Monday, August 10, 2009

Italian For A Day

Small Town is east of a huge Amish community, very Dutch/Swiss/German in its architecture, food and heritage. But cross the interstate in the other direction, and you run into Italians, people whose parents moved here from Italy years and years ago and even some people who came here straight from the country themselves. They make pizza (although so do the Amish, oddly enough) and spaghetti and cannolis. They dance to Italian polkas, and they make wine. Unfortunately, their influence hasn't affected what the local grocery stores offer, and you can't find prosciutto here to save your life.

With this heavy heritage, we have an Italian-American festival every summer. Small Town closes down a few streets, and food vendors move in. People set up tents, and bands play—all kinds of bands and musical groups who don't really classify as bands. The other night, I heard a few minutes of two mature but platinum blond sisters squeezed into red sequin gowns singing what sounded like a Betty Boop imitation and fawning over embarrassed men in the audience.

This year, I got to cover part of the festival for the newspaper. I showed up with my notebook and little unprofessional camera around noon on Saturday. First on the schedule as a wine judging contest at a local bar, Krockers. The judges were nearly 30 minutes late, so I sat at a corner table and waited. I saw the end of a Sanford and Son episode, and I saw a mother of two wearing a T-shirt that read, "You can't get this up north." I'm sorry I don't have a photo to show you.

Finally, the judges arrived, and we hit it off right away. They were eager to talk to me about how much they enjoy wine and what a great palate cleanser a decent prosciutto can be. I talked to a couple of guys who make wine in their basements—one makes elderberry wine from berries his family picks in the wild, and he had encouraged the other guy to give it try, too. The friend entered a bottle from his first batch of peach wine.

I left the bar and walked down the street to see about the spaghetti sauce competition held under a tent. Five people sat at a table with some bread and water and were sampling eight different sauces entered by local home cooks.

While they were getting started, I discovered a food cart across the fairway that sold bison burgers. I had a nice chat with the woman in the cart who raises bison on her ranch. She has 19 bison with three expecting calves any minute, and all of her animals are grass-fed and growth-hormone free. The burger was great.

I took a photo of a five-year-old girl who won some little prize after playing games in the kids' tent, and I met a batch of other kids at the main stage who had signed up to stomp grapes. Each kid was put into a big bucket of grapes, and while everyone clapped to the music, the kid had to stomp the grapes with as much pizazz as she could muster for 30 seconds. The contestant with the most applause won, which meant the one with the biggest family won. But they all had fun.

I ran into a guy I know who was sitting in front of a tent, so I stopped to say "hey," and he told me his story. He noticed that at these street fairs, people don't often have clean tables where they can sit for lunch, so he set up his own tent and filled it with tables and chairs. He put up a sign about the local food pantry and arranged for a local ad agency to design and print brochures about the pantry. People could take their bison burgers or whatever to his tables, sit out of the sun for a while and then, if they chose, leave a small donation for the food pantry. The guy kept the tables clean himself, and his idea was so popular, he had to bring in an extra table. He also brought in quite a bit of money for the pantry.

I'll admit that while I was in California for a couple of weeks, I could imagine living somewhere other than my small town that sometimes seems to operate on one corporate small mind with its petty grumbling and ignoramus comments in the paper or around the old-man table in My Favorite Place for Joe. But after a day at the festival, having conversations with some of the nicest people I've met in a long time, all eager to be Italian for just a day, I fell in love with Small Town again.

I would show you more pictures of the event, but I imagine people don't want their faces plastered all over some lady's blog.


dive said...

Ooooo … Where do I sign up to become a judge in the spaghetti sauce competition, Robyn?

I must say that sounds like a splendid day out, even if you can't get prosciutto.

Perhaps - now you're home from your Cali trip you should make a teeshirt with "You can't get this down south" on it.

savannah said...

it's always good to see your own town with new eyes, sugar! ;~D we're getting ready to launch a media campaign to remind everyone what a gift our own small town is for all of us and not just the tourists! xoxoxo

kyle@sift said...

Prosciutto is available at Giant Eagle and Buehler's. We wrap it around melon for a summertime treat.

Scout said...

Kyle, the only prosciutto I've seen at Buehlers is the nasty, sticky stuff in the plastic package. I asked the deli people at Giant Eagle for it, and they said it would be easier if I bought the icky stuff hanging with the lunch meat. I love it with melon.

Savannah, It's not all good, but it's not all bad either. Your town is small?

Dive, or "You Can't This in the City." Ew.