Local Vendors Help Keep the 'Roonies Dancing

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Even though I've lived in Nashville almost my whole life, I have to admit that this past weekend was my first sojourn ever to the peace, love and music experience known as Bonnaroo. Now, I'm not a total prude or anything. I went to college in Northern California where chasing the Dead around from show to show for a week or so every year was the law, not an optional activity. And I've done my share of camping and roughing it, but I like to say that now I've reached the point in my life where I like to have something underneath me when I sleep ... like three stories of a Marriott.

So the opportunity to experience the madness and happiness of the 'Roo on a day pass with access to a parking lot that was 50 minutes door to door from my house seemed like an ideal opportunity to check out the scene. And let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised.

I could go on and on about the music and the crowd, but there are others who can do that much more eloquently and authoritatively than I can. What I was there to see was the quality and logistics of the food operations that keep 80,000-plus revelers fed and alive for a long weekend. When I first looked at the roster of food vendors, I was disappointed to see that no Nashville food trucks had been included in the list of "Food Truck Oasis" participants. But after visiting that site and seeing how difficult it would be to keep up with the workload in an infernally hot aluminum tube like the GastroPod out of Miami, I'm glad that none of my mobile food friends were subjected to that.

Instead, Middle Tennessee represented in the food tents that were scattered across the grounds. Almost as soon as I entered the press gate, I encountered one of three Jim 'N Nick's locations. JNN staff members were serving as support to the pitmaster rock stars of the Fatback Collective, who cooked whole hogs every day and catered the VIP artist dinner on Saturday night. But in addition to helping out the Fatbackers, a team of almost 50 Jim 'N Nick's employees from four Middle Tennessee locations and a few from Charleston also manned their own booths and fed thousands of sandwiches to the hungry 'Roonies each day of the festival.

Molly James runs the West Nashville, Cool Springs, Smyrna and Murfreesboro locations of the barbecue chain, and she knew what she was getting into. "They tell you to plan to serve until 3 a.m. every day, and you don't want to run out. But you don't want to have to hold any food over until morning either." She was able to handle this delicate balance thanks to the efforts of all four of her locations who cooked extra meat for the festival.

It didn't hurt that the Bonnaroo organizers were so helpful either. "They have been so friendly and they really know what they are doing like Johnny on the spot. We got one of our trucks stuck in the mud and they had us towed out in less than 15 minutes with one phone call." With such a huge crowd to feed, there is no time for inefficiency on the festival grounds.

Other Nashville purveyors served more specialized foods. Dan Stephenson of Dan's Gourmet served up ramekins of his amazing mac-and-cheese to long lines of festival goers seeking to carboload. As he scooped for all he was worth, I asked him if he was getting rich. He replied, "Nope, but we're having a blast!" It sure looked like it.

A few booths down was the crew from Swagruha at the Nashville Farmers' Market, who were attending their fourth Bonnaroo as a vendor. Lines were long for their excellent selection of curries and dosa meals. I checked in with them after the festival was over and they sounded relieved to be home after such a busy weekend which was mercifully not as hot as last year.

Also at the 'Roo: Frothy Monkey. On Friday afternoon Jeff Gibbs and Khalil Davis were spotted as the friendly faces serving up iced coffee and bottled water to folks seeking a pep-up before an epic night of Wu Tang Clan, Paul McCartney, ZZ Top, Animal Collective, Pretty Lights and more.

Maybe it was the old timey saloon-style font on the sign, but Doc Braden's Creole Seafood Pies looked like the sort of inauthentic food tent that I normally shy away from, like the "fried gator chunks" served by a guy from Brooklyn or the corn pancakes stuffed with a huge gooey blob of mozzarella cheese that a young lady of Swedish descent promised me were "real arepas." I know that my compatriot Lesley Lassiter has gone on and on and on about those Bonnaroo arepas and others in the past, but I must have gotten in line at the wrong cart.

But Doc Braden certainly knows his stuff when it comes to seafood pies and his tent was hopping every time I walked by. Apparently your average Bonnaroo attendee isn't as jaded as I am by food booth design and they were smart enough to gorge themselves on those delicious gumbo and spicy rice bowls. Of course, I was smart enough to sleep in my own bed ...

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