Oh, the things I do for my beloved public! I was at home the other day, enjoying a bottle of Shiraz, nibbling on a hunk of Kerrygold Dubliner cheese, and exploring sites about numismatics on the Internet, when I checked my e-mail to discover an impassioned missive from an employee of the Arizona Renaissance Festival, which is taking place near the Superstition Mountains until March 28.
"You must help us," implored the writer, an entertainer with that anachronistic expo. "The food here is atrocious! Come see for yourself, and leave not thy rapier-like wit at home. I'm hoping a RenFest food review will encourage the management to make changes for the better."
By Shakespeare's bare bodkin, there's nothing I try to avoid more than these annual Busch Gardens-like bazaars with their congregations of hacky-sack types who've read The Lord of the Rings one too many times and can recite whole passages from the John Boorman film Excalibur. You know, the Peter Jackson look-alikes of both sexes who played Dungeons and Dragons obsessively in their formative years and who've never progressed beyond the desire to own their own broadsword.
Arizona Renaissance Festival
From downtown Phoenix, take Interstate 10 to U.S. 60, continue east on 60 past Gold Canyon Golf Resort to the Festival Village.
Chaucer's Mead: $3.50
Roasted turkey leg: $5
Steak on a stick: $5
Ravioli salad with mixed greens: $4
Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 28. Advance tickets are $16 for adults and $6 for children 5 to 12. Admission is $2 higher at the door. (www.renfestinfo.com)
Okay, I admit I did go through a J.R.R. Tolkien period when I was in junior high, and I even had my own hand-carved Gandalf staff which I made myself. But then I moved on, people. Alas, there are far too many who seem to get caught in such mental cul-de-sacs. Hence the popularity of fetes like RenFest.
But I am nothing if not a loyal slave to my fan base, so I decided to go to this prefab Scarborough Fair and take measure of its comestibles for those of you so inclined to slip into a tunic, strap on a codpiece, and go in search of that Holy Grail full of cheap ale. In general, I've found that it's best to keep one's expectations low with these shindigs. Then you'll be pleasantly surprised when you're able to keep down any of the slop on offer, as I was on this visit.
On the whole, RenFest was larger than I anticipated, with several clusters of food vendors set up along two broad, meandering pathways that lead from the entrance to a "tournament arena" where actors on horseback give jousting demonstrations. Most of these clusters have the same items on offer, with a few variations, and all are served by folks in an array of medieval and Renaissance costume.
There's also something called a "Pleasure Feast," a six-course meal that includes a couple of hours of dinner theater for a whopping total of $79.95, but I confess I'd rather be strapped to a La-Z-Boy at knifepoint and forced to watch any TV show or movie featuring Tori Spelling, easily the homeliest hag in Hollywood. So, I stuck to the stalls instead.
Most everything, whether drink or nosh, fell into the $3 to $5 range, which seems reasonable considering none of it gave me food poisoning. But then my digestive tract did have to deal with a jumbo smoked turkey leg, which, after being grilled alfresco for an hour or so (according to the lass serving me), had the texture and flavor of a mouthful of rich Corinthian leather. Even as I write this, the last of that chewy bird has yet to bid my intestines adieu.
Slightly more appetizing was the steak on a stick -- a sirloin slice on a corn dog wand. Still, the steak didn't seem overcooked, and it was drenched in some sweet marinade that was quite tasty. Both of these I washed down with a plastic cup of Smithwicks Ale, a malty Irish brew that at least goes down the gullet as well as Bass. The Harp lager I had was crisp and refreshing, leading me to conclude that RenFest keeps its taps clean, for which it garners a point or two.
But when it came to libations, I preferred the Chaucer's Mead, a slightly cloying honey wine that I enjoyed as a sort of apéritif. As many of you are no doubt aware, mead is probably the oldest fermented drink known to man, a beverage enjoyed by the slain warriors in Valhalla, Beowulf, and characters in the epic of Gilgamesh. Some sources even credit mead for the word "honeymoon," because newlyweds would drink it in the belief that it promoted reproduction. Despite its popularity in the ancient world, it's rarely served these days, which is too bad because it's quite delicious.
Chaucer's Mead is produced by the California company Bargetto, and though there are more complex variations available, I was still pleased to see that RenFest was serving it. Unfortunately, for $3.50 all they give you is a shot glass full! What's up with that? I suspect the niggardly amount has to do with wanting to keep the masses from imbibing too heavily and turning rowdy, but a bottle of the stuff is only $12 direct from Bargetto. So $3.50 a snort is really a rip-off.
The last item I liked were the cinnamon crunch almonds, served warm. Granted, they're hard to mess up, but to be fair, I downed a whole bag while putting away snifter after snifter of mead. After the almonds, it was all downhill, I'm afraid. I asked one of the wenches doling out the mead for a culinary recommendation, and she suggested the wild mushroom ravioli salad sold by another booth. Sadly, the cold ravioli tasted like sand, served as it was atop a bed of mixed greens and walnuts, and with an Italian grape-vinaigrette on the side. Too bad. A laudatory concept completely foiled in execution.
Two more ideas poorly brought to fruition were the steamed artichokes served with butter and lemon, and the Scotch eggs. The artichoke I tried was rubbery and flavorless, and the Scotch egg I had was dry, crusty black and as hard as a croquet ball. Normally, I love eating whole artichokes one leaf at a time, dipping them in butter, and scraping the inner part on my teeth until I arrive at the moist center, or at least that's how it's supposed to work. I also adore Scotch eggs, which, for those of you unfamiliar with them, are hard-boiled eggs covered in sausage and deep fried. There's nothing like them when they're prepared properly, but I'm surprised I didn't chip a tooth on RenFest's version.
Last stop was the dreaded bread bowl stand, with your choice of beef stew, chili, chicken soup, broccoli and cheese, spinach-artichoke dip or chicken salad in a hollowed-out sphere of baked dough. Somehow I feel certain that the punishment for gluttony in Hades involves being force-fed bread bowls until you retch. Indeed, there's something that draws fat people to bread bowls like sex offenders to the University of Colorado. Who knows? Maybe it's just the prospect of being able to eat the container in which your dinner is served.
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Nevertheless, to judge by the various obese individuals carrying them, this was one of the more popular dishes offered, so I bravely decided to attempt the broccoli and cheese bread bowl. The result was so blandly gooey and devoid of character that I threw in the serviette about three bites into it. If your taste buds have been paralyzed by a car accident, and everything seems the same on your tongue, then RenFest's bread bowls are for you. Otherwise, you might as well spend your money on another steak on a stick.
Worst of all, though, were RenFest's pathetic excuses for pizzas at Michelangelo's slice shop. I tried a slice of cheese and a small, personal garlic chicken pizza. Both were drier than lizard skin and about as appealing as sucking face with a camel. What sauce there was had hardened from overcooking, and that personal pizza could've doubled as a small Frisbee. If those godfathers of the Renaissance, the Medici, were alive to gag on this cardboard, they'd carve RenFest's promoters into pepperoni slices with their poniards.
Dessert-wise, RenFest mainly offers the sort of generic pastries and sweets one can purchase at Fry's or Albertsons. So rather than waste my hard-earned shekels on a cinnamon bun or some chocolate-covered strawberries, I went for another shot of mead. Plus, many of the serving wenches were attractive enough to serve as a sort of visual antidote to all the poor grub.