Bonnaroo is not for the meek. A 90,000-person cultural minefield of underage midriffs, vodka-cranberry-filled Camelbaks, and face-painted hula hoopers, it celebrated its 13th edition this past weekend in Manchester, Tennessee, combining Coachella’s bombastic production with Woodstock’s penchant for mud and nudity. But if you can overlook the abundance of MDMA-fueled shirtless white college dudes blithely sporting full-sized Native American headdresses, there was a major aspect of the behemoth Kanye West/Skrillex shrine that was thoroughly enjoyable: the food. The larger populace at Bonnaroo may be content—and rightfully so—to subsist solely on Coors Light, corndogs, and nose drugs for four days straight, but there was also an opportunity to affordably indulge in the inventive, the classic, and the decadent, with a top-notch collection of merchants from all over the US Eastern coast and Midwest. I spent two days at the festival dodging limbs and gorging on all of the provisions and libations that I could physically manage for the sake of giving their collective menu a test run.
I quickly discovered that one must rid themselves of sobriety immediately upon arrival. This is less for the sake of partying and more for the ability to manage the heat, the crowds, and the pervasive face jewels without losing your mind. The way that I elected to self-intoxicate was by repeatedly visiting the Dobel Tequila bar for a continuous flow of margaritas and palomas made with fresh grapefruit juice and agave nectar, which I jovially convinced myself was a healthy option for counteracting the oncoming caloric onslaught. Dobel is a mix of reposado, añejo, and extra-añejo, multi-aged in “oak casks from Southern Europe,” and bottled in small batches. It made for smooth and refreshing cocktails. I also paid a couple of visits to the 25-brewery-strong Broo’ers Festival for a cold one, but I quickly discovered that streamlining one’s liquid intake for maximum buzz at minimal volume is strategic when navigating a Porta Potty-dominated setting.
Once the drunchies were in full swing, it was on to the food. One of the vendors I was most excited about was Jeremiah Bullfrog’s Miami-based pop-up diner gastroPod. Although gastroPod has served Bonnaroo for the past three years from a classic 60s airstream trailer, Jeremiah conceptualized a diner built into a shipping container for this year with a Pulp Fiction-themed menu in celebration of the film’s 20th anniversary. (The Tarantino classic was being screened in the nearby Cinetent.) Jeremiah is a veritable boss—he has staged at El Bulli, honed his skills at New York institutions such as WD-50 and Spice Market, and has been Rick Ross’s personal chef. I stuffed my face with a perfectly seasoned, fantastically juicy “Royale with cheese” topped with fresh, crisp pickles and washed it down with a spicy, okra-garnished Michelada while asking him what a seasoned chef like himself gets out of serving a bunch of undeserving drunk fools (referring to myself here) at festivals like Bonnaroo.
“It’s just getting our asses kicked,” he laughed. “It’s a logistical nightmare. But I think we’re good at it.” Jeremiah and his gang had shipped all of their equipment in the very unit that they were now using as a fully operational kitchen, complete with a walk-in fridge in the back devised from a camo-printed storage container that they rented from Georgia. In order to translate fine dining into a fast and furious operation, he tells me, “we learned how to simplify and lower the number of steps. But we keep the mentality of good ingredients and a focus on technique. Everything’s done the proper way that it would be done in a Michelin-starred kitchen.”
Even with his Michelin-star training, Jeremiah eats on his days off by making 69-cent ramen, cracking an egg into it, and sprinkling it with furikake and hot sauce. This is a man who knows how to meld the pleasures of corner-store comfort food with gourmet sensibilities.
