Thursday, August 8, 2013

Festival Food & Smoking - Essay

It strikes me that with the burgeoning emphasis on healthy eating and healthier behavior, festival environments are making little effort to leave one of the less desirable traditions: bad food and smoking. Food at most of the bluegrass festivals we attend tends to remain your basic fair food – fried and barbecued, while most promoters make little effort to restrain or eliminate smoking.

Festival Food: It's almost as if festival food represents an opportunity for people who attend to forget the efforts they may be making in other elements of their lives to redirect their diets towards a more healthy lifestyle. We frequently see vendors offering fried dough (funnel cakes or even fried pies, a real southern delicacy), pulled port barbecue, kettle corn, fried fish, biscuits and gravy for breakfast, and so-on. It's the rare bluegrass festival where one can find salads, roasted veggies, or even rice dishes. Even ice cream tends to be on the high calorie end, rather than offering frozen yogurt as an alternative. Ironically, it's the so-called “hippie festivals” (a dismissive, even negative term for the Americana events that seem to be thriving as the traditional bluegrass events decline in size and number) where better food can be found. Here you might find a booth offering Thai or Chinese food, vegetable platters, and salad entrees. In order to find healthy food to eat, you need to look more closely at what's coming out of coolers or being served back at the campsites.

Smoking: While smoking is being banned in public facilities almost everywhere and the rate of smoking in the society is declining, there seem to be many holdouts at bluegrass festivals. Festival promoters make half-hearted attempts to remove smoking from the concert areas and emcees almost apologize for these restrictions as they lamely announce to empty seats the so-called “smoking policy.” The net effect is to drive smokers to the edge of the crowd, where they think they can hide the smoke by folding it inside their cupped hands. The smoke still drifts into the crowd, where it's increasingly conspicuous as the hard core holdouts insist on imposing their unhealthy habit on others. After dark, when eyes are not such a good indicators, noses detect an increase in smoke coming from the seats, cigars adding their rough aroma to the already irritating smell of cigarette smoke. Pipe smokers have always assumed their habit is more refined, but they seem to come out at night, too.

We also have noticed that out in the camping area, smokers continue to spread their poison to their neighbors. Many smokers won't smoke inside their own rigs, as they know the smell of smoke permeates the fabric and walls of their homes away from home, making odor pervasive and severely reducing the resale value of their rig. Therefore, they go outside to smoke, thus forcing their neighbors to close their own windows to reduce the degree to which tobacco impinges on them. Such arrogant disregard for one's neighbors remains pervasive. One of the last refuges for the smoker continue to be the artist areas. The people who should be most desirous of eliminating smoke continue to pollute the back stage areas. One performer, bless his heart, stopped in mid-performance and refused to continue until the smokers in the front row either left or extinguished their smokes.

Before we stopped attending Merlefest (for other reasons) we were pleased to see that the Wilkes Community College Campus (the entire campus) had become a smoke-free zone. In order to accommodate this, the Merlefest management had, over several years, successfully campaigned to concentrate smoking to a few designated areas, mostly near porta potties, where smokers were required to cluster together under 12x12 camp canopies. This limited the smoke aroma to a small area and allowed smokers to enjoy each others' second hand emissions. This practice became easier to police and most smokers seemed increasingly inclined to abide by the restrictions.

For years, bars and restaurants bitterly fought the anti-smoking regulations being placed on public accommodations in various states, claiming that such prohibitions would irreparably hurt their bar business. It turns out that when no smoking became the norm, business increased instead of falling off. It only makes sense that the same would be true at festivals, where both the elderly and children should be able to attend without fear for their health.

As not smoking has become more acceptable than smoking and the number of smokers has steadily declined, smokers have become increasingly resentful and defiant. As a former three pack a day inhaler, I know how difficult it is to stop smoking. As a reformed smoker, I also know how self righteous reformed smokers can be. Nevertheless, it can only be to the benefit of promoters to reduce or eliminate smoking from the environment of their events. At first it won't be easy, but the long run outcome will be happier customers and increased attendance from those who know they will be entering a healthy environment when they attend a bluegrass festival.


  1. Finally, a great awakening, to a very troubling habit by many people that either don't care about other people's health, or are void of common decency.

    I respect your courage in communicating this very important message to the bluegrass community that still smokes and hope that the premoters understand that controlling second hand smoke is money in their pockets and produces a happier customer.

  2. All of the festivals that I attend with my business offer a great variety of food, with plenty of options for healthy eating. One can choose to make good choices at those festivals. I do admit that I don't attend any pure traditional bluegrass festivals (and in a counter balance to the "hippie" reference, Ted, I'll harken back to a statement made by Sam to Bela as they were approaching a deep southern bluegrass festival back in the days of New Grass Revival...."there will be a yee-haw factor of 10!" Bela of course later wrote a tune with that rocks. >g<); Grey Fox would be the closest I suppose, where there are many healthy options available , including a vendor who offered fresh farm veggies.
    As far as smoking..I have been watching people battle the nicotine habit for 50 years now and it continually amazes me that such a big percentage of folks still indulge. (and...during my last festival trip I actually heard two brand new, to me anyway, excuses for folks to take back up this ugly habit; and here in those 50 years I thought I had heard them all) There seems to be no age or gender or economic or even intelligence bias...cigarettes attack all of those labels. Merlefest, Grey Fox and the Lake Eden Arts Festivals all highly discourage smoking, and to a great extent this helps, but there are always smokers who don't care.

  3. Ted,
    Nice commentary. My wife and I just went to the Chester Chester County Fiddlers Picnic. Having been to it before we knew what food was going to be there. The fair there is better thatn some of the small events we have gone to. This time we brought our own lunch due to my wifes now strict dietary reqirements. I really like to support the vendors when I go to these events but it has become increasingly harder.