The Festival of American Folklife may be doing something about America's appetite for energy this year, but visitors are finding less variety to satisfy their appetite for food.
"I was hoping to come down and get some special foods at the exhibits," said Harry Haase of nearby Virginia. That's why we came. But we looked around and there doesn't seem to be any."
Gone are the catfish sandwiches, th fried plantains, the stuffed grape leaves, the fried chicken, the curries and the cobblers of festivals past. Instead, hamburgers and hot dogs are being offered by a solitary food tent manned by Government Services Inc. a non-profit organization which holds exclusive rights to all products sold on the Mall. And that includes food.
In what Parks Service spokesman George Berklacy called "an exercise in bumbling bureaucracy," the Scenario evolved this way: Folklife Festival folk say there is no food because GSI would not permit them to serve what they wanted. GSI says it was never asked.
Meanwhile, hungry visitors roamed the festival site asking the same question officials are trying to answers, "What happened to the food?"
Jose Figueroa, food services director for GSI, said. "We have the sole right to sell food. But if any of the food which the Folklife people wanted to serve was food we could not produce, we would waive our rights and allow them to bring in other concessions. But they were not interested. So we told them we would sell what we always sell - hamburgers and hot dogs. Nobody cared."
Enter Ralph Rinzler, director of Folklife programs for the Smithsonian. "We did care," he said angrily. "GSI said we could sell food in bulk, but not in individual portions. We were allowed to give out samples, that's all."
Rinzler also said GSI "didn't want us to bring in any concessions or groups tht would compete with them. But I don't think it's proper for a national land area to hold such a sole-source contract. It would be similar to Muzak having a contract saying no other music could be played on the Mall."
GSI will not permit the Festival to sell any foods which they could produce themselves. The result, according to Rinzler, is unsatisfactory. "They said they could do bratwurst one year, and they served hot dogs. We wanted apple juice instead of soft drinks for the children. They ended up serving apple drink."
But Rinzler admitted that this year in the process of scaling down the Festival's scope and size, the food had to come second.
"We decided to concentrate more on the programs. Last year we fought a hard battle in getting the ethnic and international foods. We didn't fight as hard this year. But I don't know what GSI means by 'not caring.' We could have taken them to court, but we didn't want to get the Parks Service caught in the middle."
But the Parks Service people, who entered into the contract with GSI, said they were unaware of any fight.
"We have been the mediator before," said George Berklacy, assistant to the director of National Capitol Parks. "And GSI has aquiesced before. But the food wasn't a factor this year from either side."
Berklacy understands why people might be disappointed at the thought of eating hamburgers at the Festival."It's true a large number of people come for the food. There's no question about that. Frankly, we've always been very supportive of the Smithsonian and what they wanted to serve. We certainly could have stepped in, but as far as I know, there was no conflict."
Ironically, the festival's largest exhibit, "America's Appetite for Energy," is devoted to the relationship between food and energy. There's a mouth-watering demonstrtion of home-made sausage, out no sausage sandwiches. There are demonstrations on threshing, milling and baking, but no bread. There's a gasoline-powered corn mill grinding out corn meal, but no cornbread.
What is available for sale is apple butter for $1 a pint. But it's not the same apple butter being boiled in the demonstration. Sausage is for sale, but it comes from Pennsylvania, not from the exhibit. Aplle cider is sold by the cup, but - you guessed it - not the cider being freshly pressed.
"I'm very disappointed," said Jeremy Levine from Silver Spring." I was really looking to something different. There's no selection and no variety. Last year I remember eating geat meat." He looked down at a half-eaten hot dog with sauerkraut. "This is okay," he said, "but I would have preferred goat."
Another man shrugged his shoulders and said, "I feel like a captive diner."
Across the road inside the Museum of Hsitory and Technology there's a continuous ethinic food demonstation. But there's a hitch. Health regulations forbid any actual cooking - or eating. The cafeteria is open from 11 to 3 and is serving, a few ethnic dishes as a small consolation.
Even the solar oven wasn't cooperating. The temperature, under cloudy skies, wasn't hot enough to warm left-overs, let alone a hungry festival goer's heart. When asked what to do on a day like that the demonstrator replied, "Go on a diet."