Ethnic beauty diverse at Holiday Folk Fair

A volatile presidential election – with the potential to deepen our differences – is history. Now comes the task of mending and strengthening ourselves as a union of 50 states, but the work is not about making everybody think, look and act alike.

Freedom means diversity, and no event demonstrates its beauty more this month than the 65th annual Holiday Folk Fair International, which elevates dozens of cultures that help define America.

Amusing mismatches and poignant pageantry will be evident in every direction, Nov. 21-23 at Wisconsin State Fair Park, West Allis. To say this is a melting pot is an understatement. Cornucopia of goodwill and respect is more like it.

On a child’s plate of sweets may be kolaches from Poland, gingerbread from Germany, baklava from Greece. Don’t be shocked when he adjusts his sombrero and digs in.

When the music begins, segues from hula to polka, Celtic tin whistle to Native American drum all happen with minimal effort. As the people and patterns of the whirling dances change, notice the performers’ shoes, a mix of sturdy and practical, delicate and exotic.

Sushi or sauerbraten? A jig or square dance? All is possible at the Holiday Folk Fair, which involves more than 50 ethnic groups, each eager to demonstrate the music, crafts and culinary traditions of their native lands.

The event began during World War II, when volunteers met at the International Institute of Wisconsin, “to prove that people of different ethnic backgrounds, religions and political persuasions could work together in harmony.” That quote comes from the “Holiday Folk Fair Cookbook,” published for the festival’s 50th year (and a small quantity remains available for purchase).

The first folk fair set out to prove that “an island of intercultural friendship and unity in a world at war” could thrive.

There were two entertainers in that inaugural year, 1944: a Mexican singer and Polish accordion player. The event lasted seven hours and drew a crowd of 3,000.

Now the Folk Fair fills three days, and annual attendance since 1973 has exceeded 50,000.

Thousands of children learn about the world as they hop from one exhibit booth to another, to get their folk fair “passport” stamps. Adults learn the art of Norwegian scissors cutting, Japanese bonsai and other longstanding artistry from other nations.

Life in a Revolutionary War camp will be re-created, to acknowledge U.S. history and heritage. Components of “Between Homes: Urban Refugees,” a photography exhibit, will come from refugees.

A second photo exhibit is the well-traveled “Earth From Above,” aerial views of life and landscapes around the planet, as documented by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who has a book by the same name.

Folk fair spokesman Dave Amoroso describes the weekend as a four-generation event, referring to both participants and spectators. “Although we’re from different parts of the world, with different cultures, we also see many similarities,” he adds.

Food is a key element; new vendors represent East Africa and Puerto Rico. Fourteen ethnic groups will offer one or more items for $1, to make it less expensive for the curious to sample new foods.

What will $1 buy? Try rolled grape leaves, from the Egyptian booth; salabat (hot ginger tea), Filipinos; vlasske orechy (filled walnuts), Czechs; tiropita (cheese pie), Greeks; and fistik ezme (tomato salad with pistachios), Turks.

The featured food? Potatoes, made more than one dozen ways. That includes three types of potato soup: Irish, Chinese and a Native American version.

The Arabic sambosa (a potato appetizer) and a Thai curry with chicken and potatoes are among other choices.

“It is easy to halve the potato where there is love.” That is an Irish proverb.

“My idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with.” That is from the great Oprah, as in Winfrey.

Holiday Folk Fair International is Nov. 21-23 at the Wisconsin Exposition Center of State Fair Park, 8200 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis. For more: www.folkfair.org, 800-FAIR-INTL.

Tickets are $8 in advance (consult the Web site) and $10 at the door. A four-pack of tickets is $28 (it’s one per household) and available only by calling 414-225-6225.

The event is organized by the International Institute of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, which fosters and enhances international relations, particularly efforts that involve average people and volunteer work. For more: www.iiwisconsin.org, 414-225-6220.