Hot Dogs and Haute Cuisine
Midweek at the McCall Winter Carnival
The snow plow’s chains rattled like bells on an approaching sleigh, piercing the early morning silence as it combed the streets of downtown McCall. It was the first Monday in February, the brief weekday window between the town’s two wild Winter Carnival weekends, and things were eerily quiet.
A couple of days prior, North Face–swaddled masses had swarmed the Fogglifter Café seeking hot coffee and breakfast burritos before the boisterous Mardi Gras Parade. But today the café’s tables were mostly empty. The only remnant of the Carnival was a pared-down menu of bagels and benedicts and a weary expression lingering on the cashier’s face.
I had made the snowy trek up to the mountains for a special Winemaker Dinner that evening at Rupert’s in Hotel McCall. Four years ago, James Beard Award–nominated Chef Gary Kucy began offering these wine dinners as a way to draw a different crowd to town during the frenzied festival, which is known more for hot dogs than haute cuisine.
“Everyone thinks Winter Carnival is chaos from as soon as it starts to the second it ends, just go-go-go,” said Hotel McCall Manager David Carey. “It is an awful lot of work and it is extremely busy, but we go from one of the busiest days of the year for us, which is that Saturday of Winter Carnival, to one of the quietest on Sunday. … We were, like, ‘Well, how can we keep the Winter Carnival going?’”
For the Carnival’s 50th anniversary last year, Rupert’s organized three consecutive Winemaker Dinners, each featuring a different winery and a unique menu.
“We kind of torture Gary by doing three different wine dinners back to back like this,” said Carey, chuckling. “There isn’t a single course, or a single glass of wine, or anything that we will duplicate over the next three nights.”
After a coffee at the Fogglifter, I made my way down to the icy edge of Payette Lake. At this time of year, the lake looks like the end of the world—an expanse of blinding bright white with no horizon in sight. It’s the kind of view that’ll make you dizzy if you stare at it too long, so I ducked into the warm kitchen at Rupert’s to chat with Kucy as he prepped the evening’s sold-out meal. Through the window, you could see a fleet of shuttered food trucks sitting idly in a nearby parking lot. Signs advertising corn dogs, finger steaks, kettle corn and smoked turkey legs faded under a fresh blanket of snow.
“It used to be really crappy food and it’s starting to get better,” said Kucy, gesturing to the dormant Carnival food truck park. “Now it’s a little bit nicer, with more focused vendors. But there’s definitely always corn dogs. It’s carnie food—elephant ears and donuts.”
Though Rupert’s Winemaker Dinners aren’t changing the deepfried core of Winter Carnival, they do add another option for folks seeking a swankier meal. Menus for the next three evenings were tacked to the wall. Courses included everything from wild game bolognese with Idaho potato gnocchi to Momofuku-esque pork belly steamed buns with hoisin and pickled vegetables.
“I try to mix it up so it’s not too standard, too boring,” said Kucy. “I love ethnic food so I try to get a little bit of influence that way.”
Kucy’s eclectic influences ended up being a great match for the evening’s wines: two dry Rieslings from Garden City’s Coiled Wines and two bold reds from neighboring winery, Telaya. As diners took their seats at long tables, servers filled flutes with Coiled’s Rizza, a sparkling dry Riesling made in the Méthode Champenoise.
“First, cheers! Because I’m much more comfortable talking to people when they’re drinking,” said Coiled Winemaker Leslie Preston to a chorus of laughter and glass-clinking. “The wine in your glass is called Rizza, this is my sparkling wine and this is my first year that I’ve made this wine so it was a huge experiment and labor of love for us.”
The first course (seared ruby tuna sheathed in a chewy rice paper wrapper with a lightly sweet Thai chili sauce) flowed into the second (a buttery curried squash soup with vibrant sweet tomato chutney and spicy oil) which led to the third (roasted quail on a bed of buckwheat and mushrooms). The quail leg, like a tiny meaty popsicle, was wonderful with Telaya’s earthy Syrah and an unintentional nod to the turkey legs waiting to be fried up the following weekend.
Both Carey and Kucy hope these winemaker dinners will lead to a more prominent food and wine focus during the quiet weekdays of Winter Carnival. The McCall Donnelly Education Foundation already hosts the popular Chocolate and Spirit Tasting at Shore Lodge that Thursday and Carey would love to see other businesses get involved.
“It’s more about getting the town to embrace it and ride the coattails of the massive spectators of snow sculptures,” said Carey. “Everybody’s looking at how to fill the week; we’ve got to make it while we can. … If you don’t kill it certain weeks out of the year, you won’t make it the rest of the year.”
Tara Morgan is a freelance food and booze writer. She’s the Boise Weekly’s roving food writer, editor at Edible Idaho and founded the website Boise Feed. She also runs a catering and events company, Wild Plum Events & Eats, with her husband.