Spring through summer is the peak time for outdoor activities that revolve around eating and drinking, from cookouts to barbecues to picnics. It's also the high season for food festivals, those multi-day fetes where fancy cocktails abound, wine and beer flow aplenty, and chefs showcase their talents via carefully crafted small bites and elaborate pop-up feasts. The SAVEUR editors have attended an inordinate number of these events, including the annual Charleston Wine + Food Festival where SAVEUR is a hosting partner, and while the dinners, cooking demonstrations, and panel discussions are always a blast, navigating the crowds and the packed itinerary can produce sensory overload.
Although it’s clearly a privilege to attend a nonstop food-and-drink party, it can also be exhausting—not just for the attendees, but for the chefs and bartenders as well. The SAVEUR team has learned over the years that the trick to making the most of all this abundance is to come prepared—with a bag of essentials that will help you not only survive but thrive at back-to-back events. Here’s what to bring to a food festival to maximize your eating and drinking enjoyment, based on recommendations from SAVEUR editors, plus chefs and bartenders who are also seasoned food-festival veterans.
Water is probably the most crucial element for surviving a food festival, but it can be tough to make a priority when there's wine, beer, and cocktails everywhere you look. "A water bottle is super important," says Brian Riggenbach, the executive chef at Nashville's The Mockingbird. "Look for a Stanley Thermos—it's retro chic and hasn't failed me yet. Day drinking is all fun and games until you can't make it to dinner!"
In an effort to not miss anything delicious at a food festival, you might find yourself, say, devouring every course at a seated dinner after already having eaten all day long. Underberg bitters, which are made from aromatic herbs in Germany, are the perfect antidote for those occasions. "I'm a big fan of Underberg when I'm on an eating marathon," says legendary barbecue master John Lewis of the eponymous Lewis Barbecue in Charleston. "It's a digestif bitter that you can shoot after a big meal or in between events. Not only does it help calm your stomach, but the alcohol in it also gives you a little boost." Lewis adds that while the taste might take some getting used to, the beneficial effect is nearly immediate.
These days, most food festivals and outdoor events use biodegradable plates and cutlery, but there are still measures you can take to cut down further on waste. For example, instead of getting a new fork for each dish, which adds up quickly, BYOS—bring your own spork. Humangear makes long-lasting, durable sporks that wipe down easily between tastings.
There’s nothing more disappointing at a food festival than waiting in a long line for a plate of food only to find out the dish could use a little more seasoning. Luckily, Jacobsen Salt Co. makes pocket-sized tins of flaky sea salt that are ideal for on-the-go sprinkling.
Not everything you eat at a food festival is going to be a revelation. A dash or two of hot sauce is just the thing for perking up those less-than-stellar offerings. The hot sauces from Charleston's Red Clay are a great option—the Original, made from fresno chiles and vinegar, adds tangy heat and brings out the flavors of a dish without masking or muddying them.
Avoid the festivalgoers fighting over the free plastic sunglasses and bring your own shades instead. These classic Ray-Bans will always be in style.
Sunscreen is just as vital for a food festival as it is for a day at the beach. Be sure to take a break between all the sips and bites and reapply. Chef Maneet Chauhan of Nashville's Chauhan swears by Pevonia to stay protected throughout the long and often hot days.
While it might seem counterintuitive to bring a flask to a food festival, Ann Marshall, the co-founder of Charleston's High Wire Distilling Co., makes a strong case for having one in your back pocket. "Sometimes it's just better to drink what you know than to play Russian roulette all day with various types of free alcohol," she says. Instead of filling the container with straight booze, she prefers making a cocktail for food festivals: "If it's summer, I'm carrying a white negroni. Something boozy that I won't chug." It's just as quaffable swigged from a flask as it is sipped from a glass, although the latter makes it easier to garnish with a strip of lemon zest.
A food festival should be treated as a marathon, not a sprint, but if you forget to pace yourself at a wine tasting and wake up with the telltale signs of a hangover—cotton mouth and achy head—try Nuun Sport drink tablets. They’ll add a fruity, effervescent fizz to your glass of water in the morning and get your body hydrated and balanced for another day of tasting in no time.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that phones always die at the most inopportune moment—like say, when you’re at a food festival and want to ask a famous chef to take a picture with you. Pack a portable phone charger, such as the small but powerful Anker, and you’ll never have to watch that photo op pass you by again.
Look for something stylish to cart all your survival gear around, such as this waxed canvas bag from Charleston's J. Stark. It has old-world charm and a practical, rugged appeal—the tote is just water- and booze-resistant enough to withstand any spills from your glass throughout the festival. The leather handle also makes it comfortable to carry all day, and the zipped top ensures your belongings are secure.