The Taste of Chicago: Memories, A School Bus And A Turkey Leg

July 10, 2017

Taste of Chicago opened a few days ago and the city is alive with visitors and long time residents, all perusing the historic food festival in search of something delicious to eat.

I didn’t plan to attend this year. The Taste (as we like to call it) is the kind of thing that native Chicagoans either look forward to every summer or forget altogether that it’s coming and later curse the dent that it makes in their commutes. But most Chicagoans maintain unspoken pride in the event. Even though the city recently shortened the festival from 10 days to five, Taste is still uniquely ours.

My earliest memories of attending Taste are vivid. I remember that it’s where I tried tempura for the first time. It was good. It’s also where I learned, as a daydreaming tween, to keep my purse close to me and to be aware of my surroundings in large crowds.

It’s where my husband and I spent all day eating tilapia tacos and bourbon chicken nachos and Italian ice cups. Such was our life before we had children.

And even during the summers that we didn’t attend, we scheduled around The Taste.

Better leave a few minutes earlier for work. The Taste is open today.

Or we forgot about it and suffered the wrath.

Damn, why are all these people out today? Traffic is horrible! . . . Argh. THE TASTE.

Sometimes we decided to be bold and spend the day downtown battling the crowds to go to a restaurant or do a little shopping. One year we found ourselves on a crowded bus at night, stranded on Michigan Ave. The bus was filled with city dwellers; middle aged men lugging coolers with what was left of their beer and water, teen couples in coordinated outfits, a lady who sat sucking her teeth because she was fed up with the wait, and a group of children laughing loudly and rehashing the events of their day together. We made it home safely that night but not before I got my flip flopped foot accidentally stomped on by a gentleman who was rushing to get his young son home. In the midst of pain, a broken toe ring (I really liked that toe ring) and a bloody cuticle, I accepted his sincere apology. After all, what else should I expect venturing downtown during The Taste?

Anyway I hadn’t planned on attending this year. But a few weeks ago my supervisor shared in an email that the company was providing school bus transportation for seniors and people with disabilities who wanted to attend the Taste. And so, seeing that the trip would be scheduled for a weekday, I saw no reason not to accompany the group. Why not? Free transportation, time out of the office, and chance to eat and soak up some sun, sounded like a win.

Loaded Nachos! Yaaas!

The morning of the trip, we gathered in the waiting room, eagerly looking for a shining beacon of yellow metal to pull into the lot. We waited. Ten minutes. Fifteen Minutes. Thirty minutes. I called my supervisor for the name of the bus company, but she was unavailable. So I tried texting a colleague who was also taking a group to Taste, and using the same bus company. Had her bus arrived yet? Nope. No bus. But she did know the name of the bus company. I quickly poked at the keyboard on my smartphone until a Google search revealed a location and phone number for United Quick, the bus company in question. I’m disclosing their name because they were so great to us, and I want to give them some props. I called and spoke with a really wonderful employee and found that we’d had the wrong pickup time. A simple mix up on our end. Without hesitating, they sent buses to pick us up right away. By this time we were about two hours behind schedule.

We had a fantastic driver who helped the seniors on and off the bus, and even buckled them into their seats if they requested it. He got us to the Taste safely and agreed to pick us up after a few hours. We exited the bus and walked the short distance to the entrance. After agreeing on a meeting time and location, we went through a brief security check and then to the ticket stalls. Fourteen tickets for ten dollars. Most of the food items required five or six tickets, with others requiring as many as eighteen. I bought three strips of ten tickets: two for myself, and another strip for a lady who was too frail to make the trip, but forced money into my hand demanding that I send her back a turkey leg, one of the famous eats at Taste.

With tickets in hand, I ventured out into the array of food stands. I tried red beans and rice from an African restaurant, and then a tequila lime chicken taco from a Mexican restaurant, both delicious. Then I found nachos loaded with jalapenos and pulled turkey brisket. After that I decided to search of the magical turkey leg. I had seen a woman eating one near the entrance and she kindly directed me to where she’d purchased it. So I left a small group of seniors in the sitting area where we had gone to cool off and enjoy our food. They were still eating, and it was stuffy outside so we all agreed that they would sit in the shade until I came back.

I found the turkey leg after about fifteen minutes. In that time I’d run into some other colleagues and we talked about which foods we had tried. I had brought my water bottle along with me. Not only am I asthmatic, but I’ve been dehydrated before and it’s the worst so I came prepared for the hot weather. I took my last sip of water and decided to use my remaining tickets to buy an iced tea. Then I walked back to the seating area where I’d left my group. As I approached them I saw one of the ladies on the ground. I flung the bagged turkey wing onto a picnic table and rushed over to her, fearing the worst. But paramedics had already arrived and she was conscious and breathing on her own. She had decided not to drink any water that day, stating that she didn’t want to have to pee at the festival.

Emergency cooling bus at the Taste.


She also hadn’t eaten. We had all seen her purchase food tickets so it wasn’t a financial issue. She simply hadn’t found anything she liked, and after fasting the entire morning and half the afternoon in the heat, she had fallen out of her chair. The paramedics lifted her on to a mini ambulance that they use for outdoor festivals, and took her to a cooling bus to check her vitals and give her some water to drink. I left the turkey wing in the custody of another senior while I ventured off again to find the cooling bus and make sure that our group member was okay.

“But what about her food tickets? Is she just going to let them go to waste?”, one of the women asked. I bit my tongue and carefully constructed my response, but I’m sure my eyes probably rolled to the back of my head. “I don’t think the food tickets are most important right now. We just need to make sure she’s okay.”

I found the bus after a few minutes of walking and directions from Chicago Police who were on duty. By the time I’d found the bus, the paramedics were releasing her. I asked if she felt okay to walk or if she wanted to go right home. She told me that she felt much better and wanted to get some food, fried fish specifically. So we walked along slowly through the crowds as I eyed each menu looking for fish. We found it. She was happy, and ready to leave.

I walked her back to the main street where she could sit down and wait for the bus to arrive. Meanwhile, we’d run into a few others from our group and they all waited along with her. I returned to our promised meeting place to pick up any stragglers and make sure that everyone was on the bus. It was late afternoon and I had decided not to return with them, but to hop on the train and head home after seeing them off safely. Simple enough.

I walked back to the meeting spot, awaiting three ladies missing from our group. When only two arrived, and I inquired about the third. They didn’t know. They had gone to the bathrooms, and didn’t see her when they came out.

I spent the next half hour locating the missing group member. She was fine, just had gotten turned around and couldn’t find her way back. At this point, I was tired, sweaty and thirsty again. I all but tossed them onto the bus, thanked the bus driver, and made off for the nearest convenient store for a large bottle of water. That night I laid in bed, grateful that the trip was over and that everyone was safe. I had no worries except,

The turkey leg. Did they remember to grab the turkey leg?

If the lady hadn’t gotten her turkey leg, I’d be fair and return her money before she could even ask. That wasn’t a problem. I just didn’t want to disappoint her by breaking a promise. So the next morning when I arrived at work, I called her.

Me: “Did you get your turkey leg?”

Her: “YES. I did. And it was good too.”

So ends another eventful trip to the Taste of Chicago. As usual, it created some new memories for me and it will probably be another five or six years until I am bold enough to attend again.


Take Care,

D. Southern



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