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Festival Planning: Special festival foods help bring in visitors

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

By David Eck

ARCHDIOCESE — Some visitors to parish festivals seek the opportunity to socialize, win at a gaming table or drop and spin on a thrill ride, but others come out craving the food — unique dishes they can’t find anywhere else.

From pig roasts to chicken and spaghetti dinners, to deep-fried pickles and fried Oreos, parishes around the archdiocese have staked out a niche snack or special meal they can call their own. The dishes help their festivals stand out among the crush of events each weekend and help draw crowds, some organizers say.

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Chris Louth enjoys a sandwich at the Immaculate Conception Parish festival in Celina. (CT file photo)

For generations, fairs and food have gone hand-in-hand, a tradition that continues at parish festivals.

“I think the festivals have to find that little niche that kind of attracts people to that area,” said Theresa Murphy, co-chairperson of the St. Lawrence festival on Cincinnati’s west side. “When we have our meals, people come and they see friends that they haven’t seen before. It gives you a chance to sit down in one area for period of time and catch up with old friends.”

The festival offers sit-down chicken dinners, but has also featured spaghetti in past years.

“People seem to like the chicken a lot,” Murphy said. “It was a sit-down dinner. It did really well, actually, moneywise.”

For the last couple of years, the St. Lawrence festival has offered a snack of deep-fried pickles, mixed with French fries and fried mushrooms.

“Those things sell like hotcakes,” said Tina Martini, who helps head up the food booths at the festival. “People love them.”

Various sauces and relishes are available for dipping. One parishioner makes a homemade relish he brings every year, Martini said.

Wanting to upgrade the festival’s food offerings, committee members brainstormed and hit upon fried pickles, Martini said, which is a snack her family prepares while camping. Because it’s a popular food in the area and easy to carry, they suspected it would be a hit at the festival.

“It was just something we wanted to jump in and try,” she said. “It took off.”

Other foods that have been popping up on festival grounds include roasted locally grown corn, Italian sausage with peppers and onions and walking tacos.

For most of the last 15 years or so, St. Clement Parish in St. Bernard has roasted two pigs on festival weekend, one each day of the event. It’s a carryover from nearly 30 years ago when the city held a German luau featuring a parade, German food and a pig roast. The event eventually died out.

“When St. Clement decided to go with a two-day festival (in the mid-1990s) in September, they decided to start doing the pig to revive a little bit of the traditional German luau,” said festival co-chairperson Barb Kalb. “People seemed to still have a lot of a nostalgia for it.”

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Carrie Hyott and her daughter, Ella, sample ice cream cones at the Immaculate Heart of Mary festival in Anderson Township. (CT file photo)

The local grocery gets the parish the two whole pigs at cost and stores them ahead of time.

“I drive to Dayton to get a cooker,” Kolb said. “It’s charcoal smoker.”

A parishioner takes charge of smoking the pigs, a nearly 12-hour process each day. “We have a parishioner who’s quite generous with his time to do that for us,” explained Kolb.

By the end of the weekend, all the meat is gone, snatched up by festival visitors.

“It’s usually gone in a couple of hours. I don’t recall there ever, ever, ever being anything left over,” Kolb said. “I know people come down there for the pig sandwiches. That’s a big deal for some people. It is a very popular item that we sell.”

St. Rita Fest, the massive summer festival at St. Rita School for the Deaf in Evendale, has been held for nearly a century, and turtle soup has been a staple of the party since the beginning.

“It actually started out as a burgoo,” said Gregory Ernst, the school’s executive director. “It eventually turned into a turtle soup.”

The festival got its start in 1916 as a family visitation picnic for the students at the school. Some of the families from nearby Reading brought the soup. Descendents of one of those families, the Woebkenbergs, have been making thier version of the soup ever since.

About two weeks before the festival begins, members of the family come to the school to begin preparing the 600 gallons of soup for the event. They even pre-sell some before the festival opens and, by the end of the festival, it’s all gone.

“It lasts probably until about 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. on Sunday,” Ernst said. “As far as we know, we’re the only ones offering it.”

The concoction is made up of beef, spices and broth, but don’t bother asking school officials for the recipe, because the family has never given it to them, Ernst said.

Another popular item, the funnel cake, is ubiquitous during festival season, but St. Catharine of Siena Parish in Cincinnati has taken dessert to the next level with fried Oreos. It’s a straightforward process: dip the cookies in a batter, fry them in oil and top them with powdered sugar, three to a serving.

“We have kind of a secret recipe,” said Janet Murphy, a food chairperson for the St. Catharine Festival. “It’s a real Oreo.”

The festival has been offering the sweets for about five years.

“It’s a really tasty dessert,” Murphy said. “It’s like a deep fried chocolate beignet with a gooey center. It’s real soft, hot, fudgy and sweet.”

The dessert is a draw, she said, as visitors seek out the Oreos.

“We noticed at the end of every festival we will have people coming by to get orders to go to take home,” Murphy said. “Kids love ’em. Parents love them because they are easy to hold. Grandparents love them, too.”

David Eck can be reached at [email protected].

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