Jen Piotter and Brad Rudasill during the Baconfest 2012 at the UIC Forum… (Barry Brecheisen/for RedEye )
Thousands of people – young, old, men and women united in their love of one pork product – packed the UIC Forum Saturday to sample a veritable cornucopia of bacon drinks and dishes at Baconfest Chicago.
This is the fourth event and its biggest ever, proving the city's ravenous appetite for all things bacon hasn't dimmed.
"In our fantasy world, [Baconfest would be this huge], but we had no idea," said Seth Zurer, one of the organizers. "When we first started talking about it, it was a joke: 'We're going to do the Burning Man of bacon.'"
It's no joke now, or, if it is, it's one with plenty of earnestness behind it. Some of those in attendance traveled from pretty far to get a taste of Baconfest's porky offerings. At the front of a long, snaking line outside the Forum were two men who'd driven from Wisconsin. Waiting inside were a trio of Ohio State University students making their second pilgrimage to Baconfest.
"I want to try anything," said Mike Wilson, 23, wearing a bacon T-shirt and sporting a VIP armband, which increased the ticket price from $75 to $150 but gave early access to those willing to fork over the cash. "We're just going to go [into the fest] and kind of go into a bacon coma."
Is bacon overrated, one might ask a person who's spent all that time and money to be at Baconfest?
"Is Michael Jordan overrated?" replies Devin Castellano, 27, who came from New York with friends. Castellano had been "preparing" for the fest, he said, eating bacon for days. "I want to bathe in bacon."
Castellano said he had hit about 30 booths and was a bit full.
"I probably should have paced myself," he said with a sheepish expression.
Maybe Castellano should have talked to Daniel Zemans, a writer for the Serious Eats web site, before he started his rounds.
Zemans, who in past years managed to eat virtually everything available, has had to modify his approach significantly and now has a method to his meal.
"If it's truly delicious, like, even in this sea of bacon still stands out, I will eat the whole thing," Zemans said. "If it's just very good or good, I'll take a bite."
Some things, like pizza with bacon on it, Zemans passed up entirely. He's become jaded and requires more than mere bacon pizza to thrill him.
"Big Jones had four different ways of pork packed into that one little bite!" he said, raving about the Edgewater restaurant's bacon-fat biscuit, pea gravy and bacon (fried in lard, naturally). "It's not something they have on their menu. It's something that they took some time to create."
Gary Wiviott, pit master, came with Barn & Company in the Loop and described the recipe for a good Baconfest dish :
"You want to have what I kind of call an 'excessive balance.'" Wiviott said. "I mean, it is Baconfest. It's all about bacon and it's all about excess and deliciousness. But you still want something that tastes good. You don't want to just layer a bunch of bacon on something and have it not be balanced. ... You err toward the side of excess, but you still want everything to taste really good."
Event organizer Zurer said they sold 1,500 tickets for each "shift" – lunch and dinner – bringing the total expected to 3,000. The first event in October of 2009, 75 people came. By 2011, Zurer was so busy that he only had time to sample four of the dishes. This year, he promised himself he'd eat more, even if he wasn't planning as thoroughly as a few of the Type-A bacon fans.
"There are some people that are very specific. They get a map, they plot a route, they have an Excel spreadsheet ahead of time," he said. "I'm just going to go in and browse and see what looks good."
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