The first pulsing resonance each day at Edmonton Folk Fest fills the air in front of the main stage with a time-honoured clack-a-lack-clack of hammers knocking in tarp-pegs. A raffle system gives those fortunate enough to be drawn the opportunity to claim a prime location, and patrons line up in droves in hopes of being the first to receive a ticket. Tent pegs in hand, the eager shuffle quick as they can toward the out-of-season ski hill that acts as grandstand -- running was banned a few years ago due to over-eagers spilling spectacularly down the hill.
I some-crazy-how found a way to tear my eyes away from both the blistering action from one of the more epic afternoon jam sessions on stage six (Vieux Farka Touré and Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba) and the omni-alluring Muttart Conservatory pyramids to note that many volunteers were clamouring into a large tent set up outside of the festival grounds. I had heard rumours circulating that all the volunteers were getting fed like Medieval dukes and I swore to find out if 'twere true.
While waiting for confirmation of my kitchen appointment, fate decided I should slake my pre-appetite by heading over to CORNSTARS, an establishment serving huge onion blossoms de-cored straight out of their oil bath, filling the now-gaping center with a dipping sauce made from horseradish, cayenne peppers, sour cream, chili peppers and Srirachi. Unfortunately, I hoovered the entire unclenched, deep-fried onion into my face, and within twenty seconds of my last bite the media tent called me over to my kitchen interview. Rushing off with thoughts of another potential meal, I willed myself to digest diligently.
I met my guides at the media tent and, heading out in a private golf cart, was able to unearth the extent of Dukedom offered to the volunteers: not just fed while on the job, all volunteers are free to enter on days when they do not work and continue to reap the benefits of the massive meals. One of the volunteers quips, "The food is why some of us volunteer in the first place."
My guides are introduced to me as none other than Glenda Dennis and Elisa Zenari, a mother-daughter force at the festival. These ladies are busily organizing staff and station, given the modest title of 'kitchen assistants', taking a brief break enough to show me around the tent at the tail end of peak hours. Glenda herself has been working in the festival since 1998, but not always in the kitchen: she initially sold and coordinated all the advertising in the program book. Working the kitchen first in 2008, Elisa took over in 2009 following several administration positions these last seven years, and now both work the 'kitchen assistant' title together.
The ladies began their operations mid-July to give themselves ample time to set up one of the largest mobile kitchens in all of North America. For these first few weeks, they can expect to feed anywhere from 60-150 staff out of a small trailer, a miniscule side kitchen that lasts the duration of the time it takes to spread out and paint the oriented strand board floor, construct the walkways, and erect the 7000 square foot tent. This amount of tent space may seem massive, but traffic per meal could be anywhere up to 2100 volunteers, which turns out to be approximately three square feet per volunteer (excluding the space allotted to necessary kitchen equipment). With two of eight large ovens given to dessert duty, as well as operating all of the other equipment, beverages and a serving area, there is not much room for a planning error. Four large trucks, two of which are refrigerated, hold all of the cooking supplies. A 'Commissary Crew' cart these products back and forth when needed and they are only a small section of the volunteers involved in the kitchen, jostling for space among groups designated for Beverages, Desserts, Main Courses, Platters, Serving Line (which includes a take-out crew for those unable to squeeze in a regular dinner time), and finally Salad.
"It is not uncommon to see fifteen tubs of salad ready for the serving line," says Glenda.
These women cannot laud their volunteers enough, for they are a responsive bunch that do not take these meal privileges for granted. Elisa relates a tale from two years ago: during a freezer crisis in one of the storage trucks, the volunteers were among the first to assist the transfer of food before spoilage set in.
"They were just like worker bees, helping out with no questions asked."
They inform me that they feed these helpers two meals per day, failing initially to mention that the meal times are 11am-2pm for lunch and 5pm-8pm for dinner; including time for preparation, these are long, arduous days. Stephane Levesque has commanded the 'kitchen manager-cum-chef' position these last two years and his menus are superb: I ate a plate stacked with two salads (Daikon slaw and noodle salad with a lime-chili vinaigrette), Basmati rice, cauliflower, peas, turnips, and a roasted chipotle chicken, flavoured with smoked paprika. Each dinner includes a round of dessert but, much to my chagrin, I could not possibly eat his sticky toffee pudding cake on top everything else I'd downed. Every meal included a vegetarian option (a beet/walnut loaf during my visit), with varying local meats and sides that appeal to a wide range of taste; I wish I had been asked for access on the day of the red curry chicken pineapple pot pie.
