A Review of Whiting, IN's 16th Annual Pierogi Fest

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I wrote about the premiere of "My Boys" for the AV Club, if you're interested.

Neighborhood street festivals are one of Chicago's summertime traditions, and one of Chicago's lesser-known secrets is that these fests kind of tend to suck, unless you have a high tolerance for crowds, heat, noise and being ripped off. Having realized that I'm not a big fest person a while ago I tend to avoid them, but last year I had a friend in town who wanted to check out the Swedish culture at an Andersonville street festival, but there was none to be found. There was a lot of loud music, gay pride and crap for sale, though. I don't blame the festival for highlighting the neighborhood's current happy gay vibe as opposed to its former Swedish identity, but regardless of what the festival was "about," it was hot, sweaty, noisy and crowded and we had to fight for $5 at an indoor bar at an Italian restaurant which didn't feel very festive. There were plenty of shell necklaces for sale, though. And this was the best fest scenario available: no entrance fee and within walking distance of my house, and I still felt shortchanged.

This year though I was determined to check out the Whiting Indiana Pierogi Festival. Being of Polish descent, or rather, just a human being, I love pierogis. How could you not love a dumpling stuffed with potato and then drenched in butter? There are, of course, several varieties on the pierogi: meat, spinach, sauerkraut, fruit, but I happen to love the potato, because how often can you legally combine at potato and a noodle? I don't get to eat pierogi as much as I would like, however. My aunt serves them at Christmas but since there are a finite amount of pierogi and about 20 people, I need to use discretion when allotting myself pierogi: I would like at least six but I have two. They do sell pierogi at the grocery store but my husband doesn't love the little bastards for some reason, so if I bought them, I'd be eating them solo, and that would be rather sad.

A pierogi festival, on the other hand, is a festival of pierogi, meaning a chance to enjoy as much dumpling as you want without fear of public scrutiny. A fellow named "Mr. Pierogi" would be on-hand, along with Ms. Paczki. There would be polka and karaoke. I imagined several other Polish delicacies would be on-hand. And it would all be happening in Indiana. I needed to check it out.

So we rounded up some like-minded friends and headed down to Whiting, which is a fine drive until you hit the Indiana border where you hit about 50 stores called "Sammy's Smoke Shop" that are all closed and very scary looking. But then you slide right into Whiting, a sweet little town, just about 40 minutes from where I live. We were lucky and found parking right off Indianapolis Blvd, which was a good omen.

We entered the fest which was mostly three or four blocks of food stalls, 50% of which were pierogi-related, the rest German, Middle-Eastern, Italian, Mexican and one just consisting of pop. You bought a big $15 pewter mug and filled it up with "old-fashioned" soda pop, which was great if you wanted to drink approximately two gallons of pop. One of my friends did this and she complained that once filled, the big mug of pop was actually too heavy to carry around.

I wasn't interested in pop however. I was interested in beer. The nice thing about the "beer garden" at Pierogi Fest is that drink tickets are only $3 and beers are only one ticket apiece. Three bucks for a beer isn't too shabby especially when you consider how much you get gouged for it at a baseball game. The downside is that no Polish beer was available in the tents. No worries, though: at the liquor store outside the garden you could buy a $3 tallboy of Okocim and wander about the fest drinking it as long as you kept it in a paper bag. Curses! We weren't allowed inside the beer garden with our beers, even in the paper bag. So we sat on the curb and drank our beers like classy people and watched the festival go by.

You get some magnificent people-watching at the Pierogi Fest. I think that at some of Chicago's scenier fests you encounter a lot of what we call "fronting," AKA people trying to demonstrate via their sunglasses, clothing and attitude just how cooler than you they are, but I encountered no such fronting at the Pierogi Fest. If anything, we were fronting by accident, I think. Steve's favorite couple was a fat guy wearing a shirt that just said "Cars" and his wife who's shirt said "America." I liked the guy whose t-shirt was completely slit down the back to reveal his tattoos of all of Chicago's sports team logos on his back. My girlfriend noted an incredibly poorly done boob-job. We all liked the 12-year-old kid dressed in a conductor's uniform at a booth hawking old-timey wares who had perfected the art of waving his microphone next to the speaker to simulate the sound of a choo-choo train.

I didn't get to meet Mr. Pierogi in person but like a good celebrity stalker I have a picture of me giving the thumbs-up while he was in the background, being interviewed by a news radio station lady who I think might have been drunk, because she was talking a lot about some lady who had eaten "an entire sausage" (big deal, I had done this myself, earlier). I did meet Ms. Paczki though and have a picture of me poking her in the belly to simulate what I imagine would be her pretend-jelly spilling out, but basically it just looks like I'm doing something kind of inappropriate to her.

We did hear some polka, too: the band played the "Beer Barrel Polka" and encouraged everyone to sing along: I didn't know the words, but I learned the very quickly.

I haven't really mentioned the food yet, have I? This is because there've been few times in my life where I've lived in such a valhalla of culinary wish-fulfillment. You want to order a dozen pierogi and eat them on the street with your hands with nobody judging you? No problemo, pal. Here are some of the things we all ate at this festival:

pierogi (duh). There was a variety sold filled with bacon, cheddar and potato but it was sold out by the time I felt emotionally ready for it but my girlfriend had given it two thumbs up

potato pancakes

Polish sausage

cinnamon sticks

corn shaved off the cob into a cup served with mayonnaise and liquid butter and paprika (my friend asked for hers with just the mayo, because she has anorexia, I fear).

corn on the cob (boring)

a brownie covered with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry

a huge eclair

apple strudel

apricot kolacki

These are just the things we did eat: we didn't have the "pizzerogi," or any of the Middle Eastern food, or the row of chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick, or the big drink served in a hollowed-out pineapple.

Of course a lot of the beauty of a festival is who you're with so it was nice that I was with people who didn't blink an eye when you switched from eclairs to your third helping of pierogi. If anything, they cheered you on and asked if they could help you eat it. I felt like we were surrounded by like-minded people, who moved at a good pace: we rarely felt like we were stuck in a sea of folks. Two things that helped our sanity too was the bathrooms were located in an air-conditioned trailer and were in shockingly good condition for a sweaty sweaty festival with cheap beer and plentiful food, plus there was a tent that just sprayed mist on hot people.

I kept remarking "I am so happy!" all throughout Pierogi Fest, which should indicate how I felt about it, but I think a better sign of its success was that one of our gentleman friends weighed himself before and after the festival, and marked a gain of "seven and a half tasty pounds."