We’re in the thick of summer, and each year the thing I look forward to most isn’t the beach, the pool, or even barbecuing in the backyard. No, what I yearn for during these hot months are the cultural festivals. Usually named something like Greek Fest, Italian Fest, or the Lithuanian Days Fair, these festivals are where summer magic lives and breathes, where local food shines, where communities intersect, and where some real off-the-rails-type shit goes down.
These festivals happen in every state, and you should studiously mark them on your calendar. Their purpose? To honor specific communities in a broader context, inviting those outside a given group to participate in celebrating it. As an active participant in many of these festivals, the unifying truth I have uncovered throughout them all is an unwavering hospitality shown to outsiders, as well as an eagerness to share traditions. Being a random guy with his dog at Lithuanian Days? People were so nice I felt like a celebrity.
The proceeds from such festivals usually benefit a cultural center, local businesses, or religious diocese, meaning you’re supporting your neighborhood just by showing up. But the real reason you should go to these festivals is because they’re just a great time, whether you want to do some people-watching, eat awesome food, learn seemingly bizarre cultural traditions, play carnival games, or see a priest get drunk. They’re temporary spaces with something to offer everyone, complete with entertainment and hijinks. Summer has always been about hijinks.
To get you in the spirit, here are a few of the weird, wonderful, idiosyncratic things that can only happen at a summer street festival.
I don’t really know how to explain the Baby Doll Dance. It’s part cult sacrifice, part human firework celebration. This bizarre, seemingly regional tradition, rooted in the cleansing of sins, is the grand finale event that a few small Italian-American communities look forward to every summer.
Here’s how it works: Near the end of the festival, spectators form a giant circle, and a man enters the center wearing a towering costume resembling a baby doll. He’s given a wide berth, because several rounds of fireworks are attached to the arms and body of the costume. Suddenly, a full bandstand starts to play upbeat polka music, cueing someone to light the wick on the giant baby doll. Everyone claps, and the person inside the doll costume dances as fireworks shoot from the doll and light up the night sky. It’s antiquated, dangerous, stupid, and god dammit, I love it.
At the Mt. Carmel Italian Festival in Lowellville, Ohio, the same dude has been in the baby doll costume for 40 years. His name is Frank, and he seems lovely. The Baby Doll Dance is a tradition that seems to exist only in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. It’s like wedding cookies, in that way.
The Italian Festival in Lowellville runs this year July 19th - 23rd. I’m going to barely miss it, but you should go in my place. Get the cavatelli.
At the Lithuanian Days Fair last October in Silverlake, I drank homemade alcohol from a woman’s briefcase. I was sitting alone, and she asked what I was doing at the festival. I sheepishly responded, “I don’t know, it just looked fun.” Suddenly, I was offered briefcase booze.
After that, I ate some dumplings and walked home while the sun seemingly took forever to set, wondering why the hell I got so drunk in a church parking lot with a bunch of strangers.
Lithuania, one of the three Baltic states on the Eastern shore of the sea, is home to delicious dumplings, potato balls, herring, beet soup, and Krupnikas and Viryta, two delicious types of honey liqueur. The festival itself sold Krupnikas at the outdoor bar, purchased with cash that I had to turn into fake “funny money” for legal reasons. Krupnikas is sweet and delicious, with a relatively low alcohol content, making it ideal for outdoor festival drinking. The woman I met with the briefcase, however, made her own Viryta, which was much stronger than the Krupnikas.
When somebody asks you to try homemade alcohol at Lithuanian Days you just do it, man. She unpacked shot glasses along with the bottle of liqueur, making a “shh” sound as she did so. A bunch of us did shots; talked about life, my dog, and what to eat; then we parted ways. I felt an overwhelming sense of community with these strangers. I always do when I start drinking.
Two words: Tornado Potato. I would never have sampled this dish had I not attended last year’s Thai Songkran Festival here in Thai Town, Los Angeles, an event that takes over several blocks of Hollywood Boulevard every August. Octopus skewers, roti, dumplings, Thai milk tea, spicy Thai tacos—there’s a vast amount of street food to enjoy in a quarter-mile radius.
At the Lowellville Italian Festival, you can buy homemade cavatelli with anchovy, oil, and garlic. It’s rare to see cavatelli in this context, let alone on restaurant menus, but Ohio has always seemed to embrace it. You’ll never know what kind of odd, regional foods you’ll experience at a street festival until you go.
Keep in mind that at regional festivals, no one is phoning in the menu. There’s likely a sense of competition among the food tents, with every vendor, every restaurant, every grandmother attempting to outdo one another. And speaking of competitiveness...
Old people take their summer festivals very seriously, and if you’re at an Italian festival, I highly recommend peeping the bocce tournaments. If you like seeing Italians swear, as I do, go watch some bocce for a hilarious display. Things get competitive fast, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see an argument erupt among players. Watching two people fight in Italian is like watching angry ballet. I love it.
I live for nefarious activity happening on church grounds, and I’ve noticed over the years that at some church-centric festivals, gambling actually occurs directly on the premises. I’m not just talking about raffles, either. I mean dice and card games, stuff that could get you kicked out of a fair number of other settings.
Everything is a sham, nothing is sacred, God is dead, and we’re all going to die. Roll some dice in a church parking lot and drink a Miller Lite.
Good feta cheese is a revelation. Though you can absolutely support many of the Greek delis and restaurants in town, a good Greek festival should also introduce you to the wild world of feta. I was talking with a Greek chef recently, Kostantinos Katsaros, who lamented that most feta he encounters is bad. It lacks the tang he’s looking for, and he also described a lot of it as too “peppery.”
Anyway, Kostantinos knows good feta is hard to come by. If you’re around a good Greek Festival (like these in the Pittsburgh area), chances are you’re going to also run into some awesome imported feta. Usually, these festivals are associated with a Greek Orthodox church, and man, I’m telling you, there is some can’t-miss food at Greek Orthodox churches. When I’m in Pennsylvania, it’s where I get all of my bread.
I need everyone to attend an Italian festival somewhere in Ohio. These summer festivals are hotbeds of the worst Italian pride T-shirts you’ve ever seen in your life. All the classics like “FBI (Full Blooded Italian),” “I’m Not Yelling I’m Italian,” “Pray For Me My Wife is Italian,” and “Legalize Marinara” are on full display as people who are a quarter and sometimes maybe even half Italian strut their stuff on the runway, which is usually a dilapidated community park of some kind.
Of course, you’ll also see some great regional Italian dishes. Near Youngstown, Ohio, cavatelli permeates the area, along with hearty meatballs and frozen lemonade. It’s a real treat. Good food, competitive bocce, beauty pageants, and even something called Italian Man and Woman of The Year. If you aren’t convinced, I don’t know what you think summer’s for.