Walnut Creek's Walnut Festival at Heather Farm from Sept. 24-27
By Lou Fancher
Never say a 78-year-old can't pull surprising punches.
Celebrating community, the 78th annual Walnut Festival is a four-day outing that includes a carnival with more than 30 rides, fishing and live entertainment. The event at Heather Farm Park from Sept. 24-27, serves as a showcase for artists, designers, craftspeople, artisan beer makers, local food vendors and more.
History tells us the festival began in 1911, after the advent of electric rail service through the city led to a boom in local farmers' grape sales.
Originally known as The Grape Carnival, a baseball game between the men of Concord and Walnut Creek was a highlight and pilot Weldon Cook gave "aero plane" rides. During Prohibition, walnut groves took over area vineyards: the new cash crop caused a change in the event's name to The Walnut Festival.
The nonprofit Walnut Festival Association officially incorporated in 1938, and produces this and other events for the benefit of the community. For the past 20 years, they've also sponsored a poorly-kept "secret."
"Special Needs Night is an invitation-only, entirely free opportunity for special needs kids and their families to come out and participate in the Walnut Festival," says association president Jim Goonan. "Most of these kids, due to their physical or other disabilities, couldn't come during the regular days because it gets pretty busy."
This year on Sept. 23, children of all ages with special needs will enjoy free carnival rides provided by Midway of Fun. Dominos pizza, GoGo SqueeZ beverages, hot dogs from Steel Smokin BBQ (Goonan's Pleasant Hill-based catering company) and other treats are donated by nine participating vendors.
"I've been doing it for 10 years," Goonan says. "We serve anywhere from 600 up to 1,000 people. If you have a special needs kid, you know about it."
The event is promoted through local schools that serve children with special needs -- and through word-of-mouth.
"We open it up to anybody with a disability," Goonan says. "Local organizations spread the word. We try to accommodate as many as possible."
Goonan says the smiles on kids' faces -- and time to talk to parents or hear how much their kids enjoy the night -- are more than adequate rewards for the donation of time and products.
Chilean native Chef Guisell Osorio, a 20-year resident of Walnut Creek, is a first-time vendor. Joining the regular festival, Osorio will bring visibility to the Sabores Del Sur catering company she launched in San Francisco in 2002 that has established a brick-and-mortar presence on Oak Road, just steps from the Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre BART station.
"I've attended the festival for years," she says. "This time, I want to be a part of the vendor community."
Long ago, Osorio wanted only to learn her grandmother's culinary secrets.
"She'd let me watch, but never let me cook. She'd get mad at me because I was a little question machine in the kitchen. She had Alzheimer's by the time I was asking as an adult, so I started testing and creating my own recipes."
Osorio recalls her homeland's traditions. "During my childhood, everywhere you went in Chile, there were markets. Farmers' little carts would be pulled by horses and couldn't travel so far, so everything was local. The food all tasted better."
She will bring to the festival her alfajores (shortbread cookies), beef, chicken and veggie empanadas (Latin-American turnovers), and chicha morada, a Peruvian beverage made with boiled purple corn, pineapple and other spices.