Arguably, though, the chief thing to devour at this year’s Devour, the 10th, was scenery.
The Desert Botanical Garden, home to the festival for the second year, has almost 1,000 plants per planted acre. As the crowd flowed down the pathways and into its corners and concavities, you would often stop, the cold brew and IPA and iced wine rolling through your head, the food through your soul, and marvel at Sonoran nature.
There are drifts of agave, used for medicine in these parts for time out of mind.
There is a tree called boojum, maybe the strangest I have ever seen. “Boojum,” according to its plaque, “is from a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll.” Its pale green trunk soars some 40 feet into the desert sky, almost looking like the trunk of an elephant, tracing a slight arc like a bottle rocket. It is in the same family as the ocotillo, and has the same kind of verdant growths sprouting from its body, but outwardly, in seemingly random geometric patterns.
On the Saturday and Sunday of the main event, some chefs go with bites from on or near their menus. This is understandable. The capacity for each day is 1,500 people, and each day it sells out (aside from Sunday VIP, at least). That’s a lot of potential customers. But some chose to depart from the menu and plate novel creations. That's where the real dance is.
All in all, I ate a lot of great food. The routine-shattering snowstorm of last week added coolness and excitement to the food and atmosphere. So, of course, did all of the wine and beer that coated, again and again and again, the bottom of your bottomless glass.
But these were the five best dishes.
First, Restaurant Progress served a buttered radish rained with crushed pistachios. This was contrarian and brilliant. At Devour, some chefs massaged ingredients for several days, nudging great complex bites to slow completion, and Restaurant Progress plates a half-naked root vegetable. But it was a Blue Sky Farms French breakfast radish with herbed butter and a bracing vinaigrette you just barely noticed: a clean, crisp bite not that far removed from the dirt and crust of the land we live in. There was also a duck tartare for the taking, brightened by pickled carrot and edited nicely with allium, chile, and soy, cool and mineral, together a nice start to a long second day.
Third, the Larder + the Delta’s pimento cheese and Benton’s bite on grilled Noble sourdough was a cataclysm of deeply porcine and tomato-powered flavor, continuing this restaurant’s torrid sprint since reopening last year. This was simple: a classic Southern combination lifted by lifting all the elements individually, tomato jam bringing the concentrated essence of the cool red fruit in the hugest way. It was like a two-handed sandwich packed into a single bite.
This dish was the strangest, the wildest, the one that isolated you the most completely from your past reality. And that’s saying a lot for a weekend whose purpose is to leave reality behind. It was, yes, the boojum tree.