It's not that the food is uniformly great. It's not. It's all about atmosphere. The air is thick with smoky tastes and crowded with bodies — of a stunning variety of shapes and sizes — in pursuit of it. We have tokens (nine for $5), and we will use them.
This year, the atmosphere is also pervaded with a certain desperation. Many folks arrived aware that this is their last time to nosh. Others realize only as they see T-shirts for sale — with a picture of a mustachioed conductor and the legend "Last Supper" — that after 24 years, this is the final Chew-Chew.
The word choice rings uncomfortably true at my first stop, The Dismas House's table. Its namesake, the criminal crucified next to Jesus who repented before death, suggests a darkness completely absent from the reformed criminals' delightful lime and butter-drenched grilled corn (three tokens) and squeezed-to-order lemonade (four). The nectar has long been one of my Chew-Chew favorites, very much like an awesome Vietnamese lemonade — bobbing sugar crystals and all.
My boyfriend James picks up a Sweet Italian sausage from Kevin's Wicked Mountain Dogs (four) and a plate of Pork Backribs with Smoky BBQ sauce from the Missisquoi Valley Lions Club. At just three tokens for what appears to be about a quarter rack, this is one of the best deals of the day.
I grab a cardboard tray of the bemusingly named "New York City Chicken & Rice" (four) at Amir's Kebab. I've had his eponymous dish and am in search of something new. A few lanes over, I grab a Cuban panino (three) at the Price Chopper Supermarkets stand. It's a large half sandwich stuffed with thinly sliced pork, a mild pickle sliced lengthwise and an herbed mayo.
Ready for dessert, we press on. For just two tokens, Sam Mazza's Farm is doling out moist and cinnamony cider donuts. I try their strawberry shortcake, too (four). At New Moon Cafe they've got soft raspberry scones (two), which immediately convert me, Dismas-like, from a scone-hater. I will be back to their shop for more. Their chocolate chip cookies (two for three tokens) ooze with gooey dark chocolate.
James hits the T-shirt stand for a $5 bask in 2005 nostalgia. This year's fashion is $15, but duds going as far back as 1996 are a third the price.
Rumors are circulating around the Chew-Chew track that this is not really the end of the festival — more a finale of the format. A reliable source hints that next year, the event may be reborn as a barbecue fest. I can hardly wait to buy my tokens.