All summer, and intermittently through the fall, Chicago’s “Under the Picasso” program hosts a series of ethnic festivals. Polish, Chinese, Thai, Mexican…you name it. While we haven’t attended all or even most of them, the Turkish festival (typically held for a week in mid-September) is a favorite. Aside from the usual lunchtime fashion shows of traditional dress and folk dancing demonstrations, this festival features market stalls run by visiting Turkish merchants who bring along employees to demonstrate their crafts. In front of one booth offering intricately decorated Turkish ceramics, a man paints a platter with tiny brush strokes. In front of another booth, a woman sits at a loom, her fingers moving faster than your brain can comprehend. A merchant tells you a single rug takes nearly a year to complete. Watching the remarkable detail (slowly) emerging on the loom, you believe it. A market stall specializing in imported delicacies offers free samples of Turkish Delight.
Festival food is often a chancy proposition, but Turkish Festival offerings are of a higher order. Most of the booths are run by decent Chicago Turkish restaurants, including Cousins and Turquoise. Salads, typically chopped small with lots of tomato and cucumber, are fresh and flavorful. Lots of grilled meat (in the form of kabobs) is available, served with rice or in a sandwich. There’s a café serving Turkish coffee; you can sit at one of the little tables with your small, beautifully painted cup and imagine you’re in Istanbul. Nearby, a booth sells Turkish ice cream, which we have yet to try, as the queue is always longer than we have the patience to endure.
We’ve visited two of the Turkish Festivals so far, and it’s become a standard by which we measure the other ethnic/cultural festivals we attend. You want some feeling of authenticity—not just kitsch; you want good characteristic food; you want to learn something. It’s rare and wonderful when a festival meets all three expectations, as does the Turkish Festival.