Glenda and Elisa have made notable strides to be environmentally aware: not only is the water sponsor Earth Water (a company that siphons all its profits into the United Nations World Food Programme to provide clean water to thousands), but the Festival also aims to minimize its waste as much as humanly possible, a heavy task when faced with a crowd exceeding 100 000 over five days. All volunteer staff bring their own containers for the drink station, as the use of recyclable plastic cups is reserved for guests and artists, and the entire festival is compost conscious: all cutlery, drinking cups and disposable items were completely compostable, with zealous volunteers backing it up. I once threw out a fork and, much to my surprise, a volunteer whipped his head around and lightly admonished me.
"No man! We're composting everything this year." Plucking the fork from the garbage, placing it in the proper receptacle, "Here, let me scrape off your plate so you can go get your deposit."
Any vendor vying to participate at the festival must agree to its eco-plating policy, purchasing reusable plates for $2. The plate-cycle completely reimburses the vendor, as they charge each patron an extra $2 at the point of purchase, who in turn receive their deposit with a clean plate from a washing station. Thus, no paper plates were harmed in the entirety of the Folk Fest. This system amusingly spawns a clan of children that take up the business of collecting plates for profit, referred to earnestly as plate-urchins. I overheard one tenacious boy bragging that he had made $104, which means he somehow convinced 52 people that they were too lazy to collect their $2.
Surrounding the plate tent on all sides were independent food vendors, part of a caravan of tents that yawned around the back end of stage one. While traditional carnival confectioneries were sold, there were many unique, reasonably priced food vendors that deserve mention:
The INDIA PALACE RESTAURANT served delicious Chicken Bhuna and Butter Chicken, always with steaming hot naan bread atop the dish, but an Indian performer explicitly mentioned that his culture had more to offer than these few popularized dishes which caused me slight Western guilt.
IRIE FOOD served a wonderful Jerk chicken, whose thick sauce ran through the black bean rice, well-basted chicken falling off the bone having been gently nursed by my incisors.
HOMEFIRE GRILL boasts a contemporary-Canadiana Native-style fusion menu which served Bison (yes, the Woolly Sovereign of its majestic plains) in the form of a burger that made the entire lineup salivate instantly -- a dollop Saskatoon berry relish on top (a berry they also use in tarts) adding moisture to a slightly drier meat. Also on the menu: a savoury, caramelized pulled chicken sandwich.
THE TASTE OF MONGOLIA, while actually serving several dishes, forewent their name and stamped "Green Onion Cake" atop their tent, a dish called "our local love" by Elisa. This popular, inexpensive snack laced with green onions has a soft, denser-than-naan exterior and the customer has three options of sauce:
- soya sauce, for fans of salty and moist
- sour cream, as a smoother accent
- Sriracha hot sauce, adding a latent tickle
I found the hot sauce was not enough of bolster on its own, preferring a combination of all three, using of all three corners of the triangular bread as spades to dig into the separate flavours, biting off each corner in a single mouthful.
This "local love" certainly underscores the entire Festival, transcending the boundaries of their favourite snack. 2400 volunteers concerned with local events and taking care of their environment valorizes the massive effort that ensured every attendee left satiated. Although in hindsight I wish I had unlimited access to Stephen's menus, the fare offered were hand picked as local businesses, blunting any attempt at a corporate presence -- a gleeful departure from GTA events. Glenda and Elisa have given up more than a month of their summer, dedicating themselves to the organization of the kitchen, a commitment that both women undertake ardently; without them and their crews, the festival would have many mouths to feed without the proper provisions.
Thanking the women, I let them get back to their duties as I waddled back toward the main stage, tottering with an overblown stomach, but with a smile emanating from every surface of my body.