Cautionary tales at Chicago’s Summer Festival Food Vendor Sanitation Seminar
Becoming a city-certified festival food vendor is enough to turn anyone off the idea of eating giant turkey legs.
“Has anyone ever eaten something and shortly after you feel a gurgling in your stomach?” Daria Kulczycky asks her Summer Festival Food Vendor Sanitation Seminar one afternoon last week at Harold Washington College. The stern, middle-aged woman in a blue turtleneck is attempting to stir some gastrointestinal empathy in her students—myself included.
We will soon join the ranks of 2,200 vendors certified annually by the city to serve fried dough and meats on a stick to the masses at music festivals, neighborhood street fetes, farmers’ markets and church fund-raisers. The workshop quickly feels like an episode of MTV’s Scared Straight for summer food vendors.
“Suddenly, you make a mad dash to the bathroom,” Kulczycky continues. “No sooner than you sit on the almighty throne, there’s explosive diarrhea. Whatever you consumed was contaminated with a pathogen!” A wave of ewww! sweeps through the sixth-floor classroom.
My ten classmates include a vegan Indian food vendor setting up shop at the Pitchfork Music Festival, a soft-spoken coffee entrepreneur from Portage Park hoping to start pouring cups at the ’hood’s farmers’ market, a veteran purveyor of cevapcici who recently began serving the pita-wrapped sausages at U.S. Cellular Field, and a brassy Italian-ice peddler whose sister operates a stand on Navy Pier.
The class, offered April through September, is admittedly a breeze. If your $35 registration check clears and your butt is in the chair for all three hours, you’re gonna pass. In lieu of a diploma, a graduate walks away with a little blue card that fits nicely at the end of a lanyard.
The class’s true test is one of endurance: swallowing all of Kulczycky’s stomach-turning food-service cautionary tales. “I’ve been teaching these classes since 1987,” the former senior-center meal service manager tells us. “I’ve seen and heard everything.” Many of the horror stories come to Kulczycky from the sanitarians, the city inspectors who bust food vendors for health-code violations.
Handing out the class textbook, bearing the catchy title Guidelines for Food Handling at Neighborhood Festivals, Kulczycky first points us to page six, a chart of the fest food inspectors discarded annually. Last year, they tossed out 3,827 pounds, mostly due to improper holding temps.
“One year,” she says, “a vendor was caught washing pots and pans in an open fire hydrant.” During the annual American Indian Center of Chicago Powwow a couple of years back, the instructor recalls, members of a tribe were caught washing dishes in a hotel-room bathtub. Last year, Logan Square’s Home Bakery and Festivals had its vendor permit temporarily rescinded for violations that included letting eggs sit out in the heat.
Soon, it’s on to dress code. “I don’t care how much hair spray you put on,” Kulczycky says. “It does not take the place of a hairnet!” We’re told jewelry is verboten, except for a plain wedding band; piercings too easily fall into food. The ban on wifebeater shirts was added a few years ago, after a sanitarian strolled by a fest hamburger booth. “She hears this psss-psss-psss sound and realizes that it’s sweat pouring off the grill master and onto the grill.”
It’s shocking that some of the class tips have to be mentioned: “Once you have rubber gloves on, you don’t then go to the sink and wash”; “Whole tomatoes should be free of obvious signs of filth.” But Kulczycky reports the program has been a success. “In all the festivals,” she says, “we’ve only had one outbreak of food-borne illness.” At the Taste of Chicago in 2007, 790 people were sickened after eating Pars Cove’s hummus, which was found to be contaminated with salmonella, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Of all Kulczycky’s food-service credos, this one really sticks: “You can shoo away the fly, but you can’t shoo away the shit it brought.” The sanitation class is behind me, but I won’t be eating the Taste hummus anytime soon.