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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003 02:20 pm

The spice of lives

Now in its 30th year, the Ethnic Festival struggles in solidarity

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Charlie Palazzolo Hoping the clannish won’t vanish

The Cajuns bid "adieu," the Celts spoke "slan," the Germans said "auf wiedersehen." One by one, the groups that had made Springfield's Ethnic Festival a success said goodbye. Now organizers are left with just three groups, looking for ways to rejuvenate a Labor Day tradition.

The popular festival, featuring food and music from around the globe, is held each year at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. But a sharp decline in volunteers has hurt the 30-year tradition.

Food, of course, remains the biggest draw. From gyros to pizza, bratwurst to baklava, the edibles culled from various cuisines continue to attract people "tired of eating hamburgers," says Charlie Palazzolo, the event's chairman, who estimates his Italian tent sells at least 4,000 sandwiches a year. "We're offering food that comes from different countries. Have a beer, a sandwich, listen to music, and relax. It's just like the State Fair: Why do people go out there in the heat to eat corn dogs? It's the atmosphere!"

The Ethnic Festival started in Sherman in 1974 at St. John Vianney's Parish, under the direction of the late Father Peter Mascari. Local Italians, Irish, Greeks, and Germans were the first to sign on, followed by the Polish. As the years went by there were also Russian Jews, Filipinos, and East Indians. As the fest's popularity grew, it required more space and moved in 1980 to the Ethnic Village at the state fairgrounds, where it's still held today.

But what was once an event with as many as eight ethnic groups drawing 10,000 people daily has now dwindled to only three groups drawing approximately half that many. Only Italian, Greek, and Spanish groups will be involved this year. A few individuals will also be serving German food. Recruiting individuals, rather than groups, may help the festival grow again, according to Palazzolo.

While the Ethnic Village pulls in large crowds during the state fair, the Ethnic Festival has always prided itself on being a refreshing alternative, offering the food without the crowds and confusion. This year's menu has gyros, shish kabobs, spinach pie, baklava, and saganaki (or flaming cheese) from the Greeks; pizza, chicken parmigiana, and Italian beef, meatball, and sausage sandwiches (as well as hot dogs, ice cream, and popcorn) from the Italians; and kabobs, chili tamales, parrillada (mixed grilled meats), and nachos from the Spanish; and schnitzel, bratwurst, potato salad, and sauerkraut from the German menu. Beverages include beer, Caribbean punch, wine, and soda.

"We cook everything out there," Palazzolo says. "Everybody likes pizza. Our beef, we cook and season it all day long."

Besides the food, the festival also offers ethnic music, but even that has changed in recent years. This weekend, the entertainment will feature not only Greek, Latin American, and Italian music but also rock acts like the Groove Daddies. "Things have changed culturally," Palazzolo admits. "We have bands that play rock 'n' roll, old-time '50s music."

That change came as part of an effort to attract a younger generation. The festival's volunteers are all aging. "It's hurting every group out there," Palazzolo says. "The money goes to charity. It's something we've committed ourselves to doing for the community."

The Italian group has 75 volunteers, and as chairman of the event Palazzolo works on the festival year-round. "The Greeks have stood by us over the years. I'm sure the Spanish, Greeks, and Italians will continue on with this. I think things will turn around. We've been trying to generate new interest," Palazzolo says.

Filia Tzortzis, owner of the restaurant Filia's Place, has been involved with the Ethnic Festival for 25 years and currently serves on its organizing committee. She sells gyros, shish kabobs, spinach pie, and baklava for St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Church. The event is still the church's major fund-raiser of the year, but expenses--such as advertising, renting bathroom facilities, and paying for insurance--have cut into the profits. That's another reason why so many groups have been forced to withdraw from the event.

"We appreciate everyone who comes out and shows us continued support so we will be able to do the festival for many more years," Tzortzis says. The committee secured a state grant one year, she recalls, but efforts to win corporate sponsors have failed.

Nicky Stratton, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the festival makes a major contribution to the city. "It's good for the community and good for the visitors if we offer a multitude of activities." But she says the bureau has never gotten involved in putting the fest together because "we feel our major responsibility is to market and promote events." She acknowledges that it's become increasingly difficult for events like the Ethnic Festival. "Those kinds of things are enormously hard to put on--it's a lot of labor and volunteers. Anything nowadays that requires an enormous amount of volunteer manpower is hard." She suggests that the Ethnic Festival become a partner with another event, maybe even downtown, to encourage attendance and community involvement.

Tzortzis says returning to its traditional roots would be the best way to breathe new life into the festival. She advocates a renewed emphasis on cultural displays, costumes, ethnic cooking demonstrations, and children's activities.

"We want to bring the ethnic festival back to its originality, with more ethnic dances and activities," she says.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the festival still has free admission. "The only thing people pay for is the food," Tzortzis says. "There's no charge for parking or music. It's all for charity.

"It's hard right now," she says. "We have to resurrect the Ethnic Festival. I'm hoping we will try to bring it back to the way it was."

The Ethnic Festival takes place August 29 through 31. Hours are 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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