Smithsonian's annual folklife festival gives rise to an all-American cookbook

November 17, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

Every summer the Smithsonian Institution, the nation's attic, goes out onto the nation's lawn, the Mall in Washington, and starts cooking.

It's part of the Festival of American Folklife, a 10-day celebration of our national heritage of storytelling, skills, music and food. For 25 years now, the Smithsonian's Office of Folklife Programs has sponsored this celebration as a way to preserve and display the regional and ethnic traditions that make up the complex pattern of American culture.

It may seem strange for a museum whose most famous exhibits are silent and static -- dinosaur bones, the inaugural gowns of America's first ladies, Dorothy's red slippers, the Hope Diamond -- to focus on sizzling pans of Southern fried chicken or baked raccoon with sweet potatoes and platters of Aunt Mary's apple stack cake. But the Smithsonian views the festival as a living museum and food as the glue of society.

"We're used to looking at objects of daily life and objects of art as relevant to a museum," says Ralph Rinzler, founding director of the festival. "And until very recently food has never been considered by museums in cultural terms. But food is part of a daily bonding ritual in the family."

Now the museum has found another way to showcase and preserve the nation's foodways with the publication of "Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook" (Smithsonian Institution Press, hardcover, $35; paperback, $15.95), by Katherine and Tom Kirlin.

For many years at the festival, the Smithsonian has sold small $1 booklets of recipes by festival participants, but it was Mrs. Kirlin's idea to gather the recipes together in a book.

The idea came to her during the festival in 1988. Mrs. Kirlin, a public affairs specialist at the Smithsonian, recalls that she was listening to one of the food programs, a demonstration by Cecilia Ojoe of Bethesda, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago.

"I was really captivated by how much the audience loved that whole event," Mrs. Kirlin says. "Cecilia Ojoe was so wonderful in imparting her culture with funny stories and her island ways that it was packed. It was like a theater sold out. Immediately I thought, boy, I'd like to be her agent or I'd like to be able to put her on TV or something, she does such a great job. But instead I came home and told Tom about how wonderful the food demonstrations were and how these little $1 pamphlets, recipe booklets, a couple of thousand of them, had sold out in the first few days."

As they talked together about the collection of the past booklets stored in the archives in the Folklife Office and about the coming 25th anniversary of the festival, the idea for the book formed.

"I really didn't know if the Smithsonian would ever embrace such an idea, but really and truly they did from the very start," she says.

Her husband, a writer and poet, joined her in the project as co-author.

In the early months of the work, the Kirlins found there were gaps in the collection, so they decided to take on the huge task of getting in touch with all the festival's participants.

"That meant locating the names, addresses -- and phone numbers if possible -- of everyone we could find of the last 25 years from the field notes or from personal contacts, finding out whether people demonstrated the particular recipe that was in the little handout each year. Quite often that was not the case," Mr. Kirlin says.

One woman Mrs. Kirlin called answered the telephone saying, "Hold on a minute, baby, I've got to get some bread out of the oven."

Sometimes they had to track people down through relatives or friends in the community, sometimes by way of the local postmaster. Other times the participants had since died and the Kirlins had to piece together the memories of family members.

They began the book with a chapter on American Indian cooking. "It became very clear we needed a Native American section to lead off, not just for historic reasons, but because so many of the people, in the comments and letters they wrote us, credited the influence of native cultures on the foods that developed among the immigrant groups that came along," Mr. Kirlin explains.

They then decided to organize the rest of the book by regions of the country even though, because we are a nation of immigrants, each region is an amalgam of many different culinary influences.

"It's always interesting, because when people come to the Folklife Festival they might walk by a Puerto Rican pig roast for instance. And they'll say, 'Oh, Puerto Rico's being featured this year,' but in fact those Puerto Ricans are from Massachusetts and they're there as part of the Massachusetts exhibit," Mrs. Kirlin says.

"The Portuguese people who live in Massachusetts have been there for several generations. And even though they carry their Portuguese tradition with them, they still consider themselves to be very proud Americans," she adds.

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