Archive for the ‘Foodways’ Category

Blessing ceremony for kiln building

Friday, June 29th, 2012

A blessing ceremony for the new Cambodian wood fire kiln took place in Lowell on June 28. In order to ensure a successful project, the potters Yary Livan and Proeung Kang made offerings and prayed to the designer of Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II, whom Yary calls “the hero of construction.” Proeung just arrived from Cambodia where he teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. He and Yary both grew up in the same village along the Mekong Delta and have known each other since childhood. 

Two Buddhist monks in bright orange robes from the Wat Khmer Temple in Lowell came for the occasion. On the altar, Yary prepared offering of grapes, apples, cherries, and a whole roasted chicken (complete with dipping sauces!), next to a vase of freshly picked flowers. 

 

Marge Rack, professor of art at Middlesex Community College  (MCC), gave a welcoming address, translated by Tooch Van, International Student Advisor at MCC, to the approximately fifteen people attending. She said that this project was “a dream come true,” and it was her vision to build a ceramics community that not only included Lowell but Cambodia as well.

Celeste Bernardo, the new Superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park, said that “heritage is made strong by the many cultures in our community,” and that the Lowell community helps spread and continue traditions of the Cambodian people.

 

A clergyman, or achar, lit three tall white candles placed on an orange brick, and gave an introduction in both Sanskrit and Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism. The two monks chanted the Dhamma in Sanskrit while dipping flowers into pottery bowls of water and sprinkling water over the kiln’s foundation.

 

 

At the altar, Yary lit a candle,while Proeung poured pinot grigio over the chicken. Holding a bundle of incense sticks, Yary prayed and chanted over the offerings, then placed one burning incense stick each into an apple, a grape, a cherry, and the chicken.

  

Cambodian customs are a mix of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism. The altar incorporated the symbolically important Hindu number of seven. Yary said traditionally the altar holds seven different kinds of food and seven kinds of fruit, what he called “seven times seven.”

 

The art department of MCC had generously presented Yary and Proeung with a hand truck so they wouldn’t hurt their backs! They will be helped by Samnang Khoeun, an architect and Yary’s former apprentice, and Vanny Hang, a sculptor from Lawrence who is a specialist in Khmer ornamentation. The artisans collaborate together in their studio in the Western Studios building in Lowell.  To follow progress on the kiln project, click here.

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg. Group shot by Samnang Khoeun.

Lithuanian Summer Solstice

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I’m delighted to be working with state folklorist Maggie Holtzberg in Lowell this summer.  On the summer solstice, Maggie and I went to visit Jonas Stundzia at his home in Lawrence to learn about Rasos Svente, the Dew Festival, and the ways Lithuanians celebrate the longest day of the year. He will be demonstrating how to make floral head garlands at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival. Garlands, or wreaths, are an important part of this solstice festival, also known as the festival of Saint John.

Jonas is a wealth of folklore. When we got to his house, he welcomed us with a traditional Lithuanian greeting. From a decorative ceramic pitcher, he poured water over our hands, and held out a woven Lithuanian cloth to dry them. He then offered us cucumbers dipped in honey and small cups of samagonas (rye moonshine). He said that cucumbers dipped in honey are eaten as a summer treat only in the northeast area of Lithuania.

Jonas showed us his garden blooming with plants native to Lithuania, including wild sorrel, used in making soup; ruta (rue), the national flower; wild onions; and lavender. His garden also had winter rye, used for Christmas decorations; parsley; mint; wild straw; and wild dahlia. He showed us a large oak garland he had made. Oak is considered a male tree and oak garlands are usually reserved for men. We tried it on anyway, and it was heavy! In Lithuania, garlands made of wild flowers, healing herbs, and grasses are used in the solstice festival to adorn the head, decorate the homestead, float candles on the water, and burn in the bonfire.

