Setting the stage for festival season
Charleston Wine + Food volunteers question COVID protocol
Around the Charleston area, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) is known for two things: The outdoors extravaganza, now in its fortieth year, marks the start of the city’s festival season and hosts a dog-jumping event that’s on every serious air-craving canine’s calendar.
But folks are increasingly getting wise to a third important fact. Since Matt and Ted Lee in 2018 took over curation of the S.C. Department of Agriculture’s cooking demonstration stage, the free sessions have become a can’t-miss happening for food lovers.
Matt and Ted are scrupulous about matching up like-minded producers and chefs, so attendees get a sense of how the state’s bounty informs all kinds of cooking. And as practiced emcees, they’re great at teasing out vital information from farmers, fishers, and foragers who aren’t always accustomed to appearing in front of crowds.
For instance, the lineup for this year’s event, which runs from Feb. 18-20, includes Shamil Valazquez of Delany Oyster House prepping shrimp ajillo with local seafood hero Cindy Tarvin’s catch; Modou Jaiteh of Lowcountry Fresh Market making rice-and-peanut porridge from Rollen Chalmers’ rice and S.C. Chef Ambassador Chris Williams preparing pork raised by Marvin Ross, recently featured in The Food Section.
All 12 smart conversations, set at the vanguard of South Carolina’s food scene, are well worth a stroll over to the SCDA tent on Marion Square if you’re in town next weekend.
Of course, Marion Square also long served as backdrop for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, scheduled to return from its pandemic hiatus on Mar. 2 with a relocated central hub.
During its off year, the festival pledged to address complaints from chefs and other contributors forced to pay their own way to help create an event that annually nets more than half a million dollars. (For more on the allegations related to putting profit over people, check out my March 2021 story for The Post and Courier.)
According to its website, the festival in 2022 intends to provide each featured guest with at least two event passes, as well as ingredient stipends for “specialty meals” and travel stipends for out-of-town participants.
It’s too early to know whether the new measures will make a difference in the quality of participants’ experiences. But there are already rumblings from the festival’s volunteer corps that “they didn’t (learn) any lessons” from previous missteps, in the words of one disaffected worker.
Charleston Wine + Food has traditionally relied on hundreds of volunteers to pour wine, distribute food samples, and answer guests’ questions. In the past several years, though, some of them have given up on the event, saying they felt unappreciated when the festival stopped giving them water and snacks and pulled the plug on an annual volunteer appreciation party.
Still, many stuck with it because they believed in showcasing the Lowcountry’s culinary culture. Yet they fear the festival this year is putting their health at risk.
“CWF is desperate for volunteers and not requiring vaccinations,” reported one of three concerned volunteers I interviewed, alluding to the event’s near-sellout status.
Per the policy posted on the festival’s website, “all guests, staff, talent and vendors” will be required to submit proof of vaccination or negative results from a Covid test taken within 72 hours of the event’s start. Festival employees reiterated this policy to a prospective volunteer who contacted the festival at my request.
To be clear, this is not a radical stance in South Carolina: SEWE isn’t taking any steps to check the vaccination or infection status of attendees. But I decided to look into this complaint because while SEWE’s cooking stage is located outdoors, at least 75 Charleston Wine + Food events will take place inside. Additionally, festival leaders since 2020 have publicly stressed that they’re prioritizing the welfare of participants.
In an e-mail provided to The Food Section, festival representatives confirmed that mask use is optional for all festivalgoers.
While sweeping mask mandates are now being revisited or rescinded in hard-hit northern states, in its guidance sheet for event planners, the Centers for Disease Control advises, “People who are not fully vaccinated against Covid-19 should use prevention strategies, such as wearing masks.”
“Reliance solely on testing strategies to assure safety has limitations,” Linda Dickey, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, said when asked if giving equal weight to vaccinations and negative tests could affect the safety of a mass gathering such as Charleston Wine + Food, which draws close to 30,000 people.
“There are many variables involved with testing—such as the quality of the test, the quality of the specimen (and) the timing of testing,” she continued. “Someone could be incubating illness and test negative.”
And because “Covid-19 illness is not benign for everyone, and can cause more severe illness in certain populations, such as those who are pregnant,” Dickey added that “continuing to promote vaccine uptake will support a safer environment for all.”
Charleston Wine + Food did not respond to questions submitted by The Food Section, so it’s unclear why the organization didn’t choose to require vaccinations or encourage mask use at an event where attendees’ average age is 48.4. According to the CDC, the risk of hospitalization or death stemming from a Covid infection “increases for people in their 50s,” and further increases with each subsequent decade of aging.
It’s a hard decision to parse considering how many thousands of hospitality workers have died during the pandemic, since the festival claims its mission is to “celebrate, enrich and promote the hospitality community.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have yet figured out how to do so without continuing to lean on unpaid labor—vaccinated or otherwise.
Stay safe out there, friends. See you at SEWE.
Confidential to non-subscribers: If you’re in the mood for more coverage of the challenges that food workers face, now’s a fine time to pony up the admission fee for this week’s conversation between pop-up chefs Sam Fore and Ana Alexandra Richards. The two are at different points in their careers and live in different Southern states, but they found plenty of shared ground to cover in their discussion of the potential and pitfalls of going solo.
Here's what else you missed in The Food Section this week:
The Hiker Ham sandwich has made a triumphant return to the Tennessee State Parks system, thanks to an assist from an employee’s mother.
At the South’s newest museum, the curators in charge are thinking about drive-in restaurants and the cars which populated them.
Why should pie judging always happen behind closed doors? One ambitious county fair has come up with a new system for awarding its most coveted blue ribbons.