Bread brings back memories of home, family at Holiday Folk Fair | WUWM 89.7 FM

The scene was family chaos.

Chef Angelica Varona Camara was demonstrating how to make shakoy, a Filipino doughnut. She had a couple of friends helping her. Noise, laughter, blunders: it’s what she would expect when family members gather in the kitchen.

Varona Camara’s friend was mixing the dough. Varona Camara told her to add salt and vinegar, but away from her yeast so as not to kill it. The warning came a little late.

“Okay,” she said. “If the dough doesn’t rise today, it will tomorrow.”

Varona Camara’s was one of many bread-making demonstrations offered this past weekend at the 79th annual Holiday Folk International Fair, which celebrates the culture of southeast Wisconsin’s many indigenous and immigrant communities. This year, the featured food was bread, one of the oldest human-made foods and can be found in many forms around the world.

Varona Camara, who works in finance by day and serves as president of the Wisconsin Filipino American Association, said the churro-shaped treats reflect the history of Spanish colonization in her country.

Shakoy is highly customizable. It can be salty or sweet, baked or fried. On Friday they were making a simple version: sugar-dusted twists.

The chef’s favourite, however, is more complex: “I like it with cranberry, chocolate, sunflower seeds.”

Donuts remind Varona Camara of crowded church gatherings growing up. Her family would do them as a fundraiser. To save time, her dad sometimes used frozen muffin dough.

A vendor sells a variety of pastries from behind a glass display.

Pastries on the German stand

From leavened breads like shakoy and challah to flatbreads like paratha and tortillas, the breads celebrated at this year’s festival were often tied to memories of family and home.

Bread plays a central role in religious rituals and daily life around the world, said Alexander Durtka, Jr., president and CEO of the Wisconsin International Institute, which hosts the festival each year.

“It’s always something that people share,” Durtka said. “It’s something you give away. Pan, in Arabic, means ‘life’. And that’s what this is all about.”

We’re not just talking about baguettes and muffins.

On Friday afternoon, Leo Dai, a junior at the Art Institute of Chicago, completed a naturalization ceremony, in which more than 100 people became US citizens. Dai and his mother immigrated to Kohler, Wisconsin, from Shanghai when he was in high school.

“Oh man, from home?” she said, when asked what his favorite chopsticks are. “I don’t know, in China, bread? I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

Her mother chimed in and said, “How about bao, steamed buns?”

“If steamed buns count as bread, those are definitely one of my favorites at home,” Dai said.

closeup of a loaf of bread in the shape of a fish

Fish-shaped loaves in the Italian display for the feast of Saint Joseph

At the Italian stall, a table exploded with broad beans and cans of sardines and tomatoes. There were sesame-flecked breads from Peter Sciortino Bakery, shaped like fish, braids, and crosses. It is what you would have for the feast of San José, which is celebrated on March 19, explained Ángela Anastasi.

“You celebrate with your neighbors and we all celebrate together,” said Anastasi, who fondly remembers celebrating with her Sicilian-American family. “I don’t want to call it a sanctuary, but it is an altar of reverence. The intention of the party is to help those in need.

Across the crowded exhibit hall, the Slovenian montage showed a grandfather doll teaching his grandson to play the button accordion, while a grandmother doll displayed potica with her granddaughter. Sweet leavened bread, filled with a paste of walnuts, sugar and raisins, is a Slovenian delicacy, often served at Easter and Christmas.

The idea was to show how Slovene-Americans pass on cultural heritage.

An exhibit shows grandmother and granddaughter dolls rolling out dough together

Potica making is presented at the Slovenian booth at Holiday Folk Fair

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Jeff Martinka, of Czech, Polish and Slovenian descent, said that’s the pain of assimilation. You don’t always have the memories or the language of previous generations.

“There was a bit of sharing, I wish there was more sharing,” said Martinka, who wishes she knew the language and dances of Slovenia. “I heard stories about Slovenia from my grandmother. I was with her a lot as a child. It was like my summer vacation. I could have learned the language, I could have learned a lot more about the culture than I did.”

For Apinya Jordan, the Folk Fair has long been a place to find community. Two decades ago, she moved to Shorewood from Thailand.

“Because I just came back to the United States with the new baby, so I hadn’t found a community,” Jordan said. “I haven’t found anyone yet. Folk Fair was exploding with the rich culture of so many.”

That first visit, she was impressed. She has returned every year since then to work in the Thai booth.

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