Jonas had made another large circular garland with linden and yellow flowers which symbolize the sun. Lithuanians consider linden a female plant; this wreath could be worn by a woman, or decorated with lit candles to be floated on the water on the evening of the Rasos Svente festival. The points of light guide the sun back home to earth. Wreaths symbolize the circle of life. Circles and wheels are important in Lithuanian mythology. In one pre-Bronze age myth the sun travels across the sky pulled by a goat. Jonas told us that Lithuanian rituals and language go back to proto Indo-European times. They still survive today because Lithuania was geographically isolated far up north on swampy land that nobody else wanted. Lithuanian is an ancient language, but still living, unlike Sanskrit or Latin.

On the summer solstice, Lithuanians give kupole staffs to friends and neighbors to protect and bless their homes. Jonas showed us a kupole staff he had made with healing herbs: nettle (good for healing arthritis and a relaxation); wormwood (good for the nerves); southern wort (a nerve relaxant used to make absinthe liquor); mountain ash (considered a male plant, used in the celebration of St. John); and belladonna (a medicinal nightshade).

Next, he showed us decorative iron saule, which means “sun.” One had a circle, which represents the sun; branches which represent the tree of life; jagged thunderbolts; curved snakes; and roots representing the earth. In Lithuania, snakes are symbols of life. Gyvate means snake; gyvas means life. The first animals to appear from Mother Earth in the spring are the toad and the snake. Thunderbolts allude to the god of thunder who creates rain, and therefore gives life.

Other saule he showed us had Christian crosses. He said that Roman Catholics had adopted and reinterpreted the form of the saule and used them in cemeteries to decorate gravestones.  In the same way, the pre-Christian kupole staff transformed into a similar, but smaller and more compact staff used on Palm Sunday. The rituals of the Rasos Svente festival also were adopted into Saint John’s Day celebrations. We look forward to hearing more of his stories at his demonstration tent at the folk festival in July.

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg.

Ode to Fat: Schmaltz, Salt Pork, Olive Oil & Ghee

Friday, January 6th, 2012

 

Home cooks around the world rely on one essential ingredient to bring out food’s flavor: fat. Late January, when it’s cold and dark, seems the perfect season to sing the praises of fat. In our next Lowell Folklife Series program, we explore four forms of fat with deep cultural associations: schmaltz, the kosher poultry fat used in Jewish cooking; salt pork, the French Canadian ingredient so critical to fresh-made pork scrap and baked beans; olive oil, the healthy staple of Greek and Italian cuisine, and ghee, the clarified butter used in South Asian cooking.

 The free public event takes place Friday January 20th at 7:00 p.m.  in the Visitor Center of Lowell National Historical Park. Joining us for a lively discussion will be Sam and Gail Poulten, both of whom grew up in Lowell’s Jewish neighborhood where schmaltz was a staple, Lucia DiDuca of Framingham, a founding member of the Ciociaro Social Club, Kurt Levasseur of Lowell’s own Cote’s Market, and Yogesh Kumar, owner of Sai Baba Market in Chelmsford.

 

Come hear these culture bearers share their take on the flavorful fats in Jewish, Franco-American, Italian, and Indian cooking. David Blackburn, Chief of Cultural Resources at Lowell National Historical Park, will moderate the panel discussion, which is sure to touch on foodways traditions, family recipes, stories, and religious associations surrounding these fundamental culinary fats.

 

 P.S. — Jane Dornbusch, correspondent to The Boston Globe attended the event and wrote a wonderful review. To see the article, click here.

Native American Woodlands Folklife Talk by Dana Benner

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Curious about the Native peoples who once lived along the banks of the Merrimack River? The Lowell Folklife Series invites you to a talk by Dana Benner on Saturday, November 5 at the Event Center of the Boott Mills MuseumWhen most people think of Native peoples at or around the time of contact with Europeans, they think either of Thanksgiving or fierce warfare. Many people are unaware of the extensive social traditions, trade relations, and industrious nature of the Native nations. The area along the Merrimack River that we define as Lowell was home to the Pennacook people.  Just to the south were the Massachusett, who were direct trading partners with the Pennacook.  Mr. Dana Benner will explore the rich traditions of the Pennacook nation, leaving the audience with a greater appreciation of the people who once called this area home.

