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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013

Holiday Folk Fair Celebrates 70 Years

Sample the world’s food at State Fair Park

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The festivals that celebrate Milwaukee’s ethnic pride, culture and community all summer are over for the season. Yet, there is still one more opportunity in 2013 to take in a celebration of Milwaukee’s ethnic communities: the 70th annual Holiday Folk Fair. About 50,000 people will make the trip to the Wisconsin Expo Center in State Fair Park over the course of the Holiday Folk Fair’s three-day run.

The International Institute of Wisconsin, headed by President and CEO Al Durtka, produces the event. “The Holiday Folk Fair is the oldest annual multicultural event in the country,” Durtka says. “We have 50 different ethnic communities involved on a yearly basis.” The Holiday Folk Fair focuses on ethnic communities instead of countries, because some of the groups represented have come from countries that no longer exist.

There are plenty of traditional craft vendors, musicians and cultural dancers at the fair. However, for many, the food steals the show. Sold in the fair’s World Café, the food is almost exclusively prepared by volunteers employing traditional methods to turn out dishes showcasing their heritage. 

“It’s really all about community and how communities come together around food,” says Durtka. “While many ethnic groups serve foods with similar ingredients—some may have more nuts or less honey, and so forth—it is how it’s all put together that makes it special.”

Some of the foods may be familiar to nearly every attendee, like Italian pizza, Mexican tacos, French crepes and Irish corned beef sandwiches. It’s some of the harder-to-pronounce foods that will broaden your horizons, such as the Polish chrusciki (fried cookie), Bosnian cevapi (grilled minced beef sausages) and Greek loukoumades (deep-fried honey dough balls).

Durtka adds, “The Filipinos make salabat, a drink made with fresh ginger and brown sugar. It takes a long time to make and can’t be bought off the store shelves.”

There are also popular foods that have become a tradition of their own at the Holiday Folk Fair, like the Czech ravicky, or “little coffins.” The top-secret recipe of this rich, sweet cookie has been closely held for decades. “People seem to really enjoy them and they go tremendously fast—they just fly off the food shelves,” Durtka recalls.

The only trouble with all of these wonderful traditional foods is trying to sample as many as you can in the time you are at the Fair.

In fact, Durtka says, “I always recommend that you have another person along so you can share food. We see that happen quite a bit—a group will buy one plate and divide it up so they have more room to try other foods.”

This year, the Holiday Folk Fair runs Nov. 22-24. Tickets are $12 at the gate. For more information, visit folkfair.org or call 414-225-6225.