Day 31: Lithuania
Fairs aren’t usually the place you go to get the best food a culture has to offer, but they can certainly be the place to go for a lot of fun. When Vicky, a friend of Lithuanian heritage living near Santa Cruz, told me she would be down for the Lithuania Fair, I was intrigued. When she told me she’d be dancing in traditional garb with her fiance Marius, I was slightly more interested. When she told me to get a group of friends together and that we’d need to bring our “drinking hats”, it was pretty clear that we’d be showing up. So we’re rolling deep on this day with GirlfriendBites, Mr. Meatball, “Danielle”, folk hero Jason Bernstein and two new participants, Erin and O’ryan. And what’s the first thing I see when I walk through the gate? The alcohol tent. I’m beginning to believe Vicky was right. We grab ourselves some tall cans and start diving in.
Giving the fair a once over reveals a stage area and a lot of covered outdoor tables. The perimeter, meanwhile, is completely filled with stalls selling everything from amber jewelry to canned fish, which a passer by remarks is “as smooth as butter”. Also, I must say that for a country with just over 3 million people in it, a lot of them sure made it over to the Saint Casimir’s Church Grounds today. I’m hearing a lot of people talking in Lithuanian. We decide we’d better get our hands on some food so we head into the big indoor cafeteria area. The line is alarmingly long, wrapping all the way around building, but we get in it and ready ourselves for a decent wait. We make it about a third of the way through while GFB holds down a table, when all of a sudden I realize that it’s about time for the dancing to begin. It’s starting to rain and I try not to trip or spill my beer as I run over there, arriving just in time to watch them start. Some hand slapping, arm locking and body turning ensues and everybody looks like they’re having a great time. I try to guess which guy is her fiancee, then realize I’d rather just decide which one I would choose if it were up to me— finally deciding on the one with glasses. They finish up, I give Vicky a congratulatory hug and she says she’ll meet up with my group once she’s back in normal attire.
Returning to the now even more crowded dining area, I notice that Mr. Meatball is still making his way through the line. After another fifteen minutes or so, he arrives with a plate of various starches and pork based products. The food is very similar to Polish and some things hit better than others. The sausage is very much on the dry side, the potato pancakes are mushy and soggy, and the kugel is fairly boring. The dish worth eating, though, is the pork dumplings topped with crispy crumbled bacon. That’s a dish I’ll not only meet at a bar and take home with me, but I’ll even give it a phone call a few days later. Vicky arrives with Marius, who turns out to be the exact guy I wanted him to be, so kudos to Vicky and myself on that one. She hands me a shot of honey liqueur and I knock it back happily. It’s not particularly smooth, but it’s sweet, thick and Marius points out that it “really sneaks up on you”. Vicky and I talk food and she tells me that “They eat a lot of potatoes in Lithuania. It’s like Ireland. They’re cheap, they grow year round and they’re filling.” Potatoes and pork, it seems, are standard operating procedure out there in the Baltics.
We head back outside and Vicky manages to wrangle honey liqueur shots for my entire crew. She and Marius say something in Lithuanian and the shots are slugged into the backs of our mouths. Mr. Meatball gives me the ever famous “close your eyes and open your mouth” and I wouldn’t be much of a food explorer if I didn’t oblige. Luckily, I am rewarded with a big bite of the “bacon bun”— soft bread with chopped up bacon huddled together in the middle. That’ll do just fine for me, but Vicky points out that her grandmother’s is better, being less bready and more bacony. I don’t think I’d disagree if offered a taste test. Folk hero Jason Bernstein and “Danielle” offer us samples of a large novelty mushroom made out of ginger bread and some form of Lithuanian coffee cake. Both are dense and spiced aggressively, offering a nice opposition to the light beer in my hand. We relocate to a spot near the alcohol tent and attempt to sit at one of those elementary school style lunch tables, which proves immensely difficult, but manageable by the end. Beers are sampled, the rain has subsided and there are some people at the fair getting very, very drunk. Vicky tells us that “They used to have pumpkins out for the fair a few years ago, but drunk people would just end up throwing them, so they had to stop.” Right then a man is pushed around in a shopping cart, holding a can of beer and waving a small Lithuanian flag in the air.
The day is a success and everyone seems to be in good spirits, with the only negatives being the long lines for food and the lack of access to an ATM, as the entire fair is cash only. But on the plus side, if you don’t bring any cash and go with a large group of friends, everybody just ends up drinking a lot and they won’t remember how much money you borrow. As I try to comprehend what it is exactly that makes being buzzed on beer in the afternoon so different from when it happens in the evening, I come to the unrelated conclusion that no matter how great it is seeing Vicky and meeting Marius, my dog needs to be fed and perhaps more importantly, I need a short nap. I say thank you and goodbye to our Lithuanian friends and leave very happy that I came out here in the first place. There are certain days that are just plain fun and this one, most certainly, fits into that category.
Note: The Lithuania Fair happens every year and the details can be found at www.lithuaniafair.com They also serve regular Lithuanian meals every Sunday after mass.
St. Casimir’s Church Grounds
2718 St. George Street
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Food Breakdown: Beers, shots, baked goods, potatoes, kugel, dumplings and lots of bacon
Price: Whatever I could steal from GFB’s wallet
Distance From My House: 14.5 miles