Dana Benner is of Micmac/Penobscot/Piqwacket descent and is a member of the Inter-Tribal Council of New Hampshire.  He has been studying Native history and culture his entire life and has been writing about it for over 25 years.  He holds a BA in Liberal Arts with a concentration in U.S. History and Native Culture from Granite State College and he is working on his M.Ed in Heritage Studies with a concentration in Native History and Culture from Plymouth State University.

This talk is free and open to the public.

2:00 p.m @ 2nd Floor Event Center, Boott Mills Museum

110 John Street, Lowell, MA

For more information: 978-275-1719

Event sponsored by the Lowell National Historical Park and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

 

 

 

 

Pickles, meat pies, lemon grass, and poppy seed cake . . .

Monday, August 29th, 2011

A week for foodies approaches. On Thursday, September 8 at 7pm, the Lowell Folklife Series invites you to come hear museum director Beryl Rosenthal talk about New York Jewish pickle traditions. Then watch a portrayal of the legendary pickle man in a screening of the romantic drama, Crossing Delancey, starring Amy Irving. The event is free and is co-sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park and the Lowell Film Collaborative.

Then on Saturday, September 10, join our bus tour of some of Greater Lowell’s ethnic markets. We will meet at the Park’s visitor center (246 Market Street, Lowell) at 2pm and travel by bus to three local ethnic markets: Cotes Market, Pailin Supermarket, and the Fill’n’Chill in Billerica.

You will have the chance to meet with proprietors, hear family stories and local history, and buy specialty foods.

Back at the Park Visitor Center, we will be treated to a talk by author Jane Ziegelman. Her book,  97 Orchard Street, is an exploration of immigrant food traditions in New York’s Lower East Side, and will be available for purchase.  Although the tour and book talk are free, space on the bus is limited. Please make reservations by calling 978-970-5000.

Scenes from a folk festival

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

The Lowell Folk Festival is best known for its spectacular array of traditional music and ethnic food. Perhaps less well known is the Folk Craft & Foodways demonstrations that take place every year in the shade of Lucy Larcom Park. From watching fishing flys being tied and seeing how Abenaki baskets are woven, to handling newly constructed Puerto Rican musical instruments, it’s an area that encourages a special kind of hands-on interaction that kids especially enjoy.

Folks that stopped by the letterpress printing tent got the chance to set metal type in a composing stick and then pull an impression (i.e., print) their own name on a table top  press.

Samnang Khoeun explained the carving and casting ofan element of Cambodian ornamental design known as kbach.

Just across from the craft demonstrations was the large Foodways tent. Here, people had a chance to watch cooking demonstrations and sample noodle and pasta dishes from five different cultural cuisines.

The demonstrations started at noon with Jewish noodle kugel. Hannah Hammond Hagman and her mother Lynn Hammond, shared a recipe which has been handed down in their family for four generations.

Ronnie Mouth shared her mother’s recipe for cold Cambodian noodle salad.

Other dishes that were presented over the weekend included Italian pasta and peas by Regina Sibilia Sullivan, Polish pierogi by Dottie Flanagan and Carol Matyka, and Pennsylvania Dutch chicken corn noodle soup by Millie Rahn. In addition to the welcome shade of the tent, the crowd seemed to enjoy hearing stories about  family traditions, cooking tips, recipes. . .

. . . and those delicious samples!

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg

The Pierogi Queen

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

We first met Dorothy “Dottie” Naruszewicz Flanagan at Holy Trinity Polish Church during the “Blessing of the food” Easter Saturday. Remember those sculpted butter lambs? So we weren’t surprised to learn that Dottie is also known locally as the “Pierogi Queen.” Raised in Lowell’s Polish community, Dottie, who learned to make this pasta delicacy from her mother, aunts, and grandmother, shares this fact, “Pierogi has always been a part of our life. It’s a staple, especially at Christmas time.”

