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Days of wine, food and comedy

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The word "foodie" has lost whatever cachet it once claimed. The toothless sound and diminutive suffix detract from the noble art of eating. Some have suggested the use of "foodist" as an alternative. Usually that ending indicates a rigid allegiance to a systematic way of thinking, as in "communist" or "nudist."

Fervent eaters are anything but rigid and rarely systematic. What about "fooders"? That would match the accepted term "birders" at least. Yet, those followers of avian life on the fly can be attached to lifelong numeric goals and other abstractions.

Perhaps just plain "food lovers"? Employing two words make the phrase less flexible in certain spoken and written situations. Yet they are short, forceful and to the point. And who doesn't want to be known as a "lover"? Let's try it out.

Austin food lovers were split between two tasting parties on Thursday, both anticipating the new Austin Food & Wine Festival. Additionally, Food and Wine magazine, one of the festival's promoters, has already staged some side parties, including a toast to La Condesa pastry chef Laura Sawicki at Malverde on Wednesday.

In the May 2012 travel issue of the glossy magazine, Sawicki is pictured like a postmodern goddess of fertility, cradling long fronds of crimson rhubarb. A mass of curled rhubarb decorates her hair like a vegetable bouquet. She talks about her obsession with goat cheese from Pure Luck Farm, which she pairs with the tart, red rheums.

The Malverde party mixed food media, promoters, purveyors and lovers. Each little appetizer popped in the mouth like a firecracker. Sawicki was funny, modest and more than a little captivating, and La Codesa co-owner Delfo Trombetta chatted about his Sicilian origins as well as his new Thai spot, nearing completion at Elizabeth and South First streets.

Thursday, I half-expected the Umlauf Garden Party to be half-empty. After all, the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's Live Fire competed directly with this long-established sip-and-sample affair, which benefits the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum. Also, several Austin arts, comedy and film festivals got into full swing this weekend.

Didn't matter. A soft breeze cooled the shadows of this magical oasis. Restaurant reps displayed all sorts of sweet and savory concoctions, while a full complement of guests promenaded in their summery wear. As always, a faint reminder of yesteryear hung over the slow, quiet fiesta.

An hour in the garden allowed us to miss the traffic southwest to Driftwood, where the Alliance's Live Fire tasting was under way. If you've never been to an event here, the setting is gorgeous. The low, rock pavilion sits among shade trees above a creek with a waterfall that I'm sure tempts partiers more than it should.

Live Fire is a competition. Chefs put out their most novel dishes in sample form. Guests vote. The accrued dollars head to the new Alliance, the charity partner with the Austin Food & Wine Festival that plans to back sustainable cuisine in the area.

Finally got around to exploring the actual festival on Sunday afternoon. It was hot, dusty and not cheap. More wine than food was in the offing. And yet, inside the crowded tents folks listened intently as experts diligently shared the finer points of cooking and drinking. It seemed as much a learning experience as a pleasurable one. Made me wish I'd devoted more time to it. With a new location and an earlier date, the festival could really blossom next year.

I nibbled around the edges of the other big, new confab this week: the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival. It certainly attracted the masses — 20,000 at last count. The area around the Paramount and State theaters buzzed from early evening to late at night, as did the official bar at the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel. Block-long lines and packed lobbies further attested to the festival's social impact. I caught exactly one show: Nick Offerman's muscular late-night act, preceded by an eccentric musical turn from his wife, Megan Mullally.

Offerman, best known as Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation," pleased fans, including myself, with his blunt wisdom, while sharing 10 guides to a satisfying life ("Eat red meat," etc). Yet I'm guessing a few were surprised by the act's rough tone and by Offerman's social and political views, which are not identical to his fictional counterpart's.

From everything I could gather, though, this freshman fest has rocketed to the forefront of Austin's cultural scene faster than anyone could have imagined.

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com