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Essay: Your Guide to Festival Fest

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As a public service, I’m providing you with your guide to Festing. 

Festivals are so ubiquitous and top of the mind around here, that  “Fest,” like “party,” has become a verb. Milwaukee is known as “The City of Festivals.” (Actually Milwaukee is an old Indian word meaning, “That big place—you know —east of Waukesha, down by the Lake.”) 

Anyway, there certainly are festivals galore around here. Some are ethnic, some are cause-driven, some-just pure (some impure) music, although Tibetan Fest did combine rock music with their heritage, coming up with Shangri lalapalooza.  If you’ve never gone to a festival here, (Wow, you must have been recently unfrozen. Of course, Milwaukee in winter is cryogenic heaven), I’ll give you a quick heads up on them. 

The two biggies are Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival; and the Wisconsin State Fair, which is so attractive, more people from Chicago’s northern suburbs and Lake County go here rather than the Illinois State Fair. (The fact that Glenview is only 92 miles from Milwaukee and 212 miles from Springfield has nothing to do with it.) Now, they both feature headliners on the main stage, and they provide work for talented local musicians on stages throughout the venues. 

Next come the ethnic festivals. One word. “Bratwurst.” You want another word? “Cheese.” It doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is, what church you go to. Okay, or mosque, temple, or hill you stand on with aluminum foil on your head, waiting for the spaceship, there will be Bratwurst. Of course we all remember the disastrous summer of ’05 when Scandinavian Fest served up bratwurst made from lutefisk. I can still taste it,

So, prepare for a whole lot of eating. Don’t starve yourself beforehand; you don’t want to show up with a shrunk stomach, and due to some antiquated health laws, they don’t have permission for vomitoriums on the grounds. 

One more bit of advice on the food, try something new, it’s all part of the festival experience.

Every year, fests become feasts and they vie with one another for the most brilliant new taste sensation, State Fair being the Champion in this area. It’s usually a combination of what would seem to be incongruous ingredients, often on a stick. And why not? In the Navy I was served plenty of food on a shingle.

So, limber up your taste buds, get into the spirit of things, and dive into those liver sausage cookies. Try a herring éclair, and you simply can’t pass up the pizza made with cookie dough. Oh yeah, and pulled pork popsickles.—and in the festival spirit of piling on—with bits of bacon.

If you’re planning to attend any festival In Milwaukee, remember this caveat, “dress appropriately,” and that does not mean wear reindeer antlers if you’re going to Lapland Fest (By the way, its musical entertainment does not feature Lap dances).  But aside from Milwaukee’s tropical weather (usually August 5th to August 6th), conditions can get dicey. Always pack a rain poncho, and, any time before June 1st or after September 30th, include gloves and earmuffs.  I’m just sayin’.

Now if you’re going to an event that is celebrating a particular lifestyle, political position, meeting a non-profit’s goal,  or a mode or brand of transportation, and you’re not really that interested in it, remember there is one thing that will bring everyone together—that’s right, “Bratwurst.”

One wonderful thing about the festivals is that each year brings something new. Next year will bring an Island celebration. To precede the word “fest,” and to encompass both Micronesia, and Polynesia, I suggested Milk of Magnesia. But I was told that it would only appeal to folks my age.  So it will be Oceana Fest. One of their charming customs was sacrificing virgins to appease the volcanic gods. But they will not be doing that here—because of a problem they share with many service organizations—lack of volunteers.

In conclusion, please bear in mind that at the end of the day (first time ever that phrase was used appropriately) while the fest had featured traffic logjams, far distant parking, long lines, people standing on picnic tables so you couldn’t see the band, seared bodies that could have used more clothing—if only for aesthetic reasons, beer sloshing, and plenty of sweat, there is an upside.

You only have to wait a week before the next one!

Lake Effect essayist Joel Habush is a freelance copywriter who lives in West Allis.  He's past president of Working Writers of Wisconsin, and worked for years at ad agencies in Milwaukee and Chicago.