Friday evening, La Fête de Marquette celebrated French culture as only the Midwest can. Friends and family gathered on Madison's industrial near east side the night before Bastille Day for French-inspired cuisine, music, crafts and ... well ... beer.
Lots of beer.
Supporting the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, the festival at East Washington Avenue and South Dickinson Street got under way as visitors bobbed to New Orleans funk band Papa Grows Funk. In front of the main stage, a smooth, makeshift dance floor was set up on the parking lot concrete, allowing for impromptu break-dance sessions as festival-goers watched, seated around colorful round tables.
Surrounding tents gave much-needed shade from the glaring sun, while also providing entertainment in the form of food judging and local personalities. For the Best of the Fête Hors d'Oeuvres Contest, local celebrities including food critic Samara Kalk Derby, RP's Pasta owner Peter Robertson and Triple M hosts Jonathan Suttin and Kitty Dunn judged dishes from the event's vendors.
"There's lots of ways to judge festival food," said Suttin before the competition began. "Is it good when you're drunk late at night? Is it easy to carry? And if you drop it, are you willing to pick it up again and eat it off the floor?"
One dish, previously unknown to me, met all three of the established criteria: the wonderful artery-clogger known as poutine. A French Canadian dish comprised of French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds, it was a culture shock to realize such a dish was not invented in Wisconsin.
"Oh my god," said one onlooker as poutine was served. "They're trying to kill us."
Delicious smells of food, beer and wine mingled with an odd assortment of carnival sights, including face painting, snow cones and a Ferris wheel. "There's great food and drinks, and it's top-notch entertainment," said Rocky Falcone, who was in the crowd celebrating his 60th birthday. "We used to go to Bastille Days in Milwaukee, and with this festival, you don't have to go as far to get the same kind of experience. It's right in your backyard."
Artisans took inspiration from the French holiday and tailored their crafts around the event. "We've tried to give all our merchandise a French twist," said Syl Mauerman of SassySessories, who shared a spot with Cathy Behn of Monkey Mind & Co. "The T-shirts have a New Orleans feel to them, we have some sculptures inspired by French scenes, and the hats are a little more avant-garde than we'd usually make them."
And what about the festival seemed most French to them?
"Other than the food and music, there's a small Eiffel Tower in the corner somewhere," said Mauerman after a moment of thought. "Other than that, I don't know. The wine, maybe?"
La Fête de Marquette continues through Sunday.