Winter has officially landed with its mix of snow, slush, and cold. But, if your gift giving budget has left little leeway for traveling somewhere warm, fret not! This past weekend allowed for ample opportunity to experience a myriad of cultures at the annual Vermont International Festival held Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction.
The event is sponsored by the Vermont Performing Arts League and was first held in 1993. Executive Director April Werner said the festival began in the basement of Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, then expanded to include the main level. After 10 years, the festival outgrew the space and the event relocated to the Expo, where it has been held annually for the past 15 years.
Werner and her husband Ben Bergstein started the event after attending and performing at many international festivals in Eastern and Western Europe.
“At the time (of the festival’s inception) there was very little cultural diversity in Vermont, and we saw this as an opportunity to help Vermonters expand their view of the world,” Werner said.
That increase in diversity statewide has also led to a shift in the vendors who participate. Werner noted that initially, Vermonters made up the bulk of vendors, but now the festival has begun to attract artisans who travel from their home countries to participate. This year, the festival hosted people from India, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Israel, Macedonia, Peru, and Madagascar, among others.
Upon entry to the expo, the gorgeous sights and delicious aromas were hard to miss Friday night. The ticket price of $7 for adults granted entry and access to free parking. Food tokens could be purchased in $1-$5 increments and prices for food ranged from $1-$12 for samples of dishes to full plates.
Green Mountain Cassava was one of the first food booths upon entry. The business, which features food from the Democratic Republic of Congo has been run by its founder, South Burlington resident Jackie Abeneto since 2002. She has been participating in the festival for 16 years. On Friday night, she reported having been up since 3:30 a.m. cooking. Steaming trays of curries, samosas, fried rice, and plantains, as well as cassava, were readily available and a steady stream of people delighted in the offerings. Although Abeneto used to run the event solo, she had ample help this time from both her daughter, Lolita Abeneto, and daughter-in-law Mireille Sita. When not at events, Abeneto is very active in the African community and is available for catering.
“People know it’s good food when Mama Jackie is cooking!” she said,
Just down the hall of the expo, the Tibetan Association of Vermont tantalized with vegetable and beef momo (dumplings) with optional salad and hot sauce. South Burlington resident and overseer of public relations for the Association, Kongpo Penpa, dished up plates for hungry festival goers who all seemed to go for the hot sauce. A sweet tea was offered to temper the heat. Penpa, a South Burlington resident, said that this was the association’s third or fourth year attending the festival, but they also participate in other events throughout the year, most notably the annual Tibetan Festival, which occurred Nov. 10 in Burlington.
Passing by tempting Italian, Indian, and Romanian cuisine, BTV Ethiopian, founded and run by South Burlington residents Alganesh Michael and Mulu Tewelde stood apart for its beautiful display. An array of traditional dishes were offered including beef (Yesega Wet), lamb (Yebeg Alicha), and collard greens (Gomen), as well as curried split lentils (Yemesser Alichar) served with rice or injera. Even though Michael and Tewelde hail from Eritrea, the food they serve at their events is very similar to Ethiopian cuisine.
“In fact, injera, a sourdough bread made of different flours, is a staple food only in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Michael said.
A South Burlington resident since 2003, Michael met Tewelde shortly after she and her family moved to the city in 2006. As the women began to spend more time with one another as neighbors, a friendship and ultimately partnership arose, in part from their shared history: both women are originally from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa.
Participation in the International Festival has been a learning process for the duo. Last year was the first the two took part and due to brisk business, by midday Saturday, they had run out of food. One of them had to run out with supporter and Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon to buy more ingredients and cook more dishes, while the other remained behind to staff the booth. This year, Michael said they were well prepared for as much business as possible over the three-day festival. From the looks of it Friday night, people of all ages seemed anxious to try their offerings, asking questions about spice levels and grabbing $1 Ethiopian coffees.
In conjunction with all of the food sampling, various musical ensembles performed throughout the evening, from Irish pipes to classical guitar, Yiddish and Balkan Folk to 16th century French music. Numerous craft vendors also provided the opportunity to get a jump on holiday shopping for unique gifts. That’s what City Councilor Tim Barritt’s wife Katie and daughter Allie were up to after savoring their dumplings. Barritt said he and his family have been attending the festival for the last 10 years and love the food and atmosphere.
The festival was supposed to wrap at 8 p.m. on Friday, but there seemed to be no signs of slowing activity. Werner said everyone involved, from patrons to vendors to staff, is dedicated to making the Vermont International Festival a success.
“We couldn’t possibly have kept it going for 26 years without the help of our excellent staff and planning committee,” Werner said. “They come back year after year to do their jobs because it really is a great thing to be part of and all the vendors and performers seem to feel the same way.”