North Country Folklorist, Varick Chittenden Receives the Prestigious Benjamin A Botkin Award from the American Folklore Society

North Country Folklorist, Varick Chittenden Receives the Prestigious Benjamin A Botkin Award from the American Folklore Society

Each year, the Public Programs Section of the American Folklore Society joins with the AFS Executive Board to award the Benjamin A. Botkin Prize.  This annual award honors an individual for significant lifetime achievement in public folklore.  New York Folklore joins with the folklore community in congratulating North Country folklorist, Varick Chittenden, for receiving this highest honor at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society, held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

This prize is given in recognition of the work of Benjamin A. Botkin (1901-1975). An eminent New Deal-era folklorist, national folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938-1939, advocate for the public responsibilities of folklorists, author and compiler of many publications on American folklore for general audiences, and head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1945, Botkin had a major impact on the field of public folklore and on the public understanding of folklore.

Prize recipients are nominated by their peers with the following criteria:

  • Engagement of a broad public audience in the materials of folklore
  • Impact on the field of public folklore: development of models, methodology, visibility, advocacy
  •  Impact on communities/constituents and their traditional culture
  • Contributions to the body of materials of folklore/public folklore
  • Quality of their scholarship
  • Quality of their public programming and presentations
  • Their impact on the discipline of folklore

Varick Chittenden aptly deserves this honor.  Here is some of the nomination that was submitted to the American Folklore Society for consideration:

“Varick was born and raised in Northern New York.  As a native New Yorker, he has devoted his life’s work to raising the value and understanding of the traditional culture of New York’s North Country.  He made his first career as a professor of American Studies and Folklore at the State University of New York at Canton, a school that attracts rural students, those who are first generation college students, and students that are largely from the Adirondack or North Country region.  As a professor, he encouraged folklore collecting by his students and focused the lens of folklore and folklore scholarship on his own community.  After obtaining a degree from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Folk Culture (1976), Varick created the Center for North Country Folklife, and the following year he organized the first Festival of North Country Folklife.

Expanding his vision ever wider, Varick founded the non-profit Traditional Arts of Upstate New York (TAUNY) in 1986, as a collecting and presenting organization that now serves as an important cultural organization for the region and for the state.  There is no other folklore or folk arts organization that so completely serves the North Country of New York.  Today, through his vision, TAUNY is a vibrant arts center that offers folklore and folklife research, exhibitions, ongoing programming, and collections preservation and maintenance.  Housed in a former Woolworth’s Five and Dime, the TAUNY Center serves as an important economic driver for the small city of Canton. To read more about their work, visit their website https://tauny.org/

From 2000 until 2020, Varick served as a columnist for the New York Folklore Society’s publication, Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore.  In keeping with the original format of the journal and its original column of Upstate/Downstate (for which Benjamin Botkin was the “Downstate” writer), I asked Varick in 1999 to be our “Upstate” columnist (opposite Steve Zeitlin’s “Downstate).  For twenty years, Varick graced our journal with his illuminating writing about the North Country, its communities, and its folklore and folk arts.

Varick is an innovator who is a leader for the field of folklore.  He has worked to create curriculum connections for North Country folklore with k-12 educators; he has trained folk artists to be better entrepreneurs in a partnership with then- NY Senator Hilary Clinton; and he has created two programs for public recognition of North Country people and landmarks: The North Country Heritage Award and The Register of Very Special Places (RSVP).  RSVP has been an influencer for the current Legends and Lore Program of the Pomeroy Foundation, a program that began in New York State but went national in 2019.  From its beginning, Varick served as an advisor to this program that provides cast iron “markers” for locations that are connected to local historical and contemporary legend.”

Varick was one of the nation’s pioneers in the movement of focusing on the folklore of one’s own area. In 1979 he wrote that one of the goals of the Center for North Country Folklife was to foster this new movement – “to collect and record the experiences and folk traditions of the North Country; not just for future generations, but for the enjoyment and enrichment of those living here now.”  New York State and its North Country have benefited from the visionary leadership of Varick Chittenden.  The next time you see him on the streets of St. Lawrence County, give him your congratulations.

 

 

The Hye and the Losh:  Foodways at St. Peter’s Armenian Apostolic Church, Watervliet, NY

The Hye and the Losh: Foodways at St. Peter’s Armenian Apostolic Church, Watervliet, NY

In May and June 2021, I had the opportunity to share in food, fellowship, and history with members of the Armenian community at St. Peter’s. The relatively secluded church is a thriving cultural center for many Armenians in the Upper Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. As I drove up Assepian Avenue on the way to the Church, I felt that I was leaving my world behind, as the busy highways and traffic were replaced with a welcoming committee of trees and greenery, which opened to reveal the magnificent church building. In front of the church is a small memorial garden and monument erected in the memory of those who died in the Armenian Genocide, a tragic holocaust that remains an indelible and defining aspect of Armenian identity and heritage.

As soon as I got out of my car, I could hear the sounds of community. The men, who are members of the Knights of Vartan fraternal organization, began to prepare the large pit grills for cooking chicken and Hye burgers. In the distance, the tinkle of dishes and excited voices sounded from the kitchen in the lower floor of the Church building. The sounds mingled with the perfumes of cooking spices, baking sweets, and charcoal smoke, as the grills were warmed to start the festivities for the Friday Flavors of Armenia.

According to Paulette Doudoukjian, wife of St. Peter’s Church pastor, Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian, this is the church’s second year of running the Friday Flavors of Armenia series. Since 1910, St. Peter’s has put on an Armenian festival every June, as a celebration of summer, Armenian food, faith, and culture. In normal years the festival would run for two days, and would feature vendors, musicians, dancers, and an incredible variety of foods both savory and sweet. Like many other church and cultural celebrations, the festival was shut down for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just shy of the festival’s 110th anniversary. As a testament to Armenian perseverance, Paulette and the other members of the Women’s Guild came up with a novel idea: a drive-thru festival that would allow them to continue serving the Armenian and non-Armenian communities, while maintaining social distancing and mitigating the spread of the virus as much as possible. The new variation, Friday Flavors of Armenia, was a success, and the drive-thru option may remain as a fixture after the pandemic is over.

Although the menu was somewhat reduced, the flavors and the quality of the food were still top notch. Each week featured two entrees: an Armenian Chicken Dinner and a Hye Burger Platter.

The Hye Burger is made from a mixture of beef, lamb, spices and aromatics. According to Sonya Moroukian, a master baker and one of the cooks for the festival, this dish is a great way to introduce people to Armenian flavor profiles, especially for those who may not like an all-lamb main course. The Hye Burger is a fusion version of the Losh Kebab, which in normal years would be grilled right alongside the burgers. What makes this burger extra special is that it is served with an Armenian coleslaw of purple cabbage, carrots, and a proprietary dressing that adds a kick to the burger itself. The Armenian Chicken is marinated in a yogurt sauce, similar to tzatziki.

To accompany these dishes, the Women’s Guild makes an incredible rice pilaf. The secret, according to Paulette and her colleagues, is in its simplicity. The pilaf is made with butter, pepper, rice, chicken stock, and egg noodles. As Paulette was explaining the process of how to make the pilaf, she and her son Jonah were mixing the dish in large industrial-size pans—large enough to feed an entire village.

Aside from the entrees, the women also put together incredible desserts and a la carte items. For this year’s festivals, the women, under the direction of Sonya Moroukian, have made trays upon trays of Paklava (also spelled Baklava) and Kadayif. These classic desserts are staples of Armenian food culture.

For the Paklava, the bakers roll out and layer phyllo dough, nuts, and spices in large sheet pans. Depending on who is baking them, there can be multiple layers of nuts. After baking to a golden brown color, the Paklava is then doused with a simple syrup made of water, sugar, and lemon juice that brightens and highlights the rich flavors of the pastry.

According to Serena Moroukian and her mother Sonya, making Paklava together as a family is a rite of passage for a young woman, given the difficulty of folding and preparing the pastry dough, and layering everything together. Depending on the occasion, the dough is sometimes store bought, or it may be made from scratch, an arduous process. Leftovers from the baklava trays are sometimes crushed up and mixed with ice cream to make Baklava Sundaes, which are another major treat.

Kadayif is a creamy dessert made with a sweetened, cream cheese-like filling, shredded phyllo dough and simple syrup. This dessert takes patience to bake and also freezes well.

The last dish on the menu is Eech (pronounced similarly to the English word each). It is a hearty food that is made of cracked bulgur wheat, onions, tomato sauce, (occasionally) stock, spices, and a topping usually made from sweet and/or spicy peppers and parsley. This dish demonstrates a part of the wide variety of food that is found in Armenia, based on the terroir and availability of ingredients in different regions. Each is a vegan dish and can be enjoyed hot, cold, or room temperature. It can be eaten alone, as a salad accompanying a meal, or as Raffi Moroukian lovingly described, as a breakfast dish mixed with scrambled eggs.

I am incredibly grateful to the members of St. Peter’s Armenian Church community for allowing me to talk to them, to learn about their culinary culture, and to share in the enjoyment of food with them. A special thank you to Lori Payette at the parish office, Fr. Stepanos and Presbytera Paulette Doudoukjian, Sonya, Serena and Raffi Moroukian, and the members of the St. Peter’s Women’s Guild for their generosity, friendliness, and willingness to talk about their culture.

 

Common Ground: Folk Arts, Cultural Heritage, and Equity

Common Ground: Folk Arts, Cultural Heritage, and Equity

Photo:  Aziz Peerzada and his 11-year old son Saboor perform

a beautiful set of Punjabi folk songs at the 2016 Brooklyn Arts Council Festival.

 

On November 23, 2020,  I attended a virtual Zoom hearing on the decision by the Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) to cancel its folk arts program, and to lay off our colleague, folklorist Chris Mule.  The artists, folklorists, scholars and community leaders attending spoke with great support and appreciation for Chris’ role at BAC and his work with many artists and communities of Brooklyn. Charlotte A. Cohen, the executive director of BAC demonstrated extensive knowledge and appreciation of the field, and of the relationships that Chris had built over six years in the position.  Nevertheless, she said that the decision to cancel the program was was made for purely budgetary reasons.

The County and Regional Folk Arts programs, among which BAC’s was a prominent leader until this year, were inspired by Robert Baron in his long tenure at the New York State Council on the Arts, as a vehicle to encourage research and programming in folk and traditional arts across New York State.  These programs, in which many of New York Folklore’s board (myself included), staff and members have worked, is of considerable interest to us, both practically and theoretically, as they have offered a window into local culture across many counties and regions, and have been a means to bring to wider attention folk artists and traditions across the state, many of which would not be as widely known otherwise.  During my tenure on the board of NY Folklore, support for these programs has been a central focus.  So it is with great sadness that we see the loss of Brooklyn’s program, which served one the most culturally diverse and vibrant regions of New York State.  In Chris’ time at BAC, he has also led the statewide NY Living Traditions digital initