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Great American Food & Music Fest: When Food and Celebrity Team Up to Fleece the Hapless and Hungry

I hate to say this, but I blame the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. Ever since reading a New Yorker article about the meteoric rise of the Buffalo wing, I'd been meaning to make a pilgrimage out to where it all began. Though controversy surrounds the origin story, most people agree Anchor Bar was pivotal in the spicy wing zeitgeist. Yet I can always find an excuse not to drive seven hours to Buffalo ("I don't feel like it" being at the top of the list).

When I found out Anchor Bar's wings would be among the foods showcased at the Great American Food & Music Fest at the Meadowlands last Sunday, I decided this was my chance. It appeared to be a touring festival, featuring regional foods curated from top-shelf restaurants around the country (churros from L.A., ribs from Memphis, etc.). Tom Colicchio, Paula Deen, and Duff Goldman would be making appearances, and music would be involved, somehow. OK, then!

When I made a media inquiry to the festival sponsors, a cheery PR flack immediately sent two press passes, and told me to "wear something with an elastic waist." Her down-home, aw-shucks welcome succeeded in drowning out some of the nagging concerns popping up in my head, like, Why is Pizzeria Uno on the list of America's best food vendors?

Now, after spending an interminable amount of time at this spectacular disaster, I can say unequivocally that the Great American Food & Music Fest is a greedy, poorly run train wreck that capitalizes on America's paired obsession with celebrity and food to fleece maximum dollars from the hapless and hungry.

$3 steak tartare cones from Portland, Maine's the Front Room, a rare highlight.
$3 steak tartare cones from Portland, Maine's the Front Room, a rare highlight.
Tom Dudley

After spending $50 for admission and $25 for parking, the food came at an additional cost, a fact obscured on the murky event website. Besides a few surprisingly low-priced treats ($3 steak tartare cones from the Front Room in Portland, Maine, were a highlight), most items started at $8 or $9. This included my precious buffalo wings from Anchor Bar, which clocked in at $13 for 10 wings. While decent, our photographer pointed out that, for that price, he could score 40 hot wings in his Brooklyn neighborhood, and the Frank's Red Hot-based sauce wouldn't be all that different.

On top of the heavy price-gouging, the food sham had another aspect: currency cards. Instead of paying for each item with cash, you had to buy $10 and $20 cards emblazoned with Deen and Colicchio's manically grinning visages. But let's say you had $8 left on a card and you wanted a $9 hamburger. You would have to spend $10 more for a whole new card. This crafty system guaranteed that most math-challenged festival eaters would amble home with unused dollars on their cards. The only way to recoup your losses involved mailing the cards back to some address in California. In a candid conversation with some of the ever-present Currency Conversion crew members, they admitted, "It's basically a scam."

The "music" aspect of the event was a shoddy soundstage in the noisy festival entranceway. After seeing the owner of Tony Luke's sandwich shop in Philly belt out a couple of sappy guy-with-a-guitar ballads ("Fellas, look deep in the eyes of the woman next to you, and tell her exactly how much you care ..."), we did not return. Buckwheat Zydeco was the one highlight on the roster, but we were unwilling to suffer through until 9:15 to see him jam.  

The Anchor Bar's legendary wings: better to drive seven hours to Buffalo for the privilege.
The Anchor Bar's legendary wings: better to drive seven hours to Buffalo for the privilege.
Tom Dudley

Everything, from start to finish, was poorly run and confusing. There were no performance schedules to be found. Workers at the restaurant booths, clearly hired just for the day, couldn't answer questions like "What city is this restaurant located in?" or "What's in this sandwich?" The beer and wine tasting area was a logistical nightmare -- too bizarre, elaborate and bureaucratic to discuss. And once it started raining, things went from bad to worse.

Confused security guards corralled everyone into the indoor areas of the arena, presumably fearing liability. This meant that, for several hours, people were sitting on the concrete floor and steps without access to the food and music they had paid dearly for. But despite these safety concerns, when I wanted to leave, security told me I had to walk around the perimeter of the stadium in the rain to get back to my car.

"But I entered the festival through an indoor hallway!"

"They changed the rules. That hallway is off-limits now."

Getting back to my car was the best part of the day. I should have just driven to Buffalo.

Have a tip or restaurant-related news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.


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