Festival weekend full of flavor, fun

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's a cultural festival weekend in Sheboygan full of flavor, families, fun and friendship.

At Kiwanis Park, thousands of people congregated Saturday for the first day of the Hmong Summer Festival, which featured numerous soccer, volleyball, basketball and flag football teams competing on the fields, and a street fair busy with food, drink and merchandise vendors.

"It's a beautiful festival," said Loke Kue, 40, of Chicago, an assistant coach and player with the Diavlab soccer team, one of many traveling to Sheboygan to participate in the sports and shopping-oriented Summer Festival.

On the lakefront at Deland Park, the grills and stoves at the 66th annual Greek Festival sent delicious plumes of smoke from the chickens, pork and saganaki — or flaming cheese — into the air, to the delight of hungry patrons on the grounds.

"It was flaming," said Trisha Bauer, 43, of Sun Prairie, who was in town for some boating and the festival. "We had to say 'Opa!' when they put the flame out."

Both two-day festivals wrap up today; with the Hmong Summer Festival starting at 7 a.m. and lasting until at least 6 p.m. Admission is $3 for everyone taller than 3 feet, and proceeds will be donated to the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, which provides services to refugees and the Hmong community of Sheboygan.

The Greek Festival is having a church service at 10 a.m. at Deland Park, and the food, dance and other activities running from noon to 7 p.m. The festival is the chief fundraiser each year for St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church.

Both festivals like to accentuate good times, with friends and families getting together to have fun, eat well and enjoy themselves.

"It's the food, it's the camaraderie, it's the meeting of old friends, and you also have the sports that keep people entertained and you have kids," Kue said. "It's a very healthy thing."

Among those strolling the street at the Hmong festival on Saturday was Youa Lee, 31, of De Forest, which is near Madison, who was in a group that was nibbling on a paya salad, loaded with greens, papayas and tomatoes, with a small slice of limes.

We came to visit for the tournament, and we thought we'd walk around and have food," Lee said.

Tending the grill for Xiong Family BBQ was Ying Xiong, 31, of Fond du Lac, who was busy turning chicken leg quarters, pork ribs, tilapia, and Asian sausage, long links that just sizzled when they were turned.

"It's got a different ingredient on it," Xiong said. "It's got ginger and it makes it taste pretty tender."

At Greek Fest, Christos Balassi, among the lead organizers of the event, said lots of family and church members are involved in the planning of the festival, and the making and serving of the foods.

"It's good that way that every family has its niche and in the long run, everybody helps everybody," said Balassi, 44, of Sheboygan.

The festival is heavily steeped in tradition; Balassi said he's asked every year to change the menu a bit to include brats and burgers, but continues to stick mainly to the ethnic foods, all of which were selling well on Saturday.

"We want people to enjoy our culture, because there's not many of us here," Balassi said. "There's probably 20 (Greek) families in Sheboygan … and since we're the oldest Greek Orthodox church in Wisconsin, we felt that it's our job to show our culture to other people and to share our passion for what we do."

Balassi said the Greek Festival began in the mid-1940s on the grounds of the church at 1425 S. 10th St., when some of the leaders in the congregation decided to hold a family event on a Sunday afternoon.

"(They said) let's just put out a few lambs, a few chickens, a couple of shish kabobs and all the neighbors would come around because it was like Garlic Boulevard down there on Indiana (Avenue) back then," he said.

The event was quickly expanded to become a fundraiser for the church, and moved to Kiwanis Park for a number of years before heading to lakefront, and has maintained its popularity through the generations.

"We love it," said Leann Gauger, 48, of Cedar Grove, who was nibbling on the chicken and the flaming cheese on Saturday.

The people are always real friendly, and it never gets rowdy. That's what I like about it … this is for family."

Families and friends are also important to the success of the Hmong Summer Festival, which draws the locals in Sheboygan, but also folks from places such as Green Bay, Wausau, Fond du Lac, Wausau, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, Minn.

"We like the people and they're very nice and it's fun," said Feuy Yang, 42, of Green Bay, which was operating the Yang's Cafe booth Saturday, selling snacks and noodles and rice and chicken and other goodies.

"We like coming here every year so we can see all the friends and students that I work with."

Kue, the soccer coach and player, is encouraging everybody to come to the Hmong Summer Festival.

"This is for the whole community, not just for our people," he said. "We always open the door to community … we really like to welcome everyone."

Reach Bob Petrie at bpetrie@sheboygan-press.com and 453-5129.


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