On that thought, it was time to visit Baconland, an attraction at the center of the festival designated by a 22-foot flame-throwing statue of a pig dubbed ‘Hamageddon’. I felt that I had no choice but to opt for its five-course bacon flight, which included offerings of smoky deliciousness from as far as Iowa Falls, Iowa (a brown-sugar-cured Vande Rose variety) and Swedesboro, New Hampshire (Wellshire bacon, dry-rubbed and peppered.) Each piece had its own distinct conjugation of fattiness, sweetness, and tenderness, and although it can be easy to say “bacon is bacon,” I found myself most drawn to the Vande Rose. During the flight (aka 30-second period where I devoured the bacon while walking and avoiding eye contact with a topless teenage girl about 10 feet away) I reminisced about the years eating microwavable Hormel bacon at my childhood best friend’s house. Look how far I’ve come!
After a few hours of actually watching bands and engaging in social interaction, my gullet was cleared for more activity. My friend Tuffy and I split a strawberry doughnut sundae from Itty Bitty Donuts (a dozen marvelously fluffy miniature donuts smothered in syrupy strawberry) and followed it up with a bowl of three-cheese habanero garlic sausage mac ‘n’ cheese from Dan’s Mac Attack, which was less desirable in practice than in concept. (We ended up “gifting” half of it to one of Tuffy’s cheese-obsessed colleagues.) After a few more bands and a delicious late-night slice of pineapple and jalapeño pizza from festival mainstays Spicy Pie, I had reached capacity.
But a new day dawned, and with it, more opportunities to eat myself to death via the 70 vendors that Bonnaroo had aggregated for its hungry patrons. Long Island City-based food funhouse M. Wells was holding down the snack front in the Artist’s Lounge, with menu items such as cucumber tuna tartare mini waffle cones and $10 cartons of Seva artisan maple water (I ordered the former, but felt merely amused by the latter in spite of its purported electrolyte content). Although I was disconcerted by the idea of eating raw fish in humid, 85-degree Tennessee heat, I did so successfully without dying, and the bite-sized cones made for a refreshing accompaniment to my fourth paloma of the day.
As we drew nearer and nearer to my favorite part of Lionel Richie’s Saturday night performance (wherein he drank Gatorade out of a wine glass and periodically told the audience that it was “disgusting” while cackling to himself), I was entering the home stretch. Perhaps fearing for my life, my friend offered to aid me in the consumption of a just-roasted s’more (honest to god, is there anything truly better?) from the barren but effective Mr. S’more booth and a Roo-Mi—a baguette stuffed with a fresh spring roll and topped with asian mayo, cucumber, green bell pepper, carrot, and cilantro—from the seemingly untitled bánh mì vendor.
When I first arrived at the festival, I had set my sights on the gooey magic coming from Puffs of Doom, an artisanal cream puff booth around the corner from a massive fountain that seemed to serve as the festival’s round-the-clock wet t-shirt contest. Looking beyond the cute name (although I am admittedly a sucker for combining desserts with heavy metal), I was excited to taste the Chicago-based business’s inventive approach to profiteroles. Seeing no resolution to my dilemma of choosing between the salted caramel hot chocolate cream puff and the cookies ‘n’ creme ice cream puff (I thought it unwise to meddle with the savory bacon mac ‘n’ cheese puff at this point in the game), I had no choice but to tackle both—thankfully with a little help from my companions. The cookies ‘n’ creme puff was a glorious structure of warm, slightly sweet dough encasing a scoop of creamy, slow-melting, cookie-heavy ice cream, and chocolate crumb crunch generously sprinkled on top for good measure. As I carried it from the booth to a nearby table, half a dozen stoners gathered around and stared at it like it was baby Jesus in a manger, cooing “Whoooaaa, whaaaaat is thaaaaat?” nostrils flared to maximize intake of its baked-good scent. But that’s the upside of festival food; the stoners could instantly follow suit for five bucks (and did). Pretention is pretty stripped when you’re eating everything with plastic forks to a distant soundtrack of Cut Copy’s “Out There On the Ice” and a posse of glowstick-wavers dancing nearby. Perhaps music festivals are necessary evils, and at least you can navigate them with a damn good cream puff in hand.
As I was savoring the last thing that I ate before bon voyaging the hell out of Bonnaroo, I wondered: do cookie dough Dippin’ Dots qualify as molecular gastronomy?