Whirring down the Mall's gravel path, a miniature service truck carrying two grinning young men and a dozen plastic bags of ice cubes puttered toward its destination -- a concession stand. Tacked up front was an explanatory sign, a whimsical response to an unasked question: "GLACIER TECHNOLOGY."
After 20 years, the people who stage the Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife -- a 10-day cavalcade of culture that opened yesterday -- have developed a flair for answering questions.
They've had to. Within a two-block area are cherry pickers, meat pasties, Dr. Ross the Harmonica Boss, Tippy patongco mix ("Just add water and oil ... Makes 60 pieces"), an arabber (Baltimore colloquialism for peddler) selling watermelon slices, Cousin Jack cookie-making demonstrations, quill workers, Ukrainian egg decorators, Hazel Dickens' mountain music, hound dogs, lime fizzes, Jiffy Johns, tobacco plants, and more. The displays are all lumped under three categories -- Cultural Conservation and Languages, the state of Michigan, and Washington music -- and at every stop there's a barrage of questions.
In the Multiethnic Marketplace tent:
"This looks like a country store, doesn't it?" asked one tourist, camera hanging from his neck, sensible hat protecting his head from the sun.
"No, no, they're not trying to be a country store," his wife said pointing to another sign. "This is cultural conservation."
Actually, they were both right.
Under one tent, part of the Cultural Conservation exhibition, are four stores representing the markets typical of Chinese American, Appalachian, Lao American and Mexican American communities, shelves stocked with familiar and unfamiliar items.
Yesterday what everyone wanted to know was "How much is this?" and "Is that for sale?"
"We're not allowed to sell anything. Just demonstrate," said Thai and Oriental food store operator Pam Suthamchai, standing among cans of sour bamboo shoot tips, bitter melon, pickled gourami fish.
"Is this spicy?" asked a man wielding some of the gourami.
"No, no," laughed Suthamchai of Alexandria, pointing instead to a shelf of curries and chili peppers.
Joe Stephens, standing near a shelf of moon pies, Bunker Hill pinto beans, snuff and Kraft Miracle Whip, was representing the Appalachian marketplace. On his head was a cap that said "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch." His wife gave him that.
Up from Ashe County, N.C., where he runs a general store, Stephens said, "I didn't know what to expect, but so far I've had a hell of a time ... I'm still wondering what people will ask and what their curiosity will be. After all, if you go into any store in Washington, D.C., you're going to find these things."
"How much is this?" asked a woman who had found a can of Betty Ann Greecy Greens (that's dry land cress, the small print said).
"Can't sell it," Stephens replied. "But you know what they tell me? This place just went out of business. I got a whole load of them at home. They sure are good."
"They sure are," said his would-be customer, walking off.
Across the Mall, in one of the Michigan tents, Damien and Judy Lunning -- trappers from Mio, Mich. -- were fielding questions about their display of pelts, lures and traps.
"Where do you go to hunt 'em?"
"Just outside my house."
"When it's white it's called an ermine. When it's brown it's called a weasel. Same animal."
"Are those teeth?"
"Beaver teeth. These are upper. These are lower."
"What's this one?"
"A claw. A toenail from a beaver."
Talia Munzer, 12, and Deborah Malkin, 13, both from Rockville, were cooing over the furs, running their fingers through each one, turning the pelts over, inspecting the tails.
"Feel how soft that is. Ohhhhh, it's soooo beautiful," Deborah said.
"Oh, yuck," squeaked Talia, suddenly discarding the fur. "It's a foot!"
"Oh, it's so, so soft," Deborah said, undeterred. She moved on to a clipped beaver pelt.
One side of another Michigan tent was devoted to the "Best of Bud Stewart" and the other side to Ed's Sport Shop, which bills itself as "A Good Place to Worm Your Way Into, Trout Flies a Specialty, 42 Years of Service."
Elman (Bud) Stewart, luremaker, perched on a dilapidated, taped up typing chair. Rods and reels to his left. A coffin-shaped lake in front of him, painted blue and green and filled with rocks and artificial turf, ready to catch whatever lure he might cast. And dozens of oglers gathered around him.
Day 1, and already Stewart seemed to have moved into auto pilot, breathlessly touting the lore and properties of lures as if he were a cassette tape on fast forward:
"Now on the counter there we have a variety of lures ... Snakes, baby ducks, muskrats, this is nature's food. They do not feed on goofy things. We do not make goofy things ... You go there, wounded pike, triple-bleeding ... When you raise your rod, he'll stop and go ... We're claiming to have the livest lure ... It'll take 50 years before you arrive at what your lookin' at ... So get our name and address ... They don't feed on broom handles, doorknobs and goofy stuff ... I don't care if you're a sporting goods dealer or who you are, 'cause I know all my bait competitors ... This is a floater."
No time for questions on that side of the tent.
Over at Ed's Sport Shop, Josephine Sedlecky Borsum from Baldwin, Mich., was waxing her thread, dabbing cement, plucking feathers and fluffing out the tail of a fishing fly so it would stand up "real high." Or, to put it simply, she was fly tying.
"How did you learn to do it?" asked one man.
"In '45, with the war, there wasn't much going on then, so that winter I started tying a lot of flies," she said, staring at a small vice in which she had locked a hook. On it she deftly wrapped threads and feathers and bits of fiber until she had made a mosquitolike object.
"Why are you doing that?" shot a voice from the crowd.
"This is what makes the fly float," she explained, fluffing at a tail of yarn.