Festival Food Served Up Right

Eating in the forest at Outside Lands 2012

By Jennifer Crosby.

A view of some of the food venues at Outside Lands
A view of some of the food venues at Outside Lands

A man with a large cleaver stands in the woods, hacking up a leg of lamb. He looks up from a table full of meat and asks, “Would you like some?”

If it is mid-August and you are deep inside the signature park of one of the greatest culinary cities in North America the answer, every time, should be, “Absolutely.”

San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival is predominantly known as a music event. The 2012 edition held in Golden Gate Park last August featured acts ranging from Neil Young and Norah Jones to Alabama Shakes. It also surprised and delighted the uninitiated with an equally impressive lineup of food and drink.

At first I tried to note the location of particularly alluring offers (surely something called Chicken Yum Yum is worth doubling back for?). But I soon learned food trucks and stalls are tucked in every corner of the festival grounds, each noshy nook and cranny a whole new discovery. There were fried green tomatoes, bacon-studded hot dogs and barbecued oysters. Empanadas, curried onion rings and root beer floats.

Summer staples like burgers, fries and funnel cakes also made an appearance. But burgers are more exception than rule — and no flimsy, additive-filled patties here. Cue the Three Hand Burger made with a bacon and grilled onion-infused patty, served with daikon and cabbage slaw on a bun from a local bakery.

Local businesses and unique flavours are on most menus. The philosophy seems to be: do it well, do it deliciously, do it sustainably.

Take, for example, the lamb carved in the forest. San Francisco’s The Whole Beast served lamb gyros, mulligatawny stew with lamb, and lamb poutine with sheep’s milk cheese. One part political statement, one part gourmet — as the name implies, The Whole Beast concentrates on using the entire animal.

Decadent mac 'n cheese
Decadent mac ‘n cheese

The Whole Beast’s owner, John Fink, went through 25 lambs during the three-day event, boiling the bones for stock and rendering about 150 pounds of fat for the kennebec fries. Fink estimates he works with nearly 80 farmers up and down the West Coast, joking, “I take the butcher out of the equation.” He sums up his business mantra as “Throw away nothing.”

That motto reverberated throughout the grounds. After tasting a sample of lamb courtesy of the kind man with the meat cleaver, confusion stops me short. Does the papery sample cup go into the recycling? Or do the delicious lamb juices demote it to garbage?

“Compost.” A man in a bright yellow traffic vest answers the question without me asking. “Everything used to serve food is compostable — even the utensils,” he adds with a whiff of pride and smugness.

This is, after all, San Francisco and the festival channels the forward-leaning ethos of the city. There is a small farmers’ market and ride sharing. One of the performance stages is solar powered. In 2011, attendees and volunteers diverted 77 per cent of waste from the landfill — a whopping 78 tons of material.

Even imbibing is done eco-style. In the elegantly-draped Wine Lands tent, the first step is to buy a stemless plastic wineglass. Step two: wander among the friendly vendors, sampling the fruit of nearby valleys and vineyards. Toss the wineglass in your shoulder bag and repeat at whim all weekend.

The cocktail crowd can find upscale concoctions at outlets around the park. A twist on the Moscow Mule called Tito’s Electric Mule is crafted with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, local ginger beer, lime juice and Fee Brothers’ Mint Bitters. There were Summer Bourbon Smashes and Watermelon Margaritas and ingredients ranging from yerba matte tea and local honey to “a mist of Absinthe.”

Beer drinkers need not despair. Just over the hill from one of the major music stages the barkeeps of Beer Lands dish out sips and suds from local brewmasters, honouring the rich Pacific Northwest brewpub culture.

Locally, some of our favourite food trends flow from this region. Look no further than Edmonton’s recent explosion of food trucks, long a San Fran staple. Around Golden Gate Park there were some discernable trends: mac and cheese, grilled cheese, tacos, and all things deep-fried. As you’d expect, the trendy came with a twist. The deep-fried category includes everything from pickle slices to the aforementioned mac and cheese. A three-cheese grilled sandwich was served with fig and fennel jam, and tacos were topped with the condiments of varying nationalities (think housemade kim chee).

All that heat warmed the soul — and the hands, a necessity for concert slots later in the evening. As a young man handing us cupcakes piled high with icing quipped, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Even in midsummer, cool temperatures and fog off San Francisco Bay forced us into multiple layers, sneaking puzzled glances at teens clad in tights and daisy chains. It boded well for comfort foods. On opening night, as the crowd prepared for Neil Young to take the stage, we warmed frigid fingers on plates of tater tots dressed up with chili-lime aioli.

Like tens of thousands of others, Laura Olson spent Saturday night rocking out to headliners Metallica. But she did it while cooking up macaroni and cheese. Olson is a manager at Homeroom, an Oakland restaurant dedicated to the revived classic.

From its spot among the long row of booths near the Main Stage, Homeroom served Gilroy Mac + Cheese. Attendees familiar with the area will know Gilroy equals garlic, with the nearby city known as Garlic Capital of the World. Homeroom served just one dish, to simplify matters. But like other offerings at Outside Lands, it was no simple dish. Graced with gouda, pecorino and roasted garlic, it stuck to the ribs and brought back memories of a cozy kitchen on a winter afternoon.

When I ask Olson which performers she liked best, she says, “Stevie Wonder,” then adds, “and Metallica too.” There is some surprise in her voice that reflects the varied nature of the musical lineup. And that’s where the food is just like the music: you may think you’re going to Outside Lands to enjoy one thing — and instead find the unexpected combinations are the most memorable.

Global News anchor Jennifer Crosby did double back for Chicken Yum Yum at Outside Lands 2012. She finished half of it.