We are just weeks away from the 2015 Lowell Folk Festival

banner of folk craft artists' work

The Lowell Folk Festival is coming right up on July 24-26th. In addition to checking out music and dance performances and sampling some of the best ethnic food served at a festival, consider spending some time in the Folk Craft area located in Lucy Larcom Park. This year we are featuring 13 different textile traditions. From noon until 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, artisans will demonstrate traditional techniques used in the making of textiles: twining, coiling, weaving, quilting, hooking, and lace making. Others will explore how textiles are used in what is called the “unstitched garment,” i.e., wrapping Indian saris, African headwraps, and Islamic headscarves.

You will discover how the pattern of a textile’s weave, its thread count, and the way it is worn can convey religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Come compare quilting traditions from African American and Anglo American quilting guilds. Watch how embellishments such as bobbin lace are created. See how you look in an African head wrap. Try your hand at hooking a rug . . .

Rug hooking detail. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

If you get hungry and tired and want to sit down, the Foodways demonstration area is close by. My colleague and friend Millie Rahn has put together a tasty program on pickling traditions.

Pickles. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

“Pickling is a method of preserving food that is found in many cultures and usually involves brine, vinegar, spices, and fermentation. Vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and nuts are often pickled alone or mixed together in various ways to keep food for out-of-season eating. Traditionally, pickling was a way of ensuring food sources for those working far from the comforts of home on land and sea, no matter the climate. Today, many home cooks in the region use the bounty of their gardens and local markets to pass on favorite recipes and preserve their foodways throughout the year.”

The schedule is below.  As in past years, you will have a chance to ask questions and to taste samples once each demonstration is over.

12pm: Refrigerator Pickles Mill City Grows/UTEC; Lydia Sisson
1pm: Jamaican Pickled Pepper Sauce, Nicola Williams
2pm: Northern Indian Cholay, Yogesh Kumar
3pm: Lithuanian Pickles, Irena Malasaukas
4pm: New England Bread Butter Pickles, Jackie Oak with Tricia & Gerard Marchese



Scenes from a folk festival

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 Cultural Source of Chocolate, Mexican style

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.