Three cheers for Cornucopia! 

A behind-the-scenes trio

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE / TOURISM WHISTLER - wine'd up Whistler's annual food and wine festival is just around the corner.
  • Photo By Mike Crane / Tourism Whistler
  • wine'd up Whistler's annual food and wine festival is just around the corner.

All "growed" up — isn't that what you're supposed to be when you're 21? All "growed" up and in your prime, ready to take the world on. And Cornucopia, Whistler's epic food and wine fest now in its 21st year, is no exception.

The thing I love about Cornucopia is that it gets locals, visitors, and food and wine professionals and amateurs alike all cranked w-a-y up there on the Excite-o-meter. For instance, anyone who ever soaked up one of the mythic Bacchanalian Masqueraves at Bearfoot Bistro will never forget it. In the words of long-time local, Chris Quinlan, himself a suspected follower of Bacchus, they were one hell of a party.

"It was ridiculous; it was opulent; it was Sodom and Gomorrah!" he recollected a few years back. (Bacchus, BTW, is another name for Dionysus. In Greek mythology, he was the son of Zeus and, originally, a god of fertility. He was later associated with wild ecstatic religious rites, eventually becoming the god of wine who loosens inhibitions and inspires amped up creativity in music and poetry. As for Sodom and Gomorrah, you'd better look that one up yourself...)

Personally, I think a lot of people who've attended Cornucopia over the two-plus decades keep coming back thinking they might secretly stumble onto some rare, reincarnation of Masquerave, where creatively painted, bare-breasted women served the best André St. Jacques and his crew had on offer until the very, very wee hours. Canapes offered up on a fair, bare, painted tummy, anyone?

And that's only the Bearfoot legacy. Whatever Araxi delivered into the mix over the years has been astonishing. Then there's the line-up of winemaker's dinners, the Trips to the Farm featuring Pemby's bounty on and off the radar, like crones; and the old Brews and Blues event, starring a barbecued pig, micro-breweries and a fine blues band generating the playlist.

Twenty-one years of making memories Cornucopia-style is a lot to build on, and this year's event plans to build on it, indeed.

Cornucopia kicks off November 9. Whatever catches your eye, here's my tip: get your tickets early. (My bet's on the all-star women chefs, Isabel Chung, Melisa Craig and Nicole Gomes, delivering the first ELLEvate TogetHER.

In the meantime, here are three little "insider" stories to add to your experience.

1. THE SYMBOL

Think Cornucopia. Think "horn of plenty" — that horn-shaped basket most of us picture as a symbol of Thanksgiving from which tumbles all kinds of freshly harvested bounty.

The horn of plenty, writes Edith Hamilton in the classic Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, is based on the Greek myth of Amalthea. By one myth, Amalthea was a goat on whose milk Zeus was fed as an infant boy. By another, she was a nymph who owned the goat. Regardless, she had a horn that was "always full of whatever food or drink anyone wanted." Our Cornucopia.

In Latin, this was a Cornu copiae, the horn that Hercules broke off the river god, Achelous, who had taken on the form of a bull to fight him. It, too, was always magically full of fruits and flowers — a perfect trope for Whistler's signature food and wine fest.

2. THE CONCEPT

You can lay the concept of Cornucopia at the feet of David Thomson. It was the mid-1990s, and as the former long-time president of Whistler Resort Association, which is still the legal name of its morphed incarnation, Tourism Whistler, he clearly saw the benefits of a food and wine celebration as Whistler's first "destination" event in shoulder season.

The idea was simple: Not only did the town have to attract people at a traditionally dreary time of year, but it had to attract a different clientele: people who might think, gee, Whistler's not for me — I'm no outdoor sports geek.

Of course, we have a cast of thousands to thank over the 21 years (not least of which, Maureen Douglas, Dana's boss at the time), but I always like to think of Cornucopia as the baby of Dana Samu, the hard-working, world-travelling, ex-model, ex-band manager, then-Special Events Manager of the WRA who put so much heart and soul into it in the early days.

It took 18 months for Dana to research and produce the first Cornucopia. ("Ultimately, I discovered I knew more about what I didn't want the event to be than what I did," she told me years ago. "It was almost like writing an essay at university, letting all that research percolate and then trying to create an event from a blank slate.") It's still got Dana's fingerprints all over it.

3. THE TIPS

Locals, being the smart people that they are, have all sorts of excellent tips for getting the best out of Cornucopia. Try to sneak into at least one free event. Wear black — the red wine stains won't show. And remember what all that red wine is doing to your teeth.

But I'll give the last word to James Walt, the iconic executive chef behind the iconic resto, Araxi — at 36 years, Whistler's longest-running, fine-but-approachable dining experience. This is the last time that James will be delivering the goods for Cornucopia under the Araxi banner (check out his Big Guns "Viva Italia" for sure!). After 20 years at the helm, he's moving on shortly after this year's fest to open the newly imagined Il Caminetto restaurant, started by another restaurateur-cum-legend, Umberto Menghi.

James' best Cornucopia tip? "Remember to spit!"

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who well remembers those dreary shoulder seasons in Whistler.

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