Friday 13th is usually lucky for me and this one was no exception. It was the grand opening of a three-day grilling extravaganza – the first ever Whitby Ribfest, organized by the Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise. Several traveling professional rib-teams were in town to romance us with their ribs and seduce us with their sauce.
First time for all of us
Not only was it Whitby’s first ribfest, but mine too. There’s nothing remotely comparable back in the UK, so I was looking forward to an authentic Canadian “experience” and I wasn’t disappointed! Situated on Victoria Fields, just south of the Iroquis Sports Centre, the striped marquees, fairground rides and fluttering flags of ribbers from across Canada and the US attracted the curious as soon as doors opened. Admission was free and it didn’t take long for the fun to get going as rib connoisseurs arrived in ever-increasing numbers.
Feeling the heat
With an Extreme Heat Alert in place, ribs weren’t the only things sizzling as temperatures climbed into the thirties, but water was in plentiful supply and there were shaded areas where you could escape the relentless sun. The huge space was divided into three sections: the carnival (or midway as it’s known here), product stalls and the food vendors – with dining and seating at one end in front of the stage. There were arts and crafts, clothes and jewelry and representatives from local business giving away complementary items or discounted services. I picked up new sunglasses, and K and I did the Pepsi taste challenge and had a chiropractic posture assessment. We accumulated free chips, popcorn, balloon animals, helium ballons, tattoos, hockey sticks and vouchers.
Down to business
But let’s cut to the chase – a ribfest is about the food. Seven rival ribbers were in the running and the heat was on as they battled one another to add to their already groaning trophy carts, proudly displayed in front of their grills. Palls of smoke hung lazily in the air above the towering signs bearing their names, logos and locations of past victories. The air was thick with the tantalizing aroma of grilled ribs and barbecue chicken, and barbecue enthusiasts quizzed the grill-gurus on cooking methods, temperature, types of wood used and sauce ingredients. There was ample vegetarian fare too, from roasted corn and yams to fries and fancy onion rings – washed down with Butter Beer from Pappy’s Soda or something a little stronger from the beer tent. A farmers stall catered to the health-conscious with fresh fruit and veg and there was the usual carnival fare of ice-cream, popcorn, cotton-candy and chips, along with something new to us Brits: funnel cake. This popular North American carnival food is made by pouring batter into hot oil, using a pitcher with a funnel. The resulting golden, squiggly mass is then topped with powdered sugar, jam, cinnamon, Nutella, fresh fruit or whatever else your imagination can come up with.
“Leave them wanting more”
We got beef ribs from Fort Erie’s Silver Bullet, with a side of beans and coleslaw and a tin mug of ice-cold cream soda, and ate while tapping our feet to some great covers performed by the live bands. The ribs were moist and surprisingly meaty and the sauce was sweet – the combination was to die for! Later, as I cast my vote with a reliably impartial vegetarian Rotary Club member, I learned how competitive ribfests are. The rib-teams tours take them throughout Ontario, others throughout Canada and the US, from one event to the next, where they spend up to twelve hours grilling, basting, chopping and shredding, before sleeping (often on-site) and doing it all again the next day in the searing summer heat. But I can see why – the atmosphere is addictive. Everyone’s there for a good time, kids are indulged, people are chilled and there’s something about eating in the open air, the sultry, smouldering aroma of barbecue and the entertainment of a live band that just fills you with expansive contentment. The vibe was relaxed and no-one spoiled it with drunken behavior.
Keeping out unwelcome guests
As we walked off our meal, I headed in the direction of the climbing wall. Just next-door was John de Jager, keeping a sharp eye on his avian charges as they enjoyed a little shade and quietude. John runs a company called Take Flight Bird Control. A no-nonsense man with the same gimlet gaze as his birds, he brings his trained falcons to outdoor events like these to deter gulls and other pests, so people can eat in peace. We’d already come across his sons wandering the thoroughfares, heavy glove and hawk in hand, amiably stopping for photos or to answer questions. The birds perched regally, eyeing their admirers with a cool detachment – occasionally stretching their wings to reveal their impressive span. Among those on duty that day were a Lagger Falcon, a Harris Hawk, a Red-Tailed Buzzard, and a Peregrine falcon with a flair for the dramatic. John’s had a love-affair with these birds all his life and he’s pleased to introduce others to the fascination of falconry.
Even after the sun had set, the lines at the grills were undiminished and the area around the stage was packed with an appreciative audience. The neon lights and colours gave the whole area a different feel. There’s something captivating about a carnival at night; it takes you back to childhood and you find yourself giggling at the simplest of entertainment, like silly mirrors or the Royal Flush. The smell of sweet, sticky funnel cake, the cotton-candy served on glow-sticks, the screams of thrill-seekers – all combine to transport you to a different world.
“The best laid plans…”
Those ribs on Friday left me with a longing for more, so our plan was to head back on Sunday afternoon, for another meal and to watch the Rib-Eating Contest and discover which “Pig-Rig” had come out on top. But a storm rolled in, and with dark skies, rumbling thunder and a sudden downpour, we held off until after it had passed. Then we heard the sirens. We live next-door to the field and in the space of a few minutes four ambulances had sped past. The dining tent had been struck by lightning and 17 people were reported injured, with the effects felt by many more. Thankfully none were life threatening. The organisers and security were quick to clear the area and first aid arrived in minutes. Sadly, the incident brought an early end to what had been a roaring success, as an investigation got underway. I hope the great time had by many lingers in people’s minds long after the unfortunate natural event that brought it to an abrupt end has faded. Here’s a few pictures that might help. I know I’ll be back next year.
CLICK ON THE IMAGES BELOW TO OPEN THE GALLERY…