Wingy city

Kim BerylKim Beryl sits on the closest thing to a throne the Taste of Chicago has to offer.

Perched on a red chair overseeing the action at the Harold’s Chicken #71 tent, Beryl is a 27-year veteran of the ten-day marathon of chicken-wing frying and hot-sauce drizzling. And there’s plenty of it in the Harold’s tent at Columbus and Congress: patrons squeeze their way to the water-coolers-turned-hot-sauce-containers and vendors ask loudly, "Who wants Harold’s?" The air is crowded with smells, with Oak Street Beach Café’s spicy wings just across the street.

“I love the Taste,” Beryl says. “The people, the energy it takes—it’s gruesome to the body, but it’s all worth it.”

The world’s largest food festival, now in its 29th year, kicked off Friday, and the city expects to attract more than 6 million people. Beryl, an assistant manager at Harold’s #71 at 2109 South Wabash Avenue, says this might be the slowest Taste she’s seen, but Harold’s and the 53 other food vendors still expect a lively crowd to brave the economic downturn, overcast weather, and hundreds of extra calories to enjoy the festivities.

At least it’s not 2004. That year, Beryl remembers, a rainstorm hit like no other the Taste had seen. But even nature’s best attempt to stop the festivities only added to them. “It almost washed us out,” she says with a laugh. “It rained so hard for so long that people were coming into the booth. With the electricity and the propane tanks it was kind of scary.”

Rain or shine, the Taste goes on, and it had better with all the chicken wings Harold’s has on hand. Beryl’s restaurant staff spent weeks preparing 300 cases of wings—200 wings per case—for the event. For the past 11 years she has organized the 25-member team that cooks up the stand’s wings, hush puppies, and okra. Most of the workers have returned from last year, Beryl said, and people as far as Ohio have come to work the Harold’s tent.

Harold’s typically isn’t at the top in terms of Taste sales—that honor usually goes to Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs—and the chicken wing is less iconic that the massive turkey leg that Manny’s Cafeteria has taken over this year. Still, Beryl is glad to be back for another year, watching over the greasy wings that have won the hearts of so many Hyde Parkers.

Jake Grubman, ‘11

July 2, 2009