You can get quite an education working behind the counter of a food booth at Taste of Cincinnati.
Just four hours of serving at two booths, LaRosa's and the one Montgomery Inn's ribs shares with Schmidt's Bahama Mama sausages and cream puffs from Columbus, were all it took for me. Now I know how deep-sea photographers feel as they sit in underwater cages and watch hungry sharks swim up for a bite.
Cincinnati's land sharks are good-natured sorts out for a good time and good eats. For Taste, whose 18th annual feeding frenzy ends today, they arrive hungry and leave stuffed.
"You come here to pig out," admitted Lisa Lawman of Madisonville. She gazed at her cream puff and dug in. Licking her fork, she added, "You wind up blowing every single rule your mother ever told you about eating properly."
Tiffany Johnson of Dayton, Ohio, confessed: "I'm starting with dessert." Taking a bite, she sighed, "I'm in cream-puff heaven."
Tiffany and Lisa were part of the booth's reel-in trade. I was taught to land them using this technique: Any time someone hesitates while walking past the booth, say "Hi" and ask, "How about some ribs or a cream puff or a Bahama Mama?" Invariably, they start drifting toward the counter.
These sharks don't bite. They say "You're welcome" and "Thank you" without fail. If the need arises, they will stick a "please" at the end of the question: "Could I have my money back?" John Olsen of Pleasant Ridge asked that when I forgot to give him change from a 20.
Even when they come in for the kill, they're always smiling. "I'm with a hunting and gathering tribe from Oxford," joked Jim Brandenberg as he bagged some ribs and a cream puff. "I hunt for food. My wife guards our table."
They're also creatures of habit.
"We've been eating Montgomery Inn ribs for 25 years," said Dave Conyers of Glendale. "Had them on our first date," added his wife, Donna. "Ate them with our hands." At Taste of Cincinnati, they used forks.
These sharks have great ears, too.
"I heard that cream puff calling my name three blocks away," said Ella Guy of North College Hill.
"I've heard about these ribs in Chicago. Had to sample 'em," said Jason Callahan of Effingham, Ill. He started chewing on one of the 7,500 helpings of ribs Montgomery Inn plans to sell during the three-day fest.
Jason was another reel-in. Get one at the counter and a crowd begins to gather. It's like a truck stop. One truck pulls in and another follows. In no time, the place is packed.
The sharks circling LaRosa's booth were a different animal. No need to reel them in. They formed a happy, never-ending line that kept changing voices, faces and heights as it called out orders for pizza and focaccia, a new dish that most people couldn't pronounce so they just called it "the new thing."
"It rhymes with 'Got 'cha!'," suggested John Seiler of Fort Thomas as he walked off chewing on the crust of his focaccia.
Many of the pizza sharks made up excuses for buying what is available all over town.
"I've had enough to eat at the other booths," insisted Glenn Adkins of Monfort Heights. "This," he said pointing to a plate holding two bubbling slices of pizza, "is for my kids."
When my back was turned to make change, he took a healthy bite from each slice. Caught with a mouthful of cheese, dough, pepperoni and sauce, he mumbled: "I'm just helping them in case they can't finish. Be a sin to throw away good pizza."
Martin Mueller of West Chester just told the truth. His stomach made him do it.
"It wouldn't be Taste of Cincinnati," he said as he paid for four slices, "unless I had LaRosa's pizza or Montgomery Inn's ribs in my stomach."
Those are the old standbys, the taste of home. They give you the courage to take a bite out of something new.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.
CROWD SAVORS SOGGY 'TASTE'