Given the opportunity to go back in time, most Americans would probably just keep shopping and eating. And so it is at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, where dozens of artisan booths vie with "period" grub for one's ducats.
Can one really eat like Henry VIII, without leaving the modern comforts of Westmoreland County? I waded through the throngs of knaves, bosomy women and elves to sup at the three eateries: Royal Kitchens, Pirate's Pub and Queen's Pantry.
Plenty of revelers were enjoying the festival's signature victual, the smoked turkey leg. At $4.50, this is the most expensive item on the menu, but what price authenticity? Removing the pink, salty-sweet meat from the bone can only be done by grasping the bone in hand and tearing the flesh with one's teeth. Throughout the Pub came meaty grunts of satisfaction, as greasy skin was ripped through, sinews snapped and bone gnawed.
Despite Marco Polo's enlightening journey to the Far East, there's no argument for the teriyaki chicken sandwich. Purists are also advised away from nachos, the "low-carb chicken wrap" and broccoli and cheese soup. As bowls of gruel are unavailable, the most authentic choices are pretzels, beef jerky and the vaguely obscene-looking sausage-on-a-stick.
I opted for the mash-up of then and now: The banality of the pulled-pork sandwich ($3.50) -- mushy, tomato-sauced meat on a cold, gummy hoagie bun -- was mitigated by the awkward charm of my serving wench, a teen-age girl in baggy tavernwear and a mouth full of braces. But she addressed me as "m'lady" and that made me feel like a queen. Or a fool. No matter, both are period-appropriate.
Fortunately, beer has a long provenance, and several malted beverages were on tap, though categorizing Coors Light as a "strong ale" is a stretch. The stout-hearted went for Guinness ($3.50) -- and for their fairer ladies, perhaps a Mike's Hard Lemonade? The wise bring their own colorful vessels, be they pewter tankards or longhorns, rather than quaff from a plastic cup emblazoned with an anachronistic Steelers logo.
The berry cobbler ($2.50) came drenched in a viscous fruity liquid whose alchemy was likely based in high-fructose corn syrup. The big scoop of vanilla ice cream atop it had no business in the Renaissance, but I ate it anyway. I'm sure King Henry would have done the same.
The festival runs weekends (plus Labor Day) through Oct. 4. Additional foods are available at the Irish Festival (Sept. 12-13), Wine Revelry (Sept. 19-20) and Oktoberfest (Oct. 3-4). www.pittsburghrenfest.com