Fare of the Fair
MIchael Davis Photo
Give it a try: An array of, to some, unfamiliar foods can be found at ethnic festivals like the St. Elias Antiochian Middle Eastern Festival, says Debra George, publicity director for the festival, pictured with her children, Elizabeth, age 12, Zakary, 15, and Grace, 9. “Have the kids try something off your plate,” she says.
Central New Yorkers love to party outdoors. The region boasts an impressive lineup of celebration weekends, firemen field days and ethnic food festivals leading up to the summer’s grand finale, the New York State Fair. Just about every weekend from May until October, there’s an opportunity to try new kinds of foods and enjoy live entertainment for less money than what it would cost to take the family out to dinner.
Of course, your youngster’s finicky appetite and potential to throw a temper tantrum on a hot day in a crowded setting can put a damper on things. Make a few preparations before heading out to the event, however, and your entire family’s festival experience can be grand.
Amy Freitas-Solan, of Solvay, has brought her boys Matthew and Mark to local festivals and the New York State Fair since they were 3 years old. She’s learned from experience how to keep a nice summer afternoon on the midway from “going to hell.” For starters, she says, plan on heading out by late morning when your children are still well-rested. Bring water and fruit or healthy snacks, if possible, so the kids don’t get too hungry before the upcoming meal.
“Keep in mind that any kid would definitely take (midway) rides over food,” she says. “You don’t want to agitate them early on by insisting that lunch must be the first order of the day.”
When it is time to eat, Freitas-Solan advises, parents should pick the lesser evils for their kids and select pizza, hamburgers or steak sandwiches for their kids as opposed to any fried food. “Sometimes it’s not great in terms of what’s not healthy,” she says, “but at least it’s not a deep-fried Twinkie.”
But getting children to try new things at an ethnic food festival is a completely different challenge. Is it possible to wean your children off hot dogs and chicken nuggets to the point where they are eating lamb soulvaki by June, corned beef sandwiches by July and Scottish haggis (lamb hearts, liver and oatmeal with seasonings in a puff pastry) by August?
Stan Smith, the director of the Copper Turret restaurant in Morrisville, used to give ethnic food cooking lessons to children ages 3 to 6. Parents, he says, should never assume that young children aren’t interested in trying unfamiliar foods. On the contrary, kids can be quite daring under the right circumstances.
“We didn’t give them a choice (to have foods they were already familiar with), and we made it festive,” he says.
The ethnic fare students prepared included Mexican puff pastries with sausage and cheese, Irish soda bread and Greek tzatziki sauce. The children were eager to try the foods because they made them, and because they saw their peers eating them, too. Still, learning about the ingredients in an ethnic dish—some of the same ingredients that are used in foods they already know about and enjoy—inspires children to try new things. And even young children can tell the difference between fresh ingredients and food that is processed.
“When there’s music playing and the atmosphere is festive, the kids will get into it,” Smith says. “There’s nothing to be afraid of: It’s food! Keep things positive and talk ahead of time about how much fun it’s going to be. Never entertain the fact that they won’t like something.”
Pat Kuhl, a nutritionist with Child Care Solutions’ Eat Well Play Hard program, advises parents to bring their children to festivals around mealtime and during a time when they are a little hungry but not to the point where they get cranky.
At ethnic festivals, parents should not overwhelm their children with too many choices. Consider offering one or two items to try, and serve it with something the child already knows she likes. Parents should eat the new food themselves. It’s also wise to point out the similarities of an ethnic dish to something the child is familiar with. For example, Lo Mein noodles can be called “Chinese spaghetti.”
“Let them try it off your spoon first,” Kuhl says. “Be neutral. Don’t apply pressure. Take no for an answer, but don’t be afraid to offer it again.”
Kuhl says it can be difficult to find healthy foods at festivals, but not impossible. Fruit and vegetables are more available in the summer months, so it’s worth stopping at several booths in search of a salad. Soda “should always be crossed off the list, to make room for the high-calorie foods.”
Kathy Lagrow and Colleen Kavanaugh of Learn as You Grow child care say parents and children should eat family-style as opposed to ordering their own selection and thus avoiding certain unfamiliar items. The communal experience motivates kids to eat like their parents.
“They don’t want to be left out,” Lagrow says.
Moreover, the parents should do all of the ordering. Children might select hot dogs, chicken tenders and other familiar favorites, defeating the purpose of making the festival a unique experience.
It is possible to find grilled fish, grilled vegetables and brown rice in many ethnic dishes, Kavanaugh says. But if not, a grilled sausage is still probably healthier than a fried one. And it’s OK to ask vendors about their cooking methods, their ingredients and whether any of their products are gluten-free.
“Some of the kids even ask. You’d be surprised,” she says. “You have to be an advocate for yourself and ask questions.”
Debra George, publicity director of the St. Elias Antiochian Middle Eastern Festival and a mother of three, says volunteers who cook at their church’s festival do it out of enjoyment; they put as much care into the preparation as if they were making food for their own children. Many of the items are made from scratch and prepared just before the festival opens.
“With certain dishes, there is no recipe that includes anything processed,” she says. “One of the salads we make, for instance, must have the freshest parsley and tomatoes that you can find.”
And the aroma of grilled meats is much more noticeable at outdoor festivals than it would be inside a restaurant, spurring even a youngster to try something he might not have had before, like lamb.
“Have the kids try something off your plate,” George says. “If they don’t like it, you can always go back and get the hot dog.”
Among upcoming ethnic festivals in Central New York are St. Sophia’s Greek Cultural Festival (June 9 to 12 at 325 Waring Road in Syracuse) and the Middle Eastern Cultural Festival (July 15 to 17 at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church at 4988 Onondaga Road in Syracuse). The dessert lineup at both ve-
nues includes butter cookies, cakes with syrup, custard-filled pastries and chocolate almond squares.
The CNY Scottish Games and Celtic Festival, Aug. 13 at Long Branch Park in Liverpool, also boasts activities and foods that children may find intriguing. Offerings include ground beef and onion puff pastries, Scottish meat pies, sausages, haggis, pumpkin bread and raisin sugar puff pastries.
If all else fails, tell your children there is a reward at the end of the season if they dare to try new foods at summer festivals: Promise that deep-fried Twinkie on the last day of the State Fair. ■
Aaron Gifford is a writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.