Lodi Grape Festival manager Mark Armstrong and assistant manager Brandy Haupt threw down the culinary gauntlet to food vendors this year: Add grape to your menu.
On Friday afternoon, a roving panel of News-Sentinel employees judged many of the grape-themed offerings. We found some booths were grapeless — the owners claiming they forgot about the challenge. (Shame on them for not sharing the grapey-goofy glory of it all!) But others took up the challenge with a sense of real flair and determination.
These are our highly unscientific ratings, including taste, texture and appearance.
Merlot-infused cupcake: Sold by the Cupcake Lady in an eye-catching pink truck, this cupcake was one of two wine-infused varieties. After a single bite, chief photographer Dan Evans said he could eat them all day.
The Merlot flavor was not overpowering, but definitely present. The soft, dense chocolate cake crumbled perfectly. The lavender icing, the epicenter of the wine flavor, wasn’t overly sweet. Delicately packaged in a clear box, the treat was dainty and drizzled with chocolate topping.
Chicken/grape sandwich: The Grape Feast-ival Sandwich is what fair food should be — fresh, delicious and in keeping with the theme.
It’s a grilled chicken sandwich with melted cheddar and Swiss cheese, a light slather of mayo, a lettuce leaf or two and grapes — not too many grapes. So some bites are just chicken and tangy cheese; others bites have a sweet surprise. The bun is buttered and toasted, or you may ask for it plain.
Locals will not be surprised to learn the Grape Feast-ival Sandwich is the creation of A Moveable Feast. The lunch truck will be parked at the Grape Festival until Sunday.
It’s not health food, but it’s not so greasy it will put you off your diet for a week. And the grapes are the perfect addition for a Grape Festival feast.
Nehi grape soda: Served up at Sierra Korn Enterprises, this soda is notable for its subtle flavor and low carbonation. Minimal bubbles makes this soda very easy to drink. It’s also served up nicely iced in a souvenir metal cup.
While the soda itself may not be entirely exceptional, the effort Rich Allen made to procure it truly is. When he heard that festival food vendors would be encouraged to grape-up their wares, he flashed back to the old “M*A*S*H” TV show, one of his favorites. In the show, when Cpl. Radar O’Reilly was invited into the Officer’s Club, the barkeep would have a bottle of Grape Nehi just for him.
So Allen scoured the world of soda suppliers and found one who could furnish him with Nehi grape syrup. The syrup was made in Maine and flown to Lodi just in time for the Grape Festival. Allen mixes the syrup with soda water right on the premises.
Cotton candy: Brightly colored spun sugar wasn’t hard to find, but not every candy stall sold the grape flavor. Once it was discovered at a corndog, churro and nacho booth in the midway, candyman Timothy Spradlin was happy to spin up a fresh batch.
Dark purple crystals flew in a circle before Spradlin wound the resulting cotton up on his gloved hand. The result was a fluffy lavender confection that melted in a moment on one’s tongue. A noticeable grape flavor, too, not just purple coloring.
Deep-fried peanut butter & jelly: It looked a little like a lumpy flying saucer, but it didn’t taste bad.
The folks at Finger Steaks and Fries, also known as Eat At Joe’s, specialize in barbecued tri-tip, chicken and turkey legs. But owner Joe Mestmaker decided it might be fun — and in keeping with the festival’s theme — to fry up a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich. The sandwich is known as an Uncrustable, produced by Smucker’s.
Joe and his crew lightly batter the circular sandwich, deep-fry it, and add a dusting of powered sugar. The result is a hot, nutty brown and rather gooey. Below the sweet fried batter and the peanut butter, the light spread of grape flavor in the jelly gets pretty well lost.
Still, this is a little orbit of comfort-food Americana, notable for its novelty if not its ingredients.
Funnel cake with peanut butter and jelly: It’s a grape-flavored upgrade to a festival favorite. The folks at Funnel Cake Express fry up sweet batter, then top the cake with spoonfuls of thin peanut butter, a few squirts of grape jelly from a squeeze jar, and whipped cream and powdered sugar.
It was a little weird to pair the savory taste of peanut butter with the sweetness of the other toppings, but it created a nice balance. The hot fried cake quickly melted the jelly and peanut butter, causing the toppings to slide to the bottom of the plate.
Also, funnel cakes are danged hard to eat without digging your hands into the food.
The toppings were artfully swirled onto the cake, and the dollop of whipped cream was a perfect tower.
Fresh grapes: Blue and White Concessions served a handful of fresh grapes along with their hamburger meal plate. The local fruit was picked up that morning at Rancho San Miguel Market.
The grapes tasted fine, as grapes do, but there was no creativity involved. Still a nice touch to have something with nutrients on a plate of fried goodies.
Cost: Comes with entree; prices vary.
Basic grape soda: We asked at the soft taco stand if they served anything made with grapes. This vendor gets the award for quick thinking when the servers poured us a medium drink out a bottle of Grape Crush.
What more do you have to say? Not too sweet, with that hard to describe flavor that doesn’t taste like grapes but is unmistakably “grape soda.”
Stick to the soft tacos and wash ‘em down with Coke or beer.
Cost: $3 for a medium drink.