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Bread brings memories of home, family at Holiday Folk Fair

A woman in a green shirt and white apron stands at a stove frying doughnuts
Lina Tran
Chef Angelica Varona Camara makes shakoy in a cooking demonstration

The scene was familiar chaos.

Chef Angelica Varona Camara was running a demo of how to make shakoy, a Filipino doughnut. She had a couple friends helping her. Noise, laughter, blunders — it’s what you’d expect when family members get together in the kitchen.

Varona Camara’s friend was mixing the dough. Varona Camara instructed her to add salt and vinegar, but away from the yeast to avoid killing it. The warning came a little late.

“That’s OK,” she said. “If the dough doesn’t rise today, it’ll rise tomorrow.”

Varona Camara’s was one of many bread-making demonstrations offered last weekend at the 79th annual Holiday Folk Fair International, which celebrates the culture of southeastern Wisconsin’s many immigrant and Indigenous communities. This year, the featured food was bread, one of the oldest human-made foods and one that can be found in many forms across the world.

Varona Camara, who works in finance by day and serves as president of the Filipino American Association of Wisconsin, said the churro-like treats reflect her country’s history of Spanish colonization.

Shakoy is highly customizable. It can be savory or sweet, baked or fried. On Friday, they were making a simple version: twists dusted with sugar.

The chef’s favorite, however, is more complex: “I like it with cranberry, chocolate, sunflower seeds.”

The doughnuts remind Varona Camara of busy church gatherings growing up. Her family would make them for fundraisers. To save on time, her dad sometimes used frozen dinner roll dough.

A vendor sells an array of pastries behind a glass display
Lina Tran
Pastries at the German booth

From leavened breads like shakoy and challah to flatbreads like paratha and tortillas, the breads celebrated at this year’s festival were often linked to memories of family and home.

Bread plays a central role in religious rituals and everyday life around the world, said Alexander Durtka, Jr., president and CEO of the International Institute of Wisconsin, which produces the festival each year.

“It’s always a thing that people share,” Durtka said. “It is something that you give away. Bread, in terms of Arabic, means ‘life.’ And that’s what this is all about.”

We’re not just talking baguettes and muffins.

On Friday afternoon, Leo Dai, a junior at Chicago’s Art Institute, completed a naturalization ceremony, in which more than 100 individuals became U.S. citizens. Dai and his mother immigrated to Kohler, Wisconsin, from Shanghai when he was in middle school.

“Oh man, from home?” he said, when asked what his favorite Chinese bread is. “I don’t know, in China, bread? I don’t think it’s a huge thing.”

His mother chimed in and said, “What about bao, steamed buns?”

“If steamed buns count as bread, those are definitely one of my favorites from back home,” Dai said.

close-up of a fish-shaped loaf of bread
Lina Tran
Fish-shaped loaves at the Italian exhibit for the feast of St. Joseph

At the Italian booth, a table exploded with fava beans and cans of sardines and tomatoes. There were sesame-studded loaves from Peter Sciortino Bakery, shaped like fish, braids and crosses. It’s what you’d have for the feast of St. Joseph, which is celebrated on March 19, explained Angela Anastasi.

“You celebrate with your neighbors and everybody feasts together,” said Anastasi, who fondly remembers celebrating with her Sicilian American family. “I don’t want to call it a shrine, but it’s an altar of reverence. The intention of the feast is to help those in need.”

Across the busy exhibition hall, the Slovenian set-up showed a grandfather doll teaching his grandson to play the button accordion, while a grandmother doll rolled out potica with her granddaughter. The yeasted sweet bread, filled with a nutty walnut paste, sugar and raisins, is a Slovenian treat, often served on Easter and Christmas.

The idea was to show how Slovenian Americans are passing down cultural heritage.

An exhibit shows grandmother and granddaughter dolls rolling out dough together
Lina Tran
Potica-making is featured at the Slovenian booth at Holiday Folk Fair

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Jeff Martinka, who has a Czech, Polish and Slovenian background, said that’s the pain of assimilation. You don’t always have the memories or language of previous generations.

“There was some sharing, I wish there was more sharing,” said Martinka, who wishes he knew the language and dances of Slovenia. “I heard stories about Slovenia from my grandma. I was with her as a kid a lot. It was like my summer vacation. I could have learned the language, I could have learned a lot more of the culture than I did.”

For Apinya Jordan, Folk Fair has long been a place to find community. Two decades ago, she moved to Shorewood from Thailand.

“Because I just came back to America with the new baby, so I hadn’t found a community,” Jordan said. “I haven’t found anybody yet. Folk Fair was exploding with the rich culture of so many.”

That first visit, she was blown away. She’s come back every year since to work the Thai booth.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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