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Ye Olde Shrimp Tempura And Other Culinary Delights Of The Bristol Renaissance Faire

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 28, 2012 7:00PM

I'll just come right out and admit it: I'm a renaissance faire geek. I don't dress up in period garb (though I would if it didn't cost a fortune to assemble a costume that looked good) but I go every single year, without fail. I occasionally use fake old English slang. I follow ren faire performers on twitter. I flirt with wenches and fairies. But most of all, I partake in the greatest joy that the Bristol Renaissance Faire has to offer: the food.

If you're surprised or skeptical, hear me out! Many people, especially those who have experienced the rubbery-meat hell that is Medieval Times, are deeply skeptical of the food at ren faire. "Won't we be licking sauce off of giant legs of mutton and wiping our faces with the tablecloth?" I imagine them thinking. While there are giant legs to be had (made of turkey, not sheep), the renaissance faire culinary experience is a wonderful one that keeps many people coming back year after year.

First, it's important to note that the faire has a permanent infrastructure. If you've never been, you may expect everything to be housed in tents or trailers. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is closer to a theme park than a state fair, insofar as every building is actually solid and permanent. This lets vendors do some more ambitious things with food—there is a bakery, a store that sells handmade chocolates and candies and many ovens and grills and fryers. There are pubs with bartenders and beer taps and coolers.

What sorts of foods are at the faire? Whenever I walk in the door, the first thing I do is make a beeline for the mushroom cauldron. That's right, mushrooms. These are a cult favorite, simmered for hours in garlic and butter and spices in a huge iron cauldron over a flame. The same vendor serves a great sarsaparilla soda ("root beer with a hint of licorice") for just $1. Before I shop, watch a show or sing a bawdy song, I run to a shady spot and scarf down at least one order of these savory treats. Once the mushrooms are gone, the real fun can begin.

Much of the food is reminiscent of fair food, but often it's just a tiny bit better. There are brats and sausages, but how many street fests serve portabella bangers made with beef, pork, mushrooms and Swiss cheese, then topped with a heap of sauteed onions from the sizzling iron skillet that's been happily charring along all day? There are french fries and curly fries, but there's also an astoundingly good shrimp tempura, made with huge butterflied shrimp atop a pile of tempura-fried parsley and onions. If you're a vegetarian, a large vegetable tempura, for about $10, is enough food for a small army of plant eaters.

If you want a snack for walking around, try one of the three flavors of pickles. Or the five flavors of beef jerky. Or perhaps a giant, freshly roasted ear of corn dipped in butter. Chocolate covered cherries. Kebabs. Fish and chips. Giant cupcakes shaped like roses. We could keep going. Here's a complete list.

"But Anthony," a skeptic would crow. "There was no shrimp tempura in Elizabethan England!" This is the first mistake of the ren faire hater. They point out the glaringly obvious: that ren faire "isn't authentic." Of course; it's not meant to be. They take credit cards (Lady VISA, Master Card, New World Express), use cell phones, deep fryers, refrigerators and printing presses. Ren faire is about having fun, play-acting, and dressing up. It's about finding a space where it's okay to be a ridiculous, childish geek. A space where it's okay to stuff yourself silly and buy hand-made pottery and bacon-flavored soap. A space where you can walk up to a bartender and order a glass of mead and not worry about them looking at you like you're a Venusian.

So put aside your skepticism, get out your capes, wands, D&D dice, Enya CDs, tarot decks and appetites, and head north this weekend. You won't be sorry.

Bristol Renaissance Faire is located at 12550 120th Avenue in Kenosha, WI. Next weekend is the last weekend for the season. Admission costs between $15-$20, depending on age and coupons.