Food showcase

A miz of international offerings spices up city's celebrations


With the arrival of immigrants and refugees from Central America, Africa and Asia in recent decades, Baltimore's traditional foodscape has ventured from the continent of Polish pierogi, Greek pastitsio and German schnitzel to those of Korean bul kogi, Mexican tamales and Nigerian fried yam.

The changes are clear in area restaurants, groceries, food stands, farmers' markets and in the streets where competing cooking scents emanate enticingly from rowhouses and other dwellings.

Beginning early next month, Baltimore's growing culinary diversity again takes center stage at the city's annual Showcase of Nations series of ethnic festivals.

For decades, the gastronomic contributions of Baltimore immigrants from Greece, Ireland, the Caribbean, Russia and other lands have drawn throngs eager to sample the delicacies sold by vendors at the weekend festivals, which continue through October.

The festivals are a way of preserving endangered traditions for the descendants of European settlers who have scattered to the suburbs. For more recent emigres, the festivals are a way to introduce newcomers to the inherited foodways they have brought with them. For everyone who participates, the festivals are an affirmation of Baltimore's savory stew of food traditions.

During this season, Taste will highlight a selection of ethnic specialties featured at local festivals in an occasional series of stories.

The Polish Festival, held from June 2-4 in Patterson Park, launches the season. When the festival debuted 33 years ago, most of its planners and guests came from the neighborhood where it took place.

This year, the local Polish diaspora will return to its East Baltimore roots from Annapolis, Owings Mills, White Marsh and Dundalk to feast on pierogi, the pies stuffed with meat, potato and cheese provided by the Holy Cross Polish National Church, and galumpkis, stuffed cabbage.

Visitors to the spirited festival - which drew 10,000 people last year, according to Halina Maliszewski, one of the festival's four organizers - also will gobble snowy mounds of bow-tie pastries called chrusciki. They'll down Polish beer and a cherry cordial called wisnowka, served by the shot.

Today, it's rare to find pierogi or galumpkis served routinely in Polish homes because they're "labor-intensive," says Maliszewski, who grew up in Canton and later moved to Harford County. "My mother didn't work. She made pierogies at least once a week," she says.

Because she did work, Maliszewski made the traditional staple on special occasions and at Christmas. Her children haven't followed suit, she says. That doesn't stop them from eating pierogi when they're available, though.

"My kids don't listen to Polish music; I do," Maliszewski says. "My kids would rather listen to rock. They don't want to look at Polish art or paintings or read Polish books. You don't appreciate that until you're 50. But you always appreciate good food, especially when you get it once or twice a year."

With the huge influx of Latino immigrants to the Baltimore region, this year's LatinoFest (June 24-25) promises a cornucopia of cuisines from Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and other nations.

"It's a very diverse community," says Jose Ruiz, director of Education-Based Latino Outreach, which runs the festival.

The new arrivals "want to set up a booth [at the festival] more than ever," Ruiz says. Food unites everyone in a ritual called "commensuality," says Rory Turner, program initiative specialist at the Maryland State Arts Council. The term "refers to the role food plays in culture as a means of connecting and reaffirming the basic tie there is between people," Turner says. That is why at festivals, "there is this heightened moment of sociability within a community's life and why, at that heightened moment, food is at the center of it."

With the widespread availability of ethnic food in grocery stores and restaurants, the festivals' food offerings may no longer be a drastic departure from the fare consumed daily in more adventurous households. Even so, the typical "ethnic" meal has changed, says Warren Belasco, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who specializes in the cultural and historical meanings of food.

"That's really been the story of ethnic foods in America from the very beginning," Belasco says. "They often bear very little resemblance to the old country." Italian food, for example, "was forced to adapt to local supplies." In the United States, as well, meat is "much more cheaper, portion sizes are bigger and the spicing tends to be toned down." The great variety of cooking styles found within China, Mexico or India often become subsumed into one style.

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