Dottie invited us to her home to watch her make pierogi along with her good friend Carol Matyka. Carol also grew up in Lowell and the Dracut area, but now lives in Boston. Her family is all of Polish extraction. When we meet, Carol tells us, “I was looking forward to coming today because Dottie is the master of making pierogi. It’s been many, many years since I’ve made them and I wanted to re-establish my roots in Polish cooking.”

Dottie and Carol have prepared the fillings ahead of time. Dottie assures us there aren’t enough hours in the day to prepare the fillings and the dough all on the same day. One filling is made with two kinds of farmer’s cheese, potato, and onion and the other is made with cabbage and sauerkraut.

Carol has mixed and kneeded the dough, which, like noodle or pasta dough, contains no yeast. She rolls it out to an eighth of an inch, then uses the top of a glass to cut out circles of dough.

Next, Dottie fills the circles of dough with filling, wetting the edge to seal the deal. She reinforces the seam by pressing the edge of a fork into it.

Carol points out that if you look at pierogi about to be boiled, “They look like Italian ravioli, Chinese pot stickers, empanadas — every culture has its version of the same thing.”

The pierogi cook for about ten minutes, or until they float. Then, using a slotted spoon,  Dottie lifts them out and gently places them into a pan of melted butter, before letting them rest on a tin-foiled pan.  And of course, it’s time for a taste. The pierogi are delicious; in the boiling process, the farmer’s cheese has melted and the dough is buttery soft. You can’t get a taste and texture like that from store-bought pierogi.

Making pierogi for a crowd is labor intensive. In addition to making large batches of pierogi for the day before Christmas, known as Wiligia, pierogi is made for other special occasions, like wedding showers and baptism receptions. It is usually a group effort, not unlike quilting bees or barn raisings used to be.  Dottie says that at Christmas time, she and Carol’s sister make about 300 pierogi. “We can’t do that alone. We had six people here cooking one day and we were able to make twelve dozen in one night . . . Ideally, you have one doing the dough and rolling it out, one doing the mixing, one taking care of the pots, one putting them in the freezer.”

Carol goes to mix up another batch of dough, adding flour as she goes, “We’re going to start with two cups of flour, but you’ll see, as I’m working the dough, I’m going to have to add more.”

“That’s another thing you get to know,” Dottie adds.  “The feel of the dough. You get to know that it actually talks to you.”

“And what does it say to you?” I ask.

“Sometimes it says, ‘I’m not ready,’ and sometimes it says, ‘O.K,'” Dottie answers, to the sound of sizzling butter in the background.

Before we leave Dottie’s kitchen, I get a chance to try my hand at making pierogi.

For more cooks’ secrets and a chance to taste some of Dottie and Carol’s pierogi, be sure to come by the Foodways Tent at 2:00 pm on Saturday, July 30 or Sunday, July 31 of the Lowell Folk Festival.

Of kielbasa and butter lambs

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The priest used to come to every house to bless the food . . . They’d go from house to house, all by foot too.    Mary Dudek, Holy Trinity Polish Church 

 

Our good friend and colleague Pauline Golec is a native Lowellian who, for many years, has done much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing the city’s festivals. If you’ve come to the Lowell Folk Festival and enjoyed the enticing array of ethnic food for sale by community groups, you have Pauline to thank.

Pauline is also a long-time member of Holy Trinity Parish, the designated mother parish for the Polish Community in the Merrimack Valley. So it made sense that we pay attention when she alerted us to a local Polish tradition at Holy Trinity. Having cleared things with the monsignor, Pauline invites us to the “blessing of the food,” which is done on Holy Saturday at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 am.

We arrive shortly before nine and see a gathering of parishioners. Though we spot a few children, most are older individuals. Some have grown up in Lowell’s Polish neighborhood; others are more recent immigrants from Poland and Russia. All have brought baskets of Easter food to be blessed.

