Identity is interesting. If you are asked "Who / what are you?" what would you say? I'm a girl, a boy, a fireman, a parent, a friend, a great breakdancer ... is there any one answer? Identity is the many different facets of you, wrapped up into a Play-Doh ball and molded into a person shape.
I'm a lot of things - a girl, a writer, a dog lover, a karaoke aficionado, a Cancer - but one thing I could never say is "I'm Italian / Irish / Spanish / Hungarian / Russo-Finnish" or suchlike. I don't know much about my ethnic heritage. Nothing, really. Our family doesn't go back very far, and we never really got into genealogy or researching that sort of stuff.
Not knowing hasn't really bothered me. I'm a brunette (naturally, but a rainbow by way of hair dye), and look like I could have DNA originated from any number of countries or principalities. Maybe I'm Carpathian? Argentinian? New Zealandese? Eskimo? Who knows? Right now, I'm an American. That's enough for me.
In the Mahoning Valley, we are lucky to be steeped in rich ethnic history. Immigrants with all kinds of different heritages settled in our area, seeking once-plentiful mill jobs, and their descendents have done them a service in carrying on their traditions. From young to old, people in our area take pride in their ethnicity.
When I was a kid, some of my friends would call their grandmothers "Baba," which mystified me until I learned it was a European nickname for "grandmother." Kids around here grow up learning how to tend gardens, can peppers, make wine, play traditional instruments, do dances, speak a few words from their grandparents' homeland. We can be proud that heritage is so important in our Valley and hope that the next generation, and the one after that, keep the traditions alive.
Of course, it's easy to pass on a tradition if it's a delicious one. Recipes for haluski, Sunday gravy, red beans and rice, pierogies and hummus are definitely things worth saving. Luckily, our Valley is also home to many, many cultural festivals, where you can sample recipes from all over the world without having an old Italian or Polish grandma at home.
I used to say that grandmas could fund their retirement by giving cooking lessons and sharing their homespun kitchen tips with those of us who grew up without such wisdom. With all of the festivals in our area, the grandmas get a break.
The summer rotation usually starts with the African-American festival, then various church fests, then the Greek festivals, then Italian fests galore. Peppered in are other local celebrations, including the relatively new Simply Slavic festival. You start craving a hot Italian sausage or a gyro right around the time you don't have to wear a jacket outside anymore. Fair food aside, the real treats are the ethnic specialities, which often come with a story that can't be found in a funnel cake.
Most Mahoning Valley-ites are familiar with the sights and sounds of cultural festivals: The church singers, the clack of bocce balls, rings of men - young and old - playing morra, waving their fingers wildly. Children and teenagers weave through crowds in ornate traditional dress, hurrying to their performances. Polka bands play tunes that never veer into "Chicken Dance" territory. All of the members and volunteers work tirelessly to showcase their heritages and make the fests a success.
I grew up going to all manner of festivals. I had a St. Demetrios Festival T-shirt as a child that has gone from being knee-length to a more reasonable fit as I grew up. I remember being grossed out by smelts. I got stuck with my high-school boyfriend on a ride at St. Pius X fest, and we waited in our seat way above the crowd as it was fixed. Barbecue sauce still stains the dress I wore to the African-American festival (and later that day, to my 10-year high school reunion). I learned the storied history of the cheese puff. I listened time and time again as friends tried to explain morra to me (I just now was able to finally get it after last weekend's Italian-American fest in Youngstown). I learned that Jon Bon Jovi was Slavic. I always look forward to seeing the Carpatho-Rusyn table at the YSU Summer Festival of the Arts and the spectacular beard of the man who sits behind it.
Even though I don't identify with any specific heritage, I enjoy and learn a lot from all of the wonderful histories presented at our local festivals.
The delicious goodies? That's just the bonus. Now excuse me while I get some napkins.