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Maybe Just Don’t Go to Food Festivals

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Most of them are expensive, crowded, and the food’s often mediocre

Pig Island
A line at Pig Island, a food festival focused on pork
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Many people were outraged over the weekend when they paid $75 for what they thought was a pizza festival, billed as an all-afternoon event where attendees could eat pizza to their heart’s content. It turned out that the few slices of available pizza were laughably small, and there wasn’t enough to drink. The story is still playing out, but it seems pretty likely like these people were scammed.

That sucks for them. Really! It’s never fun to be played. But here’s the thing: People shouldn’t pay to go to most food and drink festivals anyway. These events, even the ones that are legit, can be the worst ways to experience food.

I get why people go to them. Most of the festivals, which advertise hours of unlimited food and drink in one place, seem like a great idea at first glance. Paying $75 for pizza and beer doesn’t seem totally outrageous when it’s an all-day event, and other versions of food festivals — bacon! Asian food! pork! beer! — similarly capitalize on obsessed-over foods that, in theory, a fan could eat or drink in almost limitless quantities.

And people want to go to these things: The New York City Pizza Festival, despite not listing a single pizza vendor in its description, still had some 80,000 people saying they were at least interested in the event on Facebook. The Great Big Bacon Picnic, which sells $99 tickets for two-and-a-half hour intervals, says it always sells out.

But the reality is that these festivals are rarely worth the cost or the time if you’re in it for the food. They’re often crowded. Lines are sometimes long for vendors and often the food most worth trying typically has the longest wait. All this eating in one place is also part of the depressing cultural shift toward acquiring food instead of dining.

Even when name-brand chefs show up, logistics mean that it’s practically guaranteed that they’re not bringing their A game. Having to deliver a ton of food prepped in small portions far from a working kitchen does not make for stunning dishes. I once went to a Chicago bacon festival, and one of the tastiest things I ate was a salmon soup with bacon bits from Stephanie Izard. It was good, but it was still a tiny cup of soup. Her presence, and the presence of many of participating restaurants, seemed to be more for marketing than it was for actual cooking.

Huge events also have so many other factors that can, and often do, go wrong. There may not be enough seats. There often aren’t enough bathrooms, especially for outdoor events. You don’t always know ahead of time if you’re getting a top-shelf pour or some campy brand.

Finally, if you paid a ton of money for a ticket, you’ll likely try to eat everything, and by the end, you will be stuffed with tons of food that’s just okay. Here is photographic evidence of my condition after that Chicago bacon festival in 2012, when I was 22 and theoretically had a stronger disposition. Basically everybody around me was in a similar state.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The Big Apple Barbecue, for example, is one of the best food events I’ve ever attended. But there, you don’t have to prepay for a ticket, meaning there’s no pressure to eat as much as possible. All the vendors also dish out sizable portions of food since it’s at cost, and fans can be selective about which ones they try. High profile events like New York City Wine and Food Festival, though it has festival in the name, are also loaded with dinners and gatherings that skirt some of the problems listed. Their experience and access to better chefs, of course, come at a far higher ticket cost.

And yes, I know that some festivals are charity events, like the $125-per-ticket Harvest in the Square benefitting the Union Square area or the $70-per-ticket Latke Festival benefitting The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit centered on food-related illness. I understand that they’re valuable ways to make money.

But if a festival advertises unlimited food and booze for a prepaid ticket, don’t expect it to be an amazing food experience. For that, donate some of that money you would’ve spent directly to the nonprofit of choice. Then take the rest of the cash and have a really nice meal — at an actual restaurant.

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