Sunday, July 08, 2007

Festivals of Washington - Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Yesterday I had enough festivalling to last a very long time. It was the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival. Each year this festival showcases three different parts of the world and brings the arts, crafts, music, folklore, history and food to the National Mall for millions of festivalgoers to take in. This year's featured ares: Northern Ireland, the Mekong River Delta (China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) and the Roots of Virginia Culture. It was important to include Virginia, with this being Jamestown's quadricentennial. The last part included not just modern Virginians of European, African and Native American ancestry, but also people from County Kent, England, and Senegal - the first Europeans and Africans to come to America came from Kent and Senegal, respectively.

It will take me a very long time to write about everything I saw and did, so I'll hit the basics.

I had a date with a friend. It was his first-ever Folklife festival, my third. He decided to make it a weekend in DC (he lives in Towson) - I was astounded at the nice room he got at the Hyatt Regency, for only $65 via Priceline!

Anyway, the festival: I got there mighty early, taking the Metro from New Carrollton right to the Mall. The Smithsonian Metro stop let me out between Northern Ireland and the Mekong River. Since my buddy was just on his way down, I figured I'd head over to the Virginia area to investigate. I saw some great stuff: wood crafts, metal crafts, pottery, basketry - all things made by artisans from Virginia, Kent and Senegal. And I could not pass up the Ham and Peanuts booth, where I got to see different grades of peanuts, as well as the ham curing process. Also interesting was the the Tobacco and Hops kiosk, where real tobacco and hops were growing while Kentian beer makers talked about their craft and Virginian cultivators of tobacco (also a domesticate in North Carolina and right here in Maryland) showed dried tobacco leaves. I even watched a cooking demonstration featuring Kentian chef Amanda Cottrell* making Coronation Chicken and an African American chef Clevie Wingate* making yeast biscuits (here's a PDF file of showcased Virginian, Kentian and Senegalese recipes. Chickahominy Indian dancers were flanked by African American gospel singers to their west and a bluegrass trio from southern Virginia to their east.

I meandered away from the bluegrass group for a quick bite at the Virginia food pavilion. No quick bites here, though, at any affordable price anyway. The smallest, cheapest thing I found amidst the fish and chips ($9), Three Sisters Succotash Salad ($8; also try their equally overpriced version at the National Museum of the American Indian) and Virginia barbecued chicken ($9) was an astoundingly average mini cornbread ($2). Cold, grainy, a little sweet, but definitely not the best I have ever had.

When my friend got there, his hotel a mere twenty minute walk from the Mall, I had seen the hell out of Virginia. But he was hungry and thought Virginian food would be a safe bet. So he got the fish and chips, which he was none too crazy about. He let me try a little bit. He was right - it wasn't that good. The fries were all dried out and the fish was fishier than fish and chips usually is. I decided to make way into the Mekong food pavilion and got some tasty enough Yunnan chicken ($9), gingery and sweet, with a ton of plain white rice. The dish was much better at the time than I remember it. But it was certainly better than the fish and chips.

We gasped and gawked at wonderful Thai silk makers, Vietnamese shadow puppets, Chinese pottery and Laotian mouth organs (khene). Both of us marveled, and squirmed a bit, at the fascinating Cambodian fish traps on display. These light bamboo creations are designed so that fish can swim in easily, but they go through a very spiky tube that will shred them apart if they try to swim through the other way. Some were child-size, while others were huge! We saw a similar fish trap when we headed into Northern Irish territory. Some culinary delights we saw while being deafened by large frame drummers (the drums were large, not the drummers) and dazzled by mummers:

  • the Bushmill whiskey kiosk with, sadly, no free samples, but lots of equipment used in the whiskey making process. We smelled wood from barrels that must've held whiskey for decades, and been utilized for centuries;
  • the Ulster agriculture kiosk, showing lots of things that come from Northern Irish farms;
  • another cooking demonstration by an award-winning but very down-to-earth chef/hotelier Norah Brown (she strikes me as the Paula Deen of County Tyrone), and that she was very impressed with American ingredients. Norah, who had a sourpuss of a sous chef, stresses the importance of preserving your heritage through food. She made a wonderful Irish dinner: herb-crusted salmon with creamed scallions and champ, that buttery, scalliony take on mashed potatoes. Alas, we could not try any of it - health code laws kept us tempted and drooling.
We also headed to the Northern Irish food pavilion and got drinks (water for him, Guinness for me) and dessert - vanilla ice cream in a Bailey's / Bushmill whiskey sauce ($4). Tasty, probably the best-tasting thing I'd had all day.

We finished the day listening to some more bluegrass by Spencer Strickland and Gerald Anderson before heading to the Museum of Natural History to take in some dinosaur bones, gems and minerals and award-winning nature photography. We headed to Dupont Circle for dinner, which I will talk about some other time. My hands hurt from all this typing!

* Oh, I hope I'm getting their names correct!

Other photos:

This is the insidious Cambodian fish trap, from the front. We're looking in the end that the fish get stuck in. It's quite ingenious! But humans tend to be when they're hungry.

The bassist doesn't usually play with them. Glad he did. These fellas rocked the Tudor Rose Stage.

Chef Norah Brown preparing a simple cream sauce to go with her delicious Irish salmon while dour sous chef "Alex" works on the champ.

And now she's plating the salmon onto the champ...

...and here's the final dish! Brown also put sprigs of fennel in the upper left side of the plate, but that photo was blurry.

And here we have some Virginia cookery. The chef on the far left is making yeast biscuits while the chef in the middle, who is from Kent, is making Coronation chicken.

Here is a reconstructed garden of enslaved Africans in Virginia. There's actually a lot more, but I didn't get it in the photo.

And finally, a little Laotian mouth organ music!


Fairfax said...

John... sounds like a fun weekend. But succotash salad? Uck!

John said...

I know... uck indeed.