experience would be complete without trying some unusual deep fried food.  For this, the girlfriend chose deep-fried pumpkin pie.  She hit a home run.  Perhaps it was a sign of an early fall to come.  After all, the weather for the last day of the fair was unusually cool and damp. 

Speaking of fall, I'm looking forward to the festivals that celebrate autumn in this area as well.  From an Apple and Pork Festival to a drive along the Spoon River, there should be several more blog-worthy trips to come.    

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