Monday, April 27, 2009

Bread, Butter, Cheese = A Huge Turnout!

Finding food that is free or nearly free is one thing you learn when you are on the dole.

Last year when I was a working man, I attended the 1st 6th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational. The event began in 2003 as a gathering of friends in the artist loft of Tim Walker to settle an argument about who makes the best Grilled Cheese 'sammich'. On that day, Tim became the founder of what has grown from a tiny local gathering to a nationwide event. Even in its sixth year it remained a somewhat underground event so secret that the location was not given to the public through word of mouth until about 24 hours before the event.

The 1st 6th Annual GCI was held in the idyllic setting of Los Angeles' Griffith Park. Former landowner, Col. Griffith J. Griffith, a dedicated citizen who considered the donation of his land his obligation to "make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner, and finer city," and a payment for a debt he owed to the city and community in which prospered. This park is to Los Angeles what Central Park is to Manhattan. Griffith Park covers over 4000 acres or 5 square miles of the Santa Monica Mountain range. Its borders touch all the major enclaves in this widespread city from Los Feliz to Burbank to Hollywood to Municipal LA. It is filled with beautifully maintained grass plains with plenty of tree cover and surrounding vegetation. It is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness areas in the US. It was so wild there that warning signs littered the park informing visitors to be weary of the park's bat population due to a recent outbreak of rabies. Great location for a greasy, fat-filled, sometimes processed food contest. Really is there any other way to celebrate the spirit of community and make Los Angeles a happier city than Grilled Cheese Sammiches.

The six to eight hour event was a blast. It centered around a competition between about 100 entrants for the best grilled cheese (judged by all attendees) in four categories with funny names like “The Missionary Sammich” (standard white bread, Cheddar or American, and standard butter or margarine), “The Kama Sutra Sammich” (any kind of bread, any kind of butter and any kind of cheese plus additional ingredients) and “The Honey Pot Sammich” (must have a sweet flavor).

It seemed like there were about 300-500 people (all judges) at any given time over the course of the event. Everyone received ballots and were welcome to line up around the cooking area to sample each entrants grilled cheese invention. The event planners were well-organized without being snobby or exclusive about their guests. I even got a press pass, simply because I brought my "professional-looking" camera. The spirit of community and acceptance reigned supreme and I mean every form of life young and old showed up that day. From conservative professionals in their business casual weekend wear to burned out hippies decked out in garb that probably saw its debut at Woodstock (the original one). Long time attendees showed up in gear that ranged from the standard "Cheesehead" wedge to extravagant gowns to outlandish rave gear. Kraft foods showed up for the first time that year with a booth that pumped out classic grilled cheese sandwiches like a machine to all attendees in unlimited quantities for the entire event. IZZE, maker of my favorite Pomegranate soda supplied delicious beverages. Best of all, it was all FREE!!!

Needless to say I was bragging about this event all year to friends and family. So this year I took some friends with me.

The 1st 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational brought a few changes as increased crowds were expected due to the size of the previous year and a 2 week long media blitz prior to the event that garnered tons of local coverage and some national coverage as well. This was a different event.

The location was set on the outskirts of Chinatown in Los Angeles (see pics below). The chain-linked fenced 'internment' area for the 1st 7th Annual GCI was in a small section of the 23-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park. A park recently designed by a bid-winning San Francisco firm? (WTF?). According to the parks web site it is a historic park since 2006, which is a far cry from the vast size, rich heritage and iconic presence of Griffith Park. The area was fenced off in a small area of the park unlike the open, wilderness park atmosphere of the previous year. Just a few of the changes due to the rising popularity of the event. We arrived about 40 minutes prior to the opening and a large line was already forming and would continue to grow beyond the park by about a half mile. Thousands showed for the event (see pics below). I was glad to see the invitational grow in popularity, but sad to see the obvious growing pains involved when an event moves from secret populist gathering to mass commercial event so suddenly. There was more security present including bouncers (see pics below) and press credentials were required for the press pass.

Line Forming At LA State Historic Park

Bit Of Nature With LA Skyline In Background

Bouncer At The Gate

Increased Security

It took us about an hour in line before we reached the gate. All of us understood the event was growing. We had our first taste of grilled cheese sammiches while waiting in line. Kraft brought out its first batch of buttery grilled cheese sammiches cut into quarters to the patient but ravenous crowd assembled near the gate. I went over and grabbed five for me and my four friends. They were delicious and everyone was satisfied and even more eager to try some of the more exotic combinations of various cheese and breads and even fruits and meats that pop up at the event.

The part that was more troubling to me was the limited judging process. Instead of every attendee (who now had to pay $10 to attend) being a judge like the previous year. It was limited to the first 1200. Only these 1200 were made to wait in another 15-20 minute line, sign a waiver by a pushy event worker in an Indiana Jone's hat (see pic below), and each of the 1200 were given TWO tickets to exchange for only 2 of the 100s of available concoctions and mouth watering delights. TWO!?!? Really?!?!?!

Judge's Line. Indiana Jones wannabe left.

"Ok, this is all part of the growth process," I said to calm myself. Then I saw the crowds 10-20 deep at the tables forming the semi-circle in one corner of the 'internment' area. This section butted up against the main stage located in the middle of the semi-circle with the Kraft sammich booth and IZZE drink booth directly across from the stage. Behind the tables was the Mecca of the event where competitors professional and amateur cook up their creations and hand them out to the lucky 1200 judges.

This year, though, you could only pick two of those exotic creations, if you had the patience to wait in another line of pushing masses 10-12 deep. S**T! that is why I avoid trendy bars, restaurants and clubs. I gave my tickets away to my friends and decided I would just take pictures and scarf down Kraft sammiches which were readily available the previous year. Well, at least I got the photos. The Kraft line was 9-10 people across and 20 deep most of the day.

My friends were beginning to get frustrated about the long wait and lack of availability of cheesy delights compared to my legendary tales of the previous event. I immediately did what any friend would in this situation — hid my head in shame, avoided them, and ran off on my photo excursions.

Not all was changing for the bad, though. The spirit of the event was not lost. There was a large and eclectic crowd this year like last. This gathering of diversity reminded of what is great about Los Angeles. There were no riotous eruptions in line. Everyone seemed in good cheer. It was a pleasant crowd. I was proud of my hometown. People from all walks of life came together and forgot all their differences in the name of cheese just as they had in previous years. The same MC's were on hand to entertain the crowd as in previous years. The founder of the event, Tim Walker, was still roaming the crowd only this time with an entourage of press hounding him (see pic below). The girl who makes the Grilled Cheese Sammich Cake every year (see pic - I will have to get her name, sorry for that) was on hand serving up a cake made in the shape of a deer head using layered grilled cheese sammiches, spreadable cheeses and canned spray cheese. Amazing as usual and very creative. There were some new and familiar faces in the competitors who ranged from amateur to consummate curd pro. The heart of the event still remained save for the effects of the transition from small to large happening.

Tim Walker Hounded By Press

Cake Girl Busy Constructing Another Fabulous Creation

My friends finally caught up to me like a posse hunting a rustler. Disappointment was all over their face. They did not share in the experience I had last year. I had some disappointments this year as well, but I still held on to my memories of last year. I also know that next year they will correct the inadequacies of this year's event and be able to plan for the increased popularity. I will probably still go next year, because I like cheese.

As for my friends, one of them turned to me with sad eyes and I patted him on his shoulder and I said, "Forget it, Mike. It's Chinatown," we chuckled and I continued, "besides Phillipe's is down the street."

For More Pictures From The Event Go To:
Flickr - 1st 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational

© 2009 David La Cava. All Rights Reserved.

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