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Smithsonian Showcases America’s Eclectic Food Culture on the National Mall

As part of its annual Folklife Festival on the Washington Mall, the Smithsonian Institution is exploring the so-called American Food Revolution. Visitors can sample the newest food products, try out some new cooking techniques and listen to chefs and growers talk about their professions.

The staff of renowned chef Alice Waters, famous for using fresh, local produce at her Berkeley, California restaurant, is cleaning up after serving lunch. With the U-S Capitol building looming in the distance, U.S. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Boxer and others had sat at a simple wooden table to eat a salad prepared by Ms. Waters from vegetables growing in plots on the festival grounds at the Mall.

”It’s pretty extraordinary,” Ms. Waters says. “For ten years, I’ve been lobbying for a garden on the White House lawn. I wrote a letter to the President more than 10 years ago, and here we are on the Mall, very close to the White House. I’m so impressed at the way it all came together. This is truly a community garden around this idea.”

Under a nearby tent, California wine expert Karen McNeil, who hosts a nationally-broadcast TV series, shows a group of Festival visitors how to sample a glass of wine. ”The first is to really swirl the glass,” she explains. “The way pros do that is to keep the foot of the glass on the table, not up here. If you do it up here, after one glass, you’re going to have a dry-cleaning bill!”

Ms. McNeil says her wine-tasting class represents one end of the broad spectrum of food topics featured in this year’s Folklife Festival. “There are real people who raise sheep, grow zucchini and know how to do a highly-ethnic specialty,” she points out. “We’ve all seen a lot of famous ‘super chefs.’ But this festival was wise in bringing almost the global reality of food and wine on a very practical, everyday level to so many people.”

In a shady section of the Food Culture area, Patrick Decker, a student of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, demonstrates the latest kitchen utensils and how they’re used. “One of the newer items we have in the market here is called a ‘micro plane,’” he says. “It’s a very multi-purpose tool, traditionally from a hardware background. It used to be used in lumber work. We actually use it now for grating fresh cheeses, ginger and zesting citrus. We also have what we call a sheet pan extender …”

Many visitors enjoyed the section of the Food Culture area showcasing a wide range of food products. Rachel Loube, a college student who spent the past year traveling in South America, was particularly interested in the chocolate display. “I went up to one of the people from Bolivia, one of the men who works in a chocolate factory and asked him questions in Spanish,” she said. “He answered me and I understood; it was a wonderful experience.”

Adjacent to the chocolate makers, Ann Wilder, president of a company called Vanns Spices in Baltimore, Maryland, demonstrated the variety of her products. The company sells spices to London’s famed Harrod’s store and to buyers from countries from South America to Singapore. Whereas decades ago, the spice trade involved a complex distribution system, today modern technology expedites spice shipments. Ms. Wilder describes how she shopped for a rare variety. “The pepper was called grains of paradise,” she recalls. “The price of it went up to $17 a pound! It’s from North Africa, around Morocco. All I did was pick up a phone and call Morocco and the next day I had 50 pounds airlifted to me at $5 a pound. You can find anything anymore!” she exclaims.

Another festival participant, Eric Ziebold, chef of Washington’s CityZen restaurant, explains how some restaurants form partnerships with small local farmers, benefiting both sides. “When people talk about sustainable agriculture, the biggest impact a restaurant can have is the economics of it,” he says. “If your farmers know you’re going to work with them and that you’ll support them through lean times, then that frees them in a lot of ways, because they don’t worry about making the mortgage payment or selling this or that.”

Mr. Ziebold says small, family-owned farms are regaining some of the share of the food supply that they had ceded to huge corporate farm companies. ”We’ve got a lady that’s making butter for us. She’s nervous about starting this production, because, what if we don’t need as much this week and she’s stuck with butter. I say, send me five pounds of butter a week and I’ll work through it.”

Chef Ziebold says some restaurants are also supporting small, organic farmers who don’t use pesticides in raising their crops, in order to make them more economically viable. “A lot of people can’t afford to be organic, to be certified organic,” he points out. “It’s a pretty fair amount of money if you’re a small-scale farmer. If we can encourage them by being the financial support, then it goes a long way as far as enabling them to do things the right way.”

Chef Alice Waters says a major aim of the Food Culture USA section is to show young people that food comes from farms and not grocery store shelves. She hopes this will in some measure correct views presented by advertisers and big food conglomerates.

“They’re teaching that’s it’s not important where our food comes from: that you can have the same food any place in the world, that it’s okay to waste - there’s more where that came from,” Chef Waters protests. “That it’s okay to have food whenever you want it, 24 hours a day, and it should be available and cheap. That labor is cheap. All these values are informing our culture. We need to teach another set of values – and feed our children real food.”

In addition to participating in discussions with leading chefs, growers and experts on everything from sustainable agriculture to wine tasting and to viewing related displays, visitors to this year’s Folklife Festival can sample a variety local and international cuisines at concession stands.