I don't even like tomato juice.
Which begs the question: Why, on a 95 degree Sunday, was I outside in downtown Highwood, drinking alcohol mixed with the stuff?
The answer was Highwood's second-annual Bloody Mary Fest, held July 17. The event is not as boozy as it sounds, though there were 30 (30!) vendors on hand making their own versions of the classic cocktail. More than the drinks, Bloody Mary Fest featured restaurants and snacks from Highwood and the North Shore, live music, bouncy houses and even a sprinkler for the kids to cool off in the heat.
Click here to see our video recap of the Bloody Mary Fest.
Using the same format as the successful Wednesday evening farmers markets, the park in front of Highwood City Hall was transformed into a market and meeting place. Instead of fruits, vegetables and cheeses, most of the marquees at this event featured one main attraction -- the Bloody Mary. This classic cocktail combines vodka and tomato juice, and, in its purest form, some spices and a celery stick. An event with 30 different drinks, though, quickly becomes a who-can-top-this competition royale, and the winners are the customers trying out the goods.
At 2010's inaugural Bloody Mary Fest, hometown dive bar Silver Dollar Tavern took top honors for its concoction. This year, there were two winners, one from a celebrity panel of judges and the other a fan favorite. The judges included ABC TV Chicago's "Hungry Hound", Steve Dolinsky, and other area food writers and celebrities. Note to Highwood -- Highland Park Patch would be happy to participate in the judging in 2012.
Dolinsky, writing on his Twitter account, chronicled the professional judging. As a food writer, Dolinsky was sure to pick up on the various accoutrements that were part of each cocktail. Most included fresh and pickled vegetables, and some even added meats and cheeses for extra creativity. The judges picked Gabe's Backstage Lounge as their overall favorite, and I have to say I agree. Highwood Alderman Eric Falberg tipped me off to check out Gabe's, and it was mighty tasty. The bar's secret in the mix was fresh cilantro, but its garnish also featured horseradish cheese and a little prosciutto. It was a perfect Sunday beverage, and ruined me for the event by setting the bar too high for the other contestants.
Entrants in this year's competition included several local establishments -- Casa de Isaac, Tap House Grill, Silver Dollar, Wooden Nickel, Bridie McKenna's -- and some from as far afield as Indiana (Hoosier Momma) and Chicago (Smoke Daddy). While the high temperatures probably kept some of the crowd away, the event was packed both times I visited, and everyone seemed to be having a good time despite the heat.
For a town of only 5000 people, you have to hand it to Falberg and the Highwood city staff. They have attempted world records, invented festivals, and broken the mold with an evening farmer's market. See, they have invented reasons for people to not just visit town, but to spend time -- and money -- there, every single week throughout the summer. In fact we find, living at the north end of Highland Park as we do, that we spend just as much time in Highwood as we do in downtown Highland Park, precisely because of these occasions. Port Clinton Art Festival? Sure, I'll be in Highland Park for that one. But Wednesday morning Ravinia Farmer's market? Just doesn't work with my work schedule.
I have no idea how many thousands of visitors came through Highwood this week as a result of Bloody Mary Fest. They came by train, car and bike to check it out. They left happier, even with a slightly lighter wallet. That is what summer festivals should be all about.
Now, the next one coming up in August is a garlic festival. Not only don't I like garlic, but it doesn't like me. I might have to take a pass on that one.