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Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Food Observations

We took advantage of the wonderful weather yesterday to spend the whole day at the Folklife Festival. This year's three cultures are Northern Ireland, Mekong River, and Virginia.

Although the festival focuses on three cultures, there are four main food tents since the Mekong River is represented by food from two countries: Thailand and Vietnam. Regent Thai restaurant and Minh's Vietnamese restaurant are catering the food tents. There's no indication who is catering either the Virginia or N. Ireland food tents. (Menus, except for snack food items, listed below.)

We bought lunch from Minh's tent. A big disappointment. I only remembered that Minh's gets mentioned on Chowhound, but I didn't remember the substance of the discussion. This morning, after reading the disparaging comments about Minh's on Chowhoud, the only thing to say is that if they can't deliver in the restaurant setting, I shouldn't have been surprised by their struggles in the large catering tent of the festival.

We stood on line for over 30 minutes. When we sat down at a picnic table to eat, we made the unhappy discovery that they had not packed a crispy spring roll in either order of Grilled Pork. In both of the small divisions of the styrofoam container they had placed a ball of rice. I took our lunches back to the serving counter to ask for a spring roll only to be told that they had run out. This was around 1:30 p.m.

Until I returned to complain, I don't know if the cash register person knew this problem had developed. He was simply going to the serving area and picking up a prepared styrofoam container. Clearly, that's a management problem. Management should have told the cashiers who, in turn, could have let diners know. We might have changed our order. I had no intention of eating any of the rice, so I bought a green papaya for two of us to share. The grilled pork was delicious. The marinade assertive and the grilling did not dry out the meat. The papaya salad was served with the dressing on the side. Pouring it over the shredded papaya, I don't think I processed the fact that there was no chili visible in the dressing. One bite and the dumbed-down taste was obvious; there was no interplay of sweet and spicy.

FWIW, later diners who came to the picnic table with orders of grilled pork were served rice and papaya salad.

We didn't eat food from any of the other food tents, but we did buy limeade from one of the three beverage tents. Pleasant and cold.

There are cooking demonstrations for each of the three cultures in an appropriately named site: the Pu'er Teahouse, the Tastes of Ulster tent, and the Garden Kitchen. We didn't attend any of these, focusing more on the music and dance performances.

We had a long and pleasant conversation with DeeDee Darden of Darden's Country Store about the similarities/differences between the Virginia ham process and the prosciutto process. Since the similarities are bigger than the differences, she said that folks at S. Wallace Edwards, another Virginia ham producer who will be at the festival next weekend, are in the process of developing a Virginia-made version of Serrano ham. There were no food samples offered at the booth. Just information and a feast for the eyes.

Thai menu:
Chicken Fresh Ginger
Stir-fried chicken, fresh ginger, carrots and broccoli.
Chicken Sweet Basil with steamed white rice and a spring roll
Vegetable Fried Rice
Pad Thai
Larb Gai
Vegetable Spring Rolls
Sticky Rice with mango

Vietnamese menu:
Vietnamese grilled pork on skewer served with steamed rice and crispy spring roll
Yunnan Chicken
Combination Fried Rice
Shredded Green Papaya Salad with shrimp
Shredded Green Papaya Salad with tofu
Crispy Spring Rolls
Pho
Black Sticky Rice with coconut milk

Virginia menu:
Virginia Barbecue Chicken (cooked on open grill)
Traditional English Fish & Chips
Virginia Country Ham Biscuit Sandwich with chutney
Three Sisters Succotash Salad Vinaigrette
Kent Strawberry Biscuit Shortcake

Northern Ireland menu:
Northern Ireland Smoked Salmon
Mourne Rambler Ploughman's Platter (Fresh produce, cold meats, local cheeses)
Vegetarian Platter (Irish cheeses, roast beets, chopped egg, & raw vegetables)
Causeway Shepherd's Pie
O'Neill's Sausage Rolls
Finn MacCool Irish sausage
Vanilla Ice Cream topped with a Baileys and Bushmills sauce

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  1. Who thinks of English fish and chips when he thinks of Virginia? I would have expected to see crab, oyster, rockfish, croaker, scallop, drum or flounder. I bet the fish and chips was cod or haddock, both of which don't conjure up images of the Old Dominion.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Robearjr

      I had the fish and chips. Despite the fact that there was a wait for the food (I thought this was a good thing), they produced room temperature platters of dried out fish and extremely limp fries. Were they cooked that day? I would say the fish was nothing so expensive as haddock, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't cod either. The "bbq" chicken is atrocious. The ham biscuit sandwich is not completely awful, but the enormous, cakey biscuit overwhelmed the ham. It came with a honey whipped butter that wound up being the main flavor. I'm not sure how they could do worse.

      1. re: Steve

        Just so thet my post can be a bit more useful to folks, I'd like to add that the lines at the Mekong River food vendor are tremendously long throughout the day. If you'd like to eat there, I suggest grabbing an early lunch close to opening time. Once lines build, they will not die down. Meanwhile, the Virginia section has pretty short lines. I suggest getting the grilled corn for $3 (it is advertised as being covered in West African spices, but comes plain. Maybe you have to ask for that?) and the ham biscuit for $5. Avoid the fish and chicken.

