Thursday, June 30, 2005

American Mosaic

Today I ambled over to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival during lunch break, because its themes seemed particularly intriguing, especially the 'Food Culture USA' exhibitions, although some of the other ones, such as the focus on the country of Oman, were also fascinating.

Oddly enough, there was not much of a crowd around the ornately decorated Pakistani truck. (And with a nod to local sights, with its painted panels of the Washington Monument, the Capitol, etc.) Just as oddly, there was a healthy crowd surrounding the camels (presumably from Oman) and plenty of questions from the audience about the beasts, who were chilling on the grass (and on their knees) in the middle of the National Mall. The speaker felt a need to debunk myths about the critters' legendary moodiness, saying that they weren't as ornery as people make them out to be, considering that they carry heavy loads, in the baking sun.

The Qurayat Ensemble's performance at the Mangan Stage was a hit, with an enthusiastic crowd with many children. As good as the drumming and its music sounded, I was impressed, and nervous, to see that jiggling sword moving not too far from some of its audience members!

Over to the side, craftsmen from Oman were building a boat with intense, graceful concentration. Nearby, women from that country were demonstrating how they made baskets, with some on display. I was impressed with some of the smaller baskets, which were positively tiny. (And made me wonder what they are used for.)

I wandered over to a tent where local chef Roberto Donna was speaking about how he sources his products, and on how much easier it is to find good-quality foods, particularly herbs, in this country these days, as opposed to twenty years ago. He was in good spirits, considering the heat, but then again he's used to working in a hot environment. When Emeril Lagasse spoke later, there was too large a crowd around the tent to see him, so I left.

The food exhibition tents were fascinating, but I only had time to see a few, such as the woman who was speaking, and showing, the various cooking salts used by chefs. (But the pink-looking one whose other mineral is sulphuric acid looks suspicious to me...) The nice people over at the Honest Tea stand had a few gorgeous potted tea shrubs (camellia sinensis) growing (as well as complimentary bags of tea), and some dried teas on display. I'm now tempted to buy some of that company's chai, as its blend seems to have a higher amount of the (admittedly pricey) herb cardamom than most other chai blends. (Once you smell cardamom wafting through the air, you will understand the attraction.) I saw a tent for the Slow Food movement, but, ironically, I didn't have time to stop there. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to take in the sights, smells, and sounds at the other exhibits, which featured foods from Latin America and southeast Asia. Moreover, it was getting hot (in) there, and taking off my clothes was not an option, so I headed back to work.

As multicultural as the crowds are that attend the festival, I was struck by the apparently high percentage of folk of African descent who live in Oman (if the exhibitioners who appear at the festival are representative of their country). I probably would not have particularly noticed, had there not been some flap over racial attitudes in another country, Mexico, whose government has recently issued stamps which feature racist caricatures from the 1940s. It makes me wonder if the people of Oman have to put up with similar foolishness back home.

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