Food from Land & Sea: 2017 Lowell Folk Festival

Guest blog by Millie Rahn

Harvest is past and Thanksgiving is upon us, the perfect time to recall recipes and stories, and celebrate the traditions that make us who we are as individuals, families, and communities. We do this in kitchens, at tables, or in other formats where we remember and reflect on the foods we eat, the ways we acquire and prepare them, and the symbols and meanings they have for us, past and present.

As a folklorist, I’m still savoring the bounty of summer’s riches showcased and shared at regional festivals, particularly in Lowell in late July, where I curate and present the foodways demonstrations. The foodways stage at this year’s 31st event was a festive sampling of tastes, cultures, techniques, and stories featuring foods with ties to land or sea.

Foodways complemented the larger folklife area theme of coastal and inland traditions exemplified by tradition bearers who produced items such pottery and baskets used to gather and/or store foods, or the quahog and other shells that are turned into wampum by Wampanoag and Narragansett artists, or ship’s wheels, horse saddles, and blankets for gathering and transporting foods, or temple ornaments used in the blessing of the bounty.

On the makeshift kitchen stage, both home and professional cooks talked about their individual history and culture. Each assembled a recipe while sharing stories of their homelands and the foods they grew up with, and recipes they adapted and maintain here, and then let audiences sample the finished fare—from Lithuanian pickles to Caribbean and Asian poultry and seafood, rounded off with Southwest chili adapted to coastal New England.

 

Irena Malasauskas emigrated from Lithuania, where her mother always kept wooden barrels of pickles and of sauerkraut in their kitchen. Now Irena makes pickles regularly, keeping them in plastic and glass jars, and even assembled ready-to-eat ones in plastic bags. Pickles, we learned from Irena’s husband and from her granddaughter visiting from Germany, don’t last long in the Malasauskas household.

Geetha Raju, originally from Tamil-Nadu in southern India, made a South Indian shrimp curry, ably assisted by her daughters, Shuruthe and Laya, who are learning the family traditions of cooking and baking. While Geetha here uses tinned coconut milk, she noted that at home in India, which she visits as often as she can, they simply can go outside and pick a coconut off a tree. Laya wants to go into the culinary arts; I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her on the Lowell foodways stage.

Gaitskell Cleghorn, Jr., known as “Chef Gates,” teaches culinary arts in an after-school program for middle school students. He and his partner, Mika Brinson, have Jamaican roots. They talked about the variety of fresh ingredients in Jamaica, where chicken is widely available, either in shops or raised in backyards, and the ease of the cooking and eating on the beach or on rafts in the water in a mild climate. They, too, used coconut milk for their chicken dish, while giving tips on slicing vegetables safely and easily, and quizzing the audience on culinary knowledge and the science of cooking.

Han-Ting Lin is a physician from Taiwan where, she says, fish is a staple in markets and “is a must” at New Year’s Eve dinner. As an oncologist and enthusiastic home cook, she advises “everything in moderation” and talked of the benefits and ease of preparing simple, healthy, and inexpensive meals from scratch, especially in a wok.  She uses a square-bottomed wok that she brought from Taiwan, but noted similar ones are available in Boston’s Chinatown and can be used on either electric or gas stovetops without an adapter. She shared her favorite fish marinades, which she served on different days with squid and salmon–a commercial Korean barbecue sauce, and her own blend: 1 cup olive oil, a “big ginger root,” and 1 ½ tablespoons bottled curry powder.

Patricia Hazard and her sister Viola Solano, dubbed the “Chili Sisters” onstage, made two kinds of Southwestern chili from their mother’s recipe originally from New Mexico, whence they ordered the special chili pepper ingredients for the Southwest flavor they remember from childhood. One sister likes beans in her chili; the other does not, but the basics are the same and each has been making her chili recipe for decades in coastal New England.

Catch us next year at the 32nd Lowell Folk Festival, when our foodways theme will be FLATBREADS & WRAPPED FOODS. Flatbreads, often called pancakes, can be served “as is” or topped, or wrapped and filled with sweets or savories. Whether you call them ploys, hoe cakes, crepes, blintzes, chapattis, johnnycakes…they’re delicious. Come taste for yourself.

Here’s what happens when . . .

. . . you have the opportunity to hire a professional film crew and still photographer  to capture master musicians and dancers performing in a beautiful venue. Videos by Blake Road Productions and stills by Brendan Mercure.

Below are links to each segment of the concert – shot and edited by, Blake Road Productions.

Highlight Reel from Showcase Concert

We are excited to share this highlight reel from our “Hiding in Plain Sight” showcase concert, which took place on Mother’s Day. It captures the talent and energy of some of our state’s most vibrant traditional artists. Shot and edited by Blake Road Productions.

