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Todd Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen serves pickles to festival attendees. Photo by Hannah Ricker.

Eat Real Festival cultivates local food

on September 25, 2019

The 11th annual Eat Real Festival at Jack London Square this weekend drew in thousands of people with an appetite. Food trucks, environmental advocacy booths, and stalls serving locally-sourced food and drink fed a steady crowd hungry for new flavors.

Eat Real is a food festival where lines become masses, and sensory overload is, above all, driven by the nose—between the yeasty pungency of beer, smoky slow-cooked southern-style barbeque, and the thickness of frying oil. Among the dozens of vendors offering local bites, festival-goers navigated three blocks of stalls peppered throughout the festival grounds.

“Food brings people together,” said festival attendee Mae Delos Santos as she picked over a plate of barbeque, her favorite festival dish.

Elizabeth Vecchiarelli, owner and founder of Preserved, a specialty shop on Telegraph Avenue, taught a pickling and fermentation course at the festival. It was one of several paid courses participants could opt into to hone their do-it-yourself (DIY) home practices or immerse themselves in something entirely new. As an avid DIYer herself, Vecchiarelli said she sees the festival as a great place to bring people together to celebrate healthy and local produce.

“I think Eat Real Food is such a great festival because it’s centered in Oakland, which has such a long history, and it’s such a positive empowering festival that is so food-centered, which is very representative of the Bay Area,” she said, speaking a few days before the festival in a phone interview.

She’s been fermenting for years, but still seems to marvel at the power of the process, which she describes as a transformation, releasing new vitamins from the vegetable. “We can create a superfood in our own home in a couple of weeks with just some fresh vegetables and salt and a jar,” she said—it’s as simple as that.

For fellow fermentation expert Todd Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen ran a booth stocked with jars of marmalades and buckets of fermenting cucumbers, cauliflower, and green beans. For him the difficulty is not in the process of fermenting, but getting people to embrace a culinary tradition that is no longer widespread in home cooking. With several bamboo sticks in his hand, he reached into the buckets and speared small cucumbers floating in salt brine to hand out to curious onlookers, while explaining the difference between a two-day and two-week pickle. “People can learn a lot about eating a pickle on a stick,” Champagne said.

At Happy Girl Kitchen’s stand, people could also sample sour cucumbers and spicy celery, flavors that challenge the senses and showcase the nuance of what local food can mean, according to Champagne. Handing out sample cups exposes tasters to new flavors and the health properties made possible by the fermentation process, he said. “A pickle cup, for us, is an engaging edible update of what local food is,” said Champagne.

For the second year running, festival organizers partnered with Baykeeper, a nonprofit that works to keep the San Francisco Bay clean. “Good quality foods start with a clean environment and with clean air and clean water,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the group’s executive director, speaking by phone before the event. The festival allows Baykeeper and attendees, Choksi-Chugh said, to “really rally around the health and water quality of the bay in a fun way that celebrates the good food that we’re able to have because of a healthy environment.”

Vecchiarelli said that as small business owners struggle to compete with convenient online shopping and to pay costly Bay Area rents, it’s becoming harder to find spaces where beginners—and experts—interested in learning about fermentation can seek advice and learn new tricks of the trade. The festival, like her shop, she said, is another place where people can meet face-to-face.

The rising cost of business hasn’t only affected small shops, though. Eat Real Festival event director Vanessa Larson said that the festival has become more expensive to run thanks to increased overhead for electricity and waste management, even though it is now one day shorter than previous years. The festival management markets it as affordable and does not charge admission, but Larson said it’s increasingly difficult to manage these costs. “We don’t want to make this an elitist event and push those costs on attendees,” says Larson.

Despite these challenges, vendors said they were encouraged by the festival’s increasing attendance over the years. It shows that as a community, the Bay Area is “hungry for better food,” said Champagne.

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