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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 07/01/2011

A food snob’s guide to the Folklife Festival


Sanitized for your convenience: The food at the Folklife Festival must please thousands of palates, including those not used to the spice and flavors of foreign cuisines. (Leah Golubchick)
In an age when every minor eatery planning to add an outdoor patio merits a small tsunami of online coverage, you have to work hard to find something comprehensive about the food at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which opened yesterday with a focus on the cultures of Colombia, the Peace Corps and American rhythm and blues.

Part of the problem might be the festival itself. You have to wade through the Folklife Festival’s numerous blog posts to find much of anything about its food offerings, a task that will reveal some interesting tidbits, like the fact that three Baltimore Arabbers will sell fresh fruit from their horse-drawn carts. Or that the cooking demos will likely be more fascinating than the food available to actually, you know, eat. (Repeat this mantra over and over: “I cannot sample the demonstration food no matter how delicious it looks.”)

The truth is, the best thing I’ve read about the festival’s food has been on the Going Out Gurus blog, where Jess Righthand lays out what you can expect at the cooking demos and concession tents. (You can check out the festival’s full menus after the jump.)

Complaining about the Folklife Festival’s concessions, of course, is part of the experience. I know. I really lobbed a hand grenade a few years ago when organizers tried to foist “Texas barbecue”on the assembled hordes.

But the fact is, it’s hard to prepare food for such a large crowd — and cater to every one of the palates out there in the sun, dehydrated and hungry for anything but, say, fried ants. Chef Celena Zapata, who works at sister restaurants Casa Oaxaca and Guajillo, won’t be deep-frying bugs for festivalgoers; her menu is more conservative, featuring beef empanadas, chorizo, rice and beans, arepas and a chicken stew with potatoes and yuca called pollo sudado. (Colombian cooking, by the way, has many more mouthwatering offerings, though securing the necessary ingredients to feed such a large crowd would be next to impossible.)

Now, you may be wondering why a chef specializing in Mexican cuisine would be leading the Colombian concessions at the festival. The answer is simple: Zapata is a native Colombian.

“It’s my understanding that there are only a very few, very small Colombian restaurants in the DC area,” e-mails festival spokeswoman Becky Haberacker. “Those we looked at didn’t have the capacity to handle the volume of people we get for the Folklife Festival. We thought that using an experienced Colombian chef, backed by the restaurants she worked in, would be a good alternative to ensure that the concession can provide authentic Colombian food to the Festival’s large crowds.”

I suspect the folks behind the other concessions will come closer to providing an “authentic” meal, whatever that might mean. The terrific KBQ in Bowie is handling the barbecue tent, which itself is tied to the festival’s R&B program. The Logan Circle restaurant Teak Wood will provide the Southeast Asian food, while Chez Aunty Libe on Georgia Avenue NW will prepare the West African food; festival organizers have tied both cuisines to the Peace Corps program, but they had a semi-hard time explaining why they selected these cultures over others.

Regardless, there will be plenty of options to choose from, though the options are far fewer for the meatless munchers among us. Take a look for yourself: Here are the menus for this year’s festival.

The festival on the Mall runs from Thursday to Monday this week and next, and food will be served from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Monday, some concessions will stay open through the fireworks.

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 07/01/2011

Categories:  Holiday | Tags:  Tim Carman

 
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