Coming soon will be concert footage of each of the four segments: a Dominican carnival procession by Asociacion Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, South Indian carnatic music and dance, Irish music and dance, and Malian music and dance.

Watch Live webcast of National Heritage Fellows Concert

We are coming up on the last week of September, which means it’s time for the annual feting of our country’s National Heritage Fellows. This year’s fellows include former Massachusett’s resident and Irish fiddler extraordinaire, Seamus Connolly.

The National Council for Traditional Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts produce a spectacular evening performance September 27th at Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus. Fortunately, for those unable to attend the concert, the event will be live streamed at arts.gov,  with an archive available following the event. Viewers can share comments and photos on
Twitter using the hashtag #NEAHeritage. You may also request copies of
the concert program by emailing heritage@arts.gov.

Learning Chinese calligraphy from a master

Qianshen Bai is a demanding teacher.  Leaning over his apprentice’s brush work, he points out tiny things, “This  is the problem. Her problem here is that here, so far so good, and she move this way, see the brush toward this part? The stroke should keep in the same direction. You see? You need to use finger and wrist. . . This kind of work is an illusion. The trick is, where this stroke came from, because calligraphy is art of movement.”

Although there are still quite a few people who practice calligraphy for leisure, very few take the time to study, in depth, the history and various aspects of the art of writing calligraphy. Mei Hung, Executive Director of Chinese Culture Connection, is one of those people.  In September 2013, Qianshen Bai and Mei Hung were awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In addition to learning the subtleties of the techniques in writing balanced and artistic calligraphy, Mei Hung learned to appreciate a piece of good work with a critical eye. During their 8-month apprenticeship, Mei was introduced to writing couplets, horizontal banners, and, in a smaller font, on fan shaped calligraphy. In addition to learning how to compose the writing in various styles, she completed the composition with date and signature, and the proper way to apply the seal.

For Mei Hung, having had such a direct experience with master calligrapher Qianshen Bai has been a privilige.  “Now I understand that the art of writing calligraphy can be related to playing music, practicing Tai Ji . . .To do it well is a total harmonious relationship among one’s intent, the brush, the ink and the paper. Professor Bai described it this way: the “brush dances and the ink sings.”

This apprenticeship enhanced my knowledge of the art and improved my writing skills, but most importantly, it made me feel humble. It is truly an art that requires a life long practice.” Perhaps, most importantly, Mei mastered a method of how to learn calligraphy by herself in the future.

The next deadline for Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants is April 2014.

 

Fried dough, anyone?

Bread may be the staff of life, but fried dough is its treat. Fried dough is often associated with summer fairs and carnivals, where it’s made in vats of hot oil. But this seemingly generic food has roots in many cultures. Varieties of fried dough made in local home kitchens are part of the foodways of cooks with African-American, Greek, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese roots.

Fried breads are made with yeast dough or flour, which is shaped and transformed by frying.  Frequently the small, often bite-sized confection is finished off by being rolled in toppings such as honey, sugar, cinnamon, or the sweeteners are sprinkled on top. There’s no such thing as leftovers where fried dough is served!

Come to Foodways Tent this July’s Lowell Folk Festival and you’ll have a chance to see and taste five different versions of fried dough.

COOKING DEMONSTRATIONS:

12:00 p.m.  Eleni Zoldi, Greek loukamathes

1:00 p.m.    Lucia DiDuca, pizza fritta

2:00 p.m.    Natalia Cardosa, Portuguese filhoses & malassadas

3:00 p.m.    Lilly Morales, African American hoe cakes and hush puppies

4:00 p.m.    Mary Matyka with Helen Dubuc, chrusciki

Help sculpt MCC’s strategic plan

By now you may have seen an email announcing an  Massachusetts Cultural Council  survey to help us in strategic planning. I want to reach out especially to you as members of the traditional arts community and to ask you to respond to questions specific to our field.

You can share your ideas at four public forums we’ve scheduled for early December. MCC staff will join attendees to create a shared vision for expanding support for the arts, humanities, and sciences in Massachusetts, and how to translate that vision into reality. Register for a public forum.

Please consider filling out a short and simple planning survey (which should take 15 minutes or less; please complete by Friday, December 16, 2011). All responses will be confidential (unless you request otherwise).

In addition to the questions that are posed in the survey, feel free to comment on issues that directly affect our field:

1. How important is it for the MCC to continue funding traditional arts apprenticeships and artist fellowships?

2. How else do you think we can support the work of traditional artists?

3. Are there people or traditions you think we should know about? If so, let us know.

Thank you. Your input will be invaluable in shaping the strategic plan and charting MCC’s future course.