Before the recession inspired people to take a "staycation" the Chow Wagon was Louisville's excuse for a relaxing hometown day off. It's one part state fair, one part day at the park, and one part grownups playing hookey with their friends for a cheerful drink or three.
I didn't grow up in Louisville, so the Chow Wagon is somewhat mystifying for me. I thought it was an excuse for downtown workers to balance their healthy walk to the waterfront with deliciously greasy fair food.
I went down on a gorgeous night this week to check it out for myself. It wasn't quite what I expected. I arrived a little after 4 pm, and the place was already bustling.
"People watching here is great," said DaVonna Bailey. Her first name might sound familiar to race fans. "I was named after the 1979 Oaks winner. My dad and his brother moved here from West Virginia, and just fell in love with horse racing. My dad got married, had a daughter, and named me after his favorite winning horse! It's a real Kentucky story."
I asked for her favorite people watching moment of the night. "We saw a rather large man with some very short very tight shorts sitting down, knees facing out, showing off his assets to the world. Not a good look for him. That alone makes it worth walking around. Who knows what we're missing?"
"It gets better," her friend Virginia added. "I saw this woman with a hat - it must've been three feet tall, must've weight like 30 pounds. It was really really really big. It had pictures of all her family on it, plus this train of roses going down the back - like a mullet of roses."
I passed the helicopter rides and headed through the gates. It was strictly singles to the left and families to the right, bridged by deliciously decadent fair food. For my money, the Greek Gyros platters were hands down the best looking food in the lot. Mounds and mounds of lamb slices piled high on warm pita and topped with tzaziki.
If you're more interested in deep fried goodness, in addition to the classic corn dogs and funnel cakes you can get fried snickers, fried oreos, and fried butter.
"Imagine a puff pastry." I couldn't quite imagine it, so I quizzed one of the vendors while he made fresh funnel cakes. "There's a big wedge of butter in the middle of the pastry, then we deep fry it and top it with cinnamon. It's not a funnel cake - that's fried dough, a totally different taste. You really ought to try one."
As I headed to the single's side, I was greeted by a frizzy haired women in her 50's spilling a glass of beer on herself. She grinned up to me and said, "It's gonna be a wet t-shirt night!" No one seemed eager to take her up on it.
There was a line outside the Bourbon tent plus clusters around everything else selling booze. The commemorative plastic beer glasses were piled into pyramids on every table. People were pretty sedentary, kicking back and enjoying a laugh while waiting for the music.
"Boo yah, boo yah, daddy's got a brew yah!" Erik, a full time teacher by day and festival beer vendor by night, knew how to feed on the crowd's energy. "I do a ton of business during the Festival. On a night like this, I'll sell 10-12 cases of beer in the aluminum bottle cans. At $6 apice, you can do the math. People are here to have a good time."
"Beer!" Emily gushed. "I'm on my...how many glasses is this?" She had a small tower of commemorative Fest-A-Ville glasses in front of her. "When's the band start? I'm ready to dance!"
At the Sauza Tequila Cantina, Cruzan was test marketing their premixed boxed margarita mix at the festival. Unlike the Bourbon tent and beer tents, this was one of the few places you could get a mixed drink. While standing there, I saw men exchange tickets for shots of Tequila, women buying Vodka Cranberries, and bot sexes drinking straight bourbon. "This is Kentucky," said Becky, a bartender with Center Plate, "People try a little of this and a little of that. The sign up there says Tequlia," she pointed to the outside of her tent, "but my best seller is always bourbon."
Over to the right, adults sipping beer watched their kids bounce in the inflatables, go around on the rides, and climb the rock wall before coming back and begging for more tickets.
"I have a young child here," said Wendy O'Brien. "She's gone on a helicopter ride, she's done all the festival rides, she's rock climbed, she's had an amazing time. We've never brought our kids here before. We've always been kind of selfish that way because we wanted to hang out with our friends, but she's 10 now, and she's old enough, and I'm so glad. She's having as good as time as we are - maybe more."
Wendy joined her daughter for the most exciting ride of the night. "The helicopter ride was insane. I went on it with her, my first time ever. Her's too, but I was more scared. It's a 6 minute ride to the dam. You go across the river, and back. In a matter of 20 seconds, we were up in the air. It was amazing. You get to see the whole city from up on top. It's so cool. Normally, you're driving around. Up in the air, you see the water tower and the ball park, and all the buildings - it's a different perspecitive. It's $35, which might sound like a lot for six minutes, but it's worth it. Anyone who has the money should do it."
A cluster of parents anchored their blankets with strollers. The adults looked a little sunburned and tired, but also mellow and happy. "We've been here since 6 am," said Steve. I was shocked. "It's a great day. Look at the weather. We've been out here with the kids, having a couple drinks, filling up on fair food. I can't get a pork chop like that at home." He smilingly elbowed his wife in the ribs. She rolled her eyes. "It's great. When else do you get an excuse to take a day off and do something with the family, something right here in town and not part of a vacation or a long drive with all that stress. We can go home any time we need to. No pressure."
"Have you?" I asked.
"Nope. It's a perfect day at the Chow Wagon."
Photo courtesy Chris-Rachael Oseland.