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Matters of Taste 

Windblown food, mill work, and a middle-aged bird

The Taste of Charlotte Festival was held last weekend downtown, which was a boon to all those folks like yours truly who still had tokens left over from last year's event.

Each year, no matter how well I try to plan it, I'm always left with a few of the silver dollar-sized slugs, which I inevitably throw out every time I go through the junk drawer in my apartment (also an annual event).

This year, armed with $10 in tokens, I figured my biggest adversary was the weather. Last year, near-hurricane force winds made downtown a mess of metal piping and canvas as tents blew every which way. Noticing a black mass of clouds forming in the distance, I started eating as many nachos and beef on weck sandwiches as I could muster. As the clouds crept still closer, I stepped it up. Chocolate covered strawberries! Roasted corn on the cob! I felt like Smarty Jones in the mud-caked Kentucky Derby -- "And down the stretch he comes!"

As I made my way back to the Melting Pot table to scarf down one last strawberry, the skies let loose with a crack of thunder. "Sorry sir, but they're telling us we have to shut down." With one hour left and no chance of the rain letting up, I walked back to my car, token in hand.

This year, I'm demanding a refund. I figure my single token entitles me to approximately 83.2 cents from the City of Charlotte. Checks may be cut to yours truly, care of the address listed at the front of this paper.

Last weekend also saw the debut of something called The Urban Market at NoDa. You know the kind of place: lots of "shabby chic" items for sale, along with knick-knacks, jewelry, some great French enamelware, and would-be folk art signed something "folk artsy" like "Cornbread." (Did anyone ever paint chickens before the whole folk art craze?)The Market has actually been around a while (in Atlanta) before deciding to expand to Charlotte. Held in the old Highland Mill, a space now being reconfigured for loft apartments, the Market was bustling Sunday morning with shoppers feeling up rugs and scarves and antique lace and checking out bottled varietals of olive oil.

I had hoped the Mill -- listed on the Register of Historic Places -- would have had more information available for visitors about its past history. It would have provided a nice balance between the $100 paintings of smiling sunflowers and the fact that mill workers in the plant's past incarnation took about that much cash home every month. As for the lofts themselves, they were very nice -- spacious, rough hewn, heavy-duty. However, the view from the lofts' huge windows -- looking over the very same mill houses that were once and since filled with the urban poor -- left a little to be desired.

Speaking of places that people used to avoid like the plague but now flock to in droves, the Penguin Drive-In held a quiet celebration on Sunday in honor of the reclusive Jim Ballentine, who first opened the Penguin 50 years ago.Ever since new owners Jimmy King, Brian Rowe and Greg Auten bought the place from Ballentine, the Penguin has been one of those places that not only acknowledges its history, but downright embraces it. King, for instance, can tell you the makeup of the city in Ballentine's day, the restaurant's many highs and lows, what music was popular at the time, and even Ballentine's starry war record. Toss in the fact that you can still eat and drink like Gargantua for under $10, and it's no wonder the place still scores with old-timers and tattooed young'uns alike.

Sunday, Ballentine quietly sat at his table with friends and family and accepted congratulations, ate some food, and smiled as the owners presented him with a gigantic cake made especially for the occasion. Twenty-somethings with "sleeves" smoked Marlboros with guys who knew the place "back when."

Ballentine left after an hour or so, back to his life of enjoying retirement and his family and friends. Sunday afternoon should show that he need never look any further than the big bird on the corner of Commonwealth and Thomas for either one.

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