It doesn’t take long to see the similarity of food items filling each basket — eggs, ham, kielbasa, horse radish, pickles, mazurek, (traditional Polish Easter cake), babka, (a sweet yeast bread), and butter lambs (wee lambs made of molded butter.) When asked, individuals talk about how each of these foods represents the meaning of Easter. The butter lambs represent Jesus, the lamb of God; the eggs symbolize life and Christ’s resurrection; salt his purification; horse radish, his bitter sacrifice; ham and kielbasa the joy and abundance of life. 

I’d been hearing about butter lambs associated with Easter for years, but had never seen one. Suddenly, here they are. Pauline points to some made by Dottie Naruszewicz Flanagan, “You see Dottie’s? She’s got a flock.” Indeed, these are some of the most impressive butter lambs in the room. She has made 20 to give to neighbors and friends, which she presents on a paper plate with colored eggs. When I comment on the attention to detail, Dottie explains, “I mold and my daughter swirls. And as she’s swirling (using a toothpick to simulate the lamb’s wool,) my grandson and I are doing the eggs.”

 

After admiring Dottie’s array of food, we meet Frank Markarewicz who has brought his food to be blessed. Rather than nestled into an Easter basket, his food is unceremoniously concealed in a brown paper grocery bag.  We all laugh as Pauline teases, “From the sublime to the ridiculous! Straight from Market Basket.”

We are introduced to Jane Markiewicz Duffley, whose butter lambs are much larger than Dottie’s. To make her butter lambs, she uses candy molds inherited from her father, who once owned Blue Dot Candy on Bridge Street. She kept the molds he used in making chocolate bunnies. “I use them for Easter to make the lambs out of butter. It’s a nice tradition. We’ve been doing this since we were little kids. The priest used to come to the house to bless the food.” 

 

There was a time when the Polish Catholic priest would visit each house to bless the food in Lowell’s Polish neighborhood. Not unlike the family physician making house calls, this is a thing of the past. Instead, the people come to the priest.

“Peace,” says Monsignor Stanislaw Kempa. Someone claps hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Monsignor Kempa delivers the  special prayers for blessing the food, first in English, and then in Polish. When he announces, “Happy Easter. Hallelujah,” and procedes to sprinkle holy water while walking in amongst the assembled whose baskets of food line long tables throughout the hall. 

  

  

There is more visiting, exchanging of news, and cups of coffee. And then it is time to go home, blessed food and baskets in hand.

 

 

Mexican Chocolate Traditions in Massachusetts

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Back in November, we introduced you to Taza Chocolate and promised you more info on an upcoming public program at Lowell National Historical Park.  Well that day has come. Tomorrow, in the Park’s Visitor Center, we are presenting on Mexican chocolate traditions here in Massachusetts.

Alex Whitmore, co-founder of Taza Chocolate, will talk about his Mexican-inspired, stone ground chocolate company located in Somerville. Taza manufactures minimally processed chocolate made from fair trade organic cacao beans. Rotary stone mills imported from Oaxaca are used to grind the roasted beans. Each one is hand chiseled with a pattern specifically designed for grinding chocolate.

Ricardo and Maria Candiani, owners of Mr. Jalapeno in downtown Lowell, grew up in Hermosillo, Mexico. They will share recipes and traditions passed down within their respective families. These include mole, a sauce made from finely ground ingredients, including chocolate. Delectable samples will be available at this free program, which is sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park. Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 4:00 p.m. at the Visitor Center, 246 Market Street.

Come join us to hear stories and taste samples of Mexican style chocolate and chicken mole. This free program takes place Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 4:00 p.m. at the Visitor Center, 246 Market Street.

Click here to watch the program.

 

The Cultural Source of Chocolate, Mexican style

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

I grew up, like most people in this part of the world, eating European style chocolate. So having this Mexican traditional chocolate was revelatory.

