Philadelphia, PA - The journey of the Grateful Dead has been often described as a long, strange trip. If you have ever spoken with someone who got to see “The Dead” while Jerry Garcia was alive, they would describe seeing them play as more than just a concert; it was an experience. Over the decades of relentless touring across the country, their loyal fanbase developed ways to take tailgating to an entirely new level.
The “parking lot” scene, known among their fans as Shakedown, a nomadic micro-economy that can be best described as when a street fair and a farmer’s market had a child. This gathering of entrepreneurs provides artists and fans the opportunity to purchase anything from t-shirts to stickers or even gemstones and dream catchers. With so many roads traveled, there is one aspect we all must conquer – our appetite.
I had the opportunity to experience the newest formation of this experience with Dead & Company over the weekend at the BB&T Pavilion in Camden. I decided that I was going to let my appetite guide me through the crowds of Shakedown, and I was going to feast on what the community had to offer. As I made my way into the crowds of people, I decided to follow my typical rule of not making any purchases on my first walk through. I turned the corner at the end of a row of parked cars, only to come across lines of tents, flags, signs and displays that encompassed every possible shade of the rainbow. There were vendors as far as the eye could see; one of the biggest Shakedown’s I had ever witnessed! Weaving in and out of lines as I made my way vendor to vendor, I found myself listening to the random concerts playing from each of their stereo’s.
As I was working myself through the festivities of Shakedown, my nose was functioning on high alert. The buttery scent of popcorn filled the air while hearing the kernels exploding into fluffy goodness. Moments later I was consumed by the sizzling sounds of hamburgers being cooked over the grills open flames; this brought my mind to every backyard BBQ I’d ever been to. Wondering around the corner to the next row of vendors, my attention was caught by the hand stretched pizza dough being tossed in the air and the pungent smell of sautéed garlic that emanated from their display of delicious slices. I even found my mind taking a voyage to the old world while I passed by the gyro stand. There was vegan, vegetarian and gluten free vendors mixed into the group; a menu for every diet. As I wrapped up my first journey around, I had my heart set on a cheeseburger and made my way over to the appropriate line.
After spending so much time working in kitchens throughout my life, I had developed a habit of noticing how food operations functioned at events like this. One thing was certain, this was not their first rodeo; the average customer was being served in less than a minute. These guys really had a smooth flowing operation, that was set up rather simplistically. One person took orders and payments from customers, while verbalizing the orders to the cook who was putting the finished product together. There was a third cook off to the side, who was strictly handling the raw meat to prevent cross contamination. Simple but effective. Walking away as I peeled away the foil from this greasy piece of heaven, I had begun to wonder what it would be like to be a vendor here?
Cosmic Charlie’s Grateful Grill
Shortly after the Camden shows, the tour took a day off, which gave me an opportunity to speak with the friendly couple who run Cosmic Charlie’s Grateful Grill. Serving the best burritos on Shakedown! Charlie and Cameron are an inspirational story of how the American Dream is still alive. Charlie Nadler began working in restaurants at age 14, later going on to graduate culinary school from Johnson & Wales and becoming a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Federation. As with most chefs, Charlie worked under several known chefs while gaining experience in multiple cuisines before settling down in Charlestown, South Carolina. As a chef, I completely understood the lifestyle and commitment of this profession as he was telling me about the beginnings of Cosmic Charlie’s Grateful Grill.
Charlie and Cameron wanted to combine the two things that brought them the most joy – food and touring. Their goal was to serve high quality food, with the freshest ingredients and their specialty was going to be burritos. They spent the time working out all the logistical details before hitting the road. They had rented a U-Haul and cooked under a 10x10 tent with a portable kitchen. Here was the catch, these two were all in. They had given up their apartment and each had quit their jobs before going on tour, so this absolutely had to work. As I listen to Charlie and Cameron tell me about their roots, I could really hear the passion for food they both hold coming through their voices. There was not one bit of doubt of hesitation in either of them on whether their big gamble was worth it. They are now apart of the tight knit family of vendors that make up a solid role in the Grateful Dead community. They have also grown their business to the point where they bought a food trailer to cook and serve food from.
Not only could I hear the passion, but the work ethic they display is as strong as could ever be. Their goal is to get to the lot and set up as early as possible, this way they can feed the vendors. That makes for a long day, when you consider in addition to the pre-show dinner rush, they’ll rock out three hundred burritos in the forty minutes before the concert finishes. Why? So they can stand by the exits of the venue and sell their delicious offerings to hungry concert goers. The real commitment in all of this is that they leave the concert early each night to do this.
I had asked them how they would describe the food on Shakedown. “Hidden niche” Charlie quickly replied with. They went on to share some insight on the food choices that I hadn’t considered before. As one example, they told me about some friends who were making genuine New York pizza on tour. They go as far as bringing a specific oven with them on tour. They mentioned that when they are in places like Cincinnati, some of the people attending the show may have never had the opportunity to try New York pizza. All in all, it appears these young entrepreneurs are living their dream by experiencing what the road has to offer while serving “Dead Heads” cosmic burritos on Shakedown.
Thyme For Tailgating
Tailgating is as popular as ever. Even at home tailgating parties are a common theme. One thing I can say with a level of certainty is there was a wealth of knowledge throughout the sea of vendors on Shakedown. As I brought the conversation to their system, Cameron and Charlie both agree they have their operation down to a science; the most successful aspect they had to say was having everything they needed in order before they opened. Something to consider when setting up for your backyard BBQ, if your grill doesn’t have a side table then setting up a portable table would also work. Before even lighting your grill, bring out everything you will need for the meal and place it on the table. This will make your life a lot easier later.
Are you starting to think about hosting your own tailgating party this summer? Want something that would really impress your friends and family? Try mixing ground pork with rosemary, ground fennel seed, salt, pepper and Bottled Thyme Romesco Sauce and forming hamburger patties with them. Grill with pineapple slices and serve with muenster cheese on your favorite bun. Yum! For more recipes and tips for tailgating visit Thyme To Grill at https://www.bottledthyme.com/copy-of-home
What better way to wrap my adventures on Shakedown Street than by a couple of hours of great music? To hear people describe the experience as a long, strange trip may be selling themselves short. Regardless, it's an adventure worth experiencing once in your life. With Mother Nature putting an abrupt end to the music Saturday night, an appropriate ending would come from a line in the song The Wheel “If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will.”