Thirty seconds after entering Devour, the most anticipated food festival in metro Phoenix, I finished my first drink. It was a mesquite-smoked whiskey with chocolate bitters courtesy of The Vig. Toting the drink with my notepad and holstered wine glass, I came out of a tunnel and into the blazing daylight of the Desert Botanical Garden, where Devour had relocated for its ninth year, and where day one of the Devour Culinary Classic had just begun.
Sun fell. I sipped my drink. It tasted refreshing. I sipped again, trying to tease out the flavors with my mind. Oh that’s good stuff, clean and electric, better take another sip.
And then the drink was gone.
Like that, you are on to the next stand. You almost feel like the drink didn’t even happen.
This year was my first Devour, and my first of many drinks gave me a preview of how things tend to happen at the festival: fast, confusingly, in a vertiginous blur of iced wine and rabbit tacos, with high style, another drink never out of sight.
I grabbed a “milkshake” powered with beer from Dragoon (Tucson) and hit my first zone. Moving fast, trying to circle through as many stands as I could before the crowds, I started to eat. There was an oyster with piri piri from Buck & Rider, bison chili with a quail egg from Dust Cutter, and arancini from Cibo with an unexpected footlong cheese pull, the fried rice balls dislocating me to summers in Rome.
My photographer was running late. I filled my wine glass with a white blend from Sand-Reckoner Vineyards and watched smiling eaters pour through the VIP entrance and into the gardens.
The Desert Botanical Garden covers 140 acres. Only 55 of those acres are cultivated. More than 50,000 plant displays are showcased in the garden, and more than half a million visitors visit the garden each year. I watched many of these people river into the garden, eat in the nearest zone, and sluice away into further sections. I drank wine and impatiently waited for my photographer.
The wine, known as 2014 “w,” is a white blend, containing vigonier as well as two grapes alien to me, picpoul and malvasia. It tasted crisp and bright with lychee and melon flavors. “Good for outside,” I said to the gent who kept refilling my cup. “Inside, too,” he said.
My photographer showed and we were off.
The paths in the garden loop and twist. They curve under the shaggy trucks of strange palm-looking trees and past a hundred species of agave and aloe low to ground, nobody really looking at the plaques identifying them. You see them in marginal flashes, quick carved announcements that may shake into your outer thoughts for a second: “Aloe Vaombe, Malagasy Tree Aloe, Southern Madagascar.”
With the drinks flowing, sun climbing, and scenery unspooling, it was time to attack the food.
Not far from the VIP entrance, Helio Basin Brewing Company commanded a private section. There, you heard people playing string instruments while local artist Jesse Perry coated a canvas, brews poured, a Santa Maria grill smoked with venison sausage, and chef Tamara Stanger plated sausage rounds – with amaranth and wild blueberries in the casing – over an indigenous corn cake called ixguá.
Devour can feel Seussian. The gauzy, mute performance artists and 20-prong cactus candelabras only add to the vibe.
We circled from zone to zone, eating and snapping. The plants were as jazzy as the food. You wasted a lot of plates, napkins, and utensils as you went; the friendly staff helped you compost or recycle what you could (50 percent of waste was composted or recycled last year). The zones blur by and soon you’re at the end, full and dreaming of your favorite taste memories.
Here were a few of mine.
The Doug Robson stand, uniting Gallo Blanco and Otro Cafe, served an insanely delicious horchata. It was made from coconut milk, rice milk, cinnamon, and strawberry. After so many heady bites, it was nice to get something so refreshing. It also helped that to the stand’s left, an expressionless DJ was raining house jams over the sand like we were in Ibiza.
Café Lalibela doled out plates with lentil stew, beef stew, and two squares of injera. Injera is a fermented wheat pancake used to scoop food in Ethiopia, used as both utensil and "bread." The beef stew pulsed with meaty depths and cool beriberi spice. It was good for your velocity and spirit to eat with your hands as you hurried to the next vendor.
A flour tortilla with chile Colorado from the Tacos Chiwas folks was expectedly on point. The flour tortillas they make using an old-fashioned machine from Chihuahua have a fragrant, floral flavor that tortillas just don’t have. The rolling spice jived with the sun’s steady heat.
Fourth, that Sand-Reckoner white blend haunted me through the afternoon.
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Finally, the best thing I tasted was from Proof Bread. Jonathan Przybyl, Amanda Abou-Eid, and their staff were plating a pastry even better than their chocolate croissants. That pastry was sourdough pain au chocolate with bean-to-bar filling from DNA Chocolate. Whipped ricotta, blueberries, mint, and lemon curd teetered on golden-brown squares. Honey laced each pastry. The flavors were incandescent.
I left Devour with local-grain whiskey on my shorts and a slash of dark chocolate on my white shirt. I left feeling what you feel at the end of a vacation: plaintive, bummed, looking distantly and with a restrained longing to the next time around.