(The Root) — Corn. That's one of my earliest and fondest memories of the Taste of Chicago, where you can buy big, juicy corn on cob on a stick and douse it with lemon pepper or any flavoring of your choice.
You see, it reminds me of spending summers at my grandparents' house in the country outside of Memphis, Tenn., where my sister, brother and I had to work in the garden, picking cucumbers, string beans, peas, tomatoes and corn.
Although that was mostly unpleasant for a city girl from Chicago because, well, it was dirty and buggy, the best part was eating all of the veggies we'd pick at the end of the day. We got to eat outdoors, and it wasn't even a cookout. We couldn't do that at home on the North Side of Chicago! One of my favorite things to eat at Big Mama's was corn — and it wasn't genetically modified.
That's what it seems like you get at the Taste. Ever since returning home to Chicago from New York about 10 years ago, I've occasionally made my way to the Taste of Chicago, a summer rite of passage, which takes place on the city's "front yard" — Grant Park. The sparkling emerald at 337 E. Randolph St. is surrounded by the glistening waters of Lake Michigan to the east and the bustling sidewalks and streets of Michigan Avenue to the west in the Loop. Named for U.S. President and Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the park also features Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum Campus.
In case you do not know, the Taste of Chicago is exactly what it sounds like: a large outdoor food festival that features an array of culinary selections from across the city. You can order a taste or a full order. The five-day festival is scheduled to begin this year on July 10, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced that for the first time, the 33-year-old event will feature food trucks.
Besides corn, you'll find Polish sausages the Chicago way — that is, dripping with all the fixings, including grilled onions, mustard, ketchup and hot peppers. If you don't know about the local delicacy, you need to ask a Chicagoan, or just click here. The city has not yet released a complete list of this year's participating restaurants, but last year festivalgoers found tasty baby back ribs and smoked chicken from Robinson's No. 1 Ribs, red beans and rice with jerk chicken from Vee-Vee's African Restaurant, fire-grilled tacos from Carbón Mexican Grill and deep-dish and thin-crust pizza from Lou Malnati's.
Scores of people converge on the city for the festival, although attendance has fallen off in recent years. The Chicago South Loop Hotel is a popular destination for African Americans because of its proximity to Grant Park and Bronzeville, one of the city's historic black communities. For those who want a break from festival food lines, Bronzeville is also home to one of the city's most popular black-owned restaurants — Chicago's Home of Chicken & Waffles at 3947 S. King Drive — which serves up some of the best fried chicken and catfish. It is also a good jumping-off point for tourists to visit the renowned DuSable Museum of African American History at 740 E. 56th Place on the South Side and the Black Pearl Gallery, a 40,000-square-foot state-of-the-art gallery at 1060 E. 47th St.
Of course, the draw of the festival is not just food; it also features music. Last year Chaka Khan and Jennifer Hudson were musical headliners. Jill Scott and Robin Thicke are just two of the big-name headliners this year, and each evening's concert at the Petrillo Music Shell will offer additional food options for concert attendees from some of the city's best food trucks.
Now, I haven't attended a concert at the Taste since I returned home. I honestly cannot remember the name of the last artist whose show I attended. As I mentioned earlier, attendance has fallen off, likely because of the recession, and there is the issue of crime: There have been several shootings near the event in recent years.
Also, former Mayor Richard M. Daley cut the fireworks display. I used to love watching the fireworks, with the kaleidoscope of colors cascading throughout the night sky before July 4. When I was younger, one of my intrepid older female cousins would travel from the South Side to the North Side to take my siblings and me to watch the fireworks display at Grant Park.
She learned early on that it was best to walk along the waterfront rather than over the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which covers the Chicago River. The first and last time she tried to get us to walk across the bridge, I was about 8. I cried and fell to the ground — I was too afraid to cross the river by foot because I could see water below through the bridge grates.
After that, we always made our annual trek to Grant Park along the beach. I was safe. I was on solid ground. I had Lake Michigan to the east and Lake Shore Drive to the west. (And yes, I do cross the bridge by foot these days.)
Although I haven't been in a while, I do plan to attend the Taste of Chicago this year. I will be in search of corn grown the way Big Mama and Big Daddy grew it. And yes, I must hear Jill Scott and Robin Thicke!
Hope to see you at the Taste.
Click here for The Root's ultimate summer festival guide, and find out where to eat, sleep and party while you're attending some of the season's hottest events.
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root and the managing editor and Web editor at the Chicago Defender.