Alex Whitmore, Co-founder of Taza Chocolate

If you attended last summer’s Lowell Folk Festival and wandered into the foodways tent in Lucy Larcom Park, you would have seen (and tasted) that we were into beans. Cooks representing five different cultural cuisines shared their favorite bean dishes with the crowd (750 servings in all).

In an upcoming public program at Lowell National Historical Park, we will be exploring a different kind of bean. Just two days before Valentine’s day, we will present a program on the Mexican tradition of manufacturing, baking, and cooking with chocolate made from stoneground cacao beans.

As the date approaches, more info will be posted, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share some details from my recent visit to Taza Chocolate, a Mexican-style chocolate factory in Somerville, Massachusetts.

My guide was Alex Whitmore, co-founder of Taza Chocolate. Taza is one of several businesses located in an industrial building near the Cambridge/Somerville border.  Walking into the main entrance, I was immediately overwhelmed by the pleasant aroma of chocolate. If only one could record smells . . .

As companies go, Taza Chocolate is fairly new. Established in 2006, Taza is dedicated to manufacturing minimally processed chocolate made from fair trade organic cacao beans. Rotary stone mills from Oaxaca are used to grind the roasted beans.

Before touring through the factory, Alex and I sat down for an interview. Turns out, Taza is one of only 18 companies in the United States that are a “bean to bar” chocolate manufacturer, meaning rather than buying processed chocolate, they actually make chocolate from cacao beans bought directly from growers in Central America.

The majority of businesses making and selling chocolate are called “chocolatiers.” They may make delicious chocolate candy but they buy they don’t start by roasting and grinding their own cacao beans. The smooth, melt-in-your mouth chocolate we associate with Swiss, Belgium, and Italian confections is a relative newcomer on the scene. As Alex reminded me, the indigenous peoples of Central and South America consumed chocolate primarily as a drink for thousands of years before the delectable substance was introduced to Europeans. “The [cacao tree] is indigenous to Central and South America. And because of that, it became culturally important as a food stuff in the early civilizations of the Americas. The Europeans didn’t actually get their hands on the cacao bean until after the Columbian exchange when the Spanish brought it back over to Europe. They didn’t really start making chocolate as we know it today, in a solid form until the late 1700s, early 1800s. And It wasn’t really developed until the mid to later 1800s as a fine candy.”

The chocolate made at Taza differs significantly from chocolate manufactured around the United States. “We make chocolate in a very specific tradition . . .  The entire process is very much inspired by Southern Mexican chocolate making.”

Cacao beans come from the theobroma tree, which grows best in a hot and humid climate. The fruit of the theobroma tree is a cacoa pod, which contains seeds called beans. Alex points out that “Because Taza chocolate is made with such  minimal processing, our product tastes like our ingredients.” What this means is that it is really important for the company to personally source their beans, buying directly from farmers with which they have developed a personal relationship.

Once the beans are harvested, they are fermented and dried before being shipped to Taza. Fermentation creates more complex flavors. Alex made the comparison between the taste of flour and water, like matzoh (unleavened bread) to the more complex taste of bread made with yeast.

I asked Alex about his time in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he studied under several molineros (Spanish for stone ground millers.) In this part of Mexico, being a molinero is a family tradition which is passed down from father to son and kept rather secretive. Although Alex learned a good bit about dressing the grinding stones, he was never allowed to see stones with freshly cut patterns.

As is done in Mexico, Taza uses granite milling stones to grind their cacao beans. They hand chisel each millstone with a pattern specifically designed for grinding chocolate.

Stone ground chocolate, like stone ground grain, leaves granular bits behind, which gives Taza chocolate its rustic texture. After our interview, Alex led me through the factory to see various stages of production – winnowing, grinding, roasting, tempering, molding, and packaging. Taza also runs a retail store, and offers factory tours to the public three times a week.

If you’d like to meet Alex and learn more about their unique products and philosophy, plan on attending our program on February 12, 2011 at Lowell National Historical Park — Visitor Center. Details to follow.


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