It was a cause. It was cuisine. It was crowded. It was Baltimore's first Taste of the Nation, a fund raiser for hunger relief put on by folks who work in Baltimore area restaurants.
Chefs from 20 restaurants and catering outfits whipped up special dishes. Wine and beer makers poured their stuff. And about 600 folks who had paid $35 each maneuvered their way around the ballroom of the Sheraton Inn Harbor Hotel with plates full of pasta and glasses of Pinot Noir. If they were smart they never relinquished their forks and wine glasses. Such was the demand that later in the evening, clean forks and glasses were hard to find.
The fest was one of about 80 such benefits held this week in the United States and Canada. They were put together by Share Our Strength (SOS), a private nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D. C.
Founded seven years ago by Bill Shore, chief of staff to Sen. Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat, SOS organizes tastings in which all of the ticket money goes to the hungry. This is done by lining up corporate support, American Express, securing local sponsors, here it was Martell Cognac and the Taste of Baltimore dining coupon book, and by getting chefs and beverage people to donate their goods. Every cost is covered.
Last year SOS raised $2.1 million for hunger relief groups this way, said Shore.
Reached by phone in Washington on the morning after he attended the Baltimore event, Shore said he was impressed by the "remarkable turnout" and "terrific enthusiasm" of the crowd. This, I think, was a polite way of saying Baltimore folk were more willing to chow down and boogie than Shore anticipated.
As for myself, I got there early with a clipboard. I was one of several judges who was supposed to score the restaurants on how their booths looked, how their decorations interpreted the fairy tale theme of "Once Upon A Time," and on what they served. Since my decorating skills are minimal -- I never met an accent pillow I liked -- I concentrated on eating and schmoozing, sometimes simultaneously. Using my clipboard, I kept track of important numbers.
I noted, for example, that I had two salmon on black bread appetizers. One while working the Rudy's 2900 booth, and one from Peerce's Plantation. I also had two plates of pasta, one from Paolo's and one from the Brass Elephant.
I recorded that two booths were decorated to the theme of the "Three Little Pigs." One from Linwood's Cafe, where the pigs served salad, and another from the Admiral Fell Inn, where pigs served pork ribs.
There was one frog, big green and Kermit-like, who served me one frog's leg cooked by the staff of Chef's Expressions catering.
I met two Queens of Hearts, one presided over the Harbor Court Hotel spread, where I ate a scone, and another reigned at the Pavilion at The Waters. There I ate some remarkable pasta with chunks of blackened chicken.
In the ethnic department I ate one egg roll from Hunan Manor, one serving of sushi from McHenry's in the Sheraton, and one slice of egg bread stuffed with flavored ground beef, from Moscow Nights restaurant.
The single corncake with spicy mustard sauce from the Polo Grill was one of the best things I put in my mouth, rivaling the shrimp, smoked over oak, from the Red Star restaurant.
The oyster soup from Foster's Oyster Bar served in a small edible pastry bowl was the most clever packaging idea I came across. It enabled me to enjoy the soup without using silverware. I ate the whole thing.
Being a fan of dessert, I had four. A terrific mixed nut tart with praline ice cream from Pierpoint, a heavy-duty chocolate and walnut tart from Spike and Charlie's, a slice of dark chocolate bliss from the Milton Inn, and a cookie or three from Art of Food Catering.
Along the way I had some Stockade ale from Sisson's and a glass of lager from Samuel Adams.
The wines beckoned, but I could sip and sup no more. I turned in my clipboard.
The Baltimore SOS shindig raised about $25,000, said Allison Dugdale, chef at Foster's Oyster Bar, who coordinated the event. The money will be sent to Second Helping, a program that collects food from the restaurant industry and gives it to shelters and food banks and to the Salvation Army's Next Step Educational Program.