      2. re: Robearjr

        Since this is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown the festival particularly emphasized the Kent, England roots of the Jamestown settlers. This emphasis showed up in the menu of the Virginia food tent with the offerings of English fish and chips and the historic Kent recipe for strawberry shortcake.

        Garden Kitchen talks and cooking demonstrations similarly emphasized Kent roots with topics such as Kentish Fare and Holiday Foods: Mincemeat and Syllabub. The African component of Virginia folklife showed up Garden Kitchen demonstrations about West African cooking and lots of peanut demonstrations.

      3. I have never ever been to any year of the folklife festival where the food wasn't at the end of an hour-long line and far too expensive, with problem-ridden service.

        That's what happens when you take a vendor (usually a very good one) far away from their home and their kitchen and their suppliers, throw them in way over their head with more customers than they're prepared to serve, saddle them with stiff fees (I'm guessing) and stiffer regulations, and let them flounder.

        You want this food, seek it out in its various native habitats - otherwise you'll be getting just a pale shadow of the food, entirely outside its native atmosphere (I just love enjoying a gourmet experience in the ambience of a theme park) ... and that's IF you actually get it after a lengthy wait.

        I want the Flavors Soul Food crew to open up shop there ... picture a thousand customers for their great fried chicken, each one of 2,000 of them awaiting their individually-cooked order in the hot sun. "Number 1,642? Sir? ... Are you all right? ... Sir?"

        3 Replies
        1. re: wayne keyser

          You're exactly right that the small restaurant owners are in way over their heads. They aren't vendors - that's a different thing altogether. In their restaurants, a diner order a dish from the menu and they fix that dish. In a vending situation, they have to mass produce the same dish thousands of times at a high rate of speed with consistency, something that they have never done before until show time. And they have to do it with unfamiliar equipment, no running water, temporary staff, etc. in a field kitchen. If something breaks down, there's no way to recover, no backup systems.
          This happens every year and the Smithsonian never seems to learn from the mistakes. Small restaurants are honored to participate, little expecting the pitfalls.
          There are other festivals that have conquered the challenges and have terrific offerings. The Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans is famous for the quality of its food. It can be done but the Folklife Festival always falls short. It's a shame that the reputations of the small restaurants suffer from it.

          1. re: wayne keyser

            I agree that most of the time the food is often not as good as it would be if the vendor were back "home," but there are times when there are small suprises. At the 2004 festival the Haitian food vendor was just awesome. I had the fried fish (a whole fish!) platter with rice, plantains and this super hot sauce that looked like pico de gallo. That experience whetted my appetite for Haitian food. I just wish their were Haitian restaurants here in DC. Sigh.

            1. re: botnot

              That haitian food vendor did have a Restaurant in Maryland, it was called Chez Yonyon.
              I ate there all the time, yes their food was excellent.
              They closed the business in 2004, I sure miss their food.

          2. I look at it this way, it's a festival that serves...what...thousands of people in a short time? Wayne is spot on, I don't think you can take a local vendor and have them serve the masses in that capacity. With that being said, I had the northern Ireland smoked salmon today. It was, well, doable,...the Guiness(or 2) didn't hurt...and the music of 4 men and a dog made any thoughts of bad food vanish. Go for the fun...the music..and the wonderfully educational tents. Pack your own picnic if you must, but don't expect more than festival food. It is was it is...to quote Top Chef.

            3 Replies
            1. re: rHairing

              We waited in line for close to an hour at the Vietnamese tent only to get to the counter and be told they were out of papaya salad (which was what we had hoped to get) and crispy spring rolls, which seemed to be what everyone else was waiting for. I got the Pho, which wasn't bad for $4. My friend got totally ripped off by the fried rice, which included a miniscule amount of the advertised ingredients (chicken, shrimp, vegetables) for $8.

              1. re: hungry100

                Fried rice is one of the standards at all DC food festivals (Taste of DC, Adams Morgan Day, the various BBQ and chili festivals, etc). It's always expensive and always mediocre to nasty: old rice, frozen vegetables, minimal meat, grease.

                When you go to Jazzfest in New Orleans or Memphis in May, you know you're going to get good food. I've lost track of the lousy food I've had at DC food festivals. Probably the worst was at the Folklife Festival where Scotland was one of the cuisines being featured. $10 bought me a "Haggis Burger" that had the flavor, size, and consistency of the cafeteria burgers I got in gradeschool. Except it had little bits of what I assumed was lamb's stomach but which could easily have been medical waste.

                But I guess if people keep buying overpriced fried rice and eggrolls and meat-on-a-stick, why bother trying to make yourself a cuilinary destination?

                1. re: monkeyrotica

                  I completely agree. I always have extremely low expectations for the food at festival-like atmospheres. Having said that, I was at the Folklife on Saturday and had a decent Larb Gai from Regent Thai with maybe a 5 minute wait (it was just after noon though and just before the crowds). It could have had more heat, but I was really amazed it was that good.