It should be noted that ostriches scare the hell out of me.
My first up-close encounter with the large flightless birds from Africa happened, oddly enough, at a petting farm in Park Rapids, Minnesota. As soon as I approached the enclosure, where about 20 or so of them were clustered, the group spied the dry kibble in my trembling open palm and rushed to the forefront. Nearly 10 years later, I can still see them towering over me, clouds of dust arising from their shaking feathers, stepping on one another's prehistoric-like feet, beaks clacking, and heads bobbing up and down like a bunch of wide-eyed pink snakes with fake eyelashes. The kibble went airborne, and I went back to the deer.
It was conquering this fear of our largest living species of bird (and the opportunity to eat one) that I decided to spend a few hours at the 24th Annual Ostrich Festival in Chandler.
I must say it was a great event, but it would have been better without the ostriches.
Beautiful weather, a well-thought-out layout at Chandler's Tumbleweed Park, and fun, family-focused attractions -- like dogs jumping off a dock into water, a petting zoo, camel rides, a bubble booth, and an entertaining show called "Wild About Monkeys" -- made for a lot to see in various sections throughout the venue. (You can check out our slide show of the event here.)
Of course, the main attraction is the ostrich races, and everyone -- save for the ostriches -- seemed to be very excited about them.
Clearly agitated at being pushed about with a broom and corralled into booths where hoods are put over their heads until race time, the ostriches are hooked up to small chariots with human riders inside. On a signal, their hoods are pulled off and they not so much as race but flee around the track in sheer panic with a single goal of getting back to their pen. At one point, a terrified ostrich with chariot in tow took a sharp right out of the starting booth and wildly crashed into the spectator gate.
Not my kind of fun and, feeling sorry for the large birds that once seemed so frightening, I went off in search of food.
Being at a festival means fried food, but being at an ostrich festival means the ostrich is food. And because ostrich meat is leaner than chicken or beef, the calorie guilt is less than, say, a corn dog or a fried Twinkie.
But with just a few booths serving up the big bird to curious fans, lines were long. From an ostrich farm in Sierra Vista, I ordered up an ostrich burger ($7) with caramelized onions. Save for the too-much potato bun, the thin patty was fairly tasty, its flavor like lean seasoned turkey sausage. And at a vendor from Cave Creek who could have used a lesson or two in restaurant management due to its quirky ordering system and disorganized "kitchen," I ordered up an emu steak burger ($8). Like its larger cousin the ostrich, the emu features meat that also is lean, but in this case, the taste of the meat was barely there, and a coating of a teriyaki-like sauce seemed to be the only flavor to be had. Certainly not worth the eight bucks and the 45 minutes I stood in line.
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To be avoided at all costs is ostrich jerky. While waiting in line for my emu steak, I ordered a piece, and it was easily one of the worst foods I've eaten this year. Tough, slimy, and with a flavor like a lead pipe, I would have believed it if someone had told me it was sourced from the bottom of a pond, not an ostrich farm.
The best part of the Ostrich Festival may have been its proximity to one of my favorite ice cream shops: Udder Delights, the Superstition Farm-owned creamery. I scored two scoops of goodness -- one peanut butter and the other a creation of Nutella, cocoa, and chocolate -- in a waffle cone cup.
Each bite of its creamy goodness helped to give pause to a mostly pleasurable outing that, if it weren't for the ostriches, would have been pretty top-notch. And, if they could talk, something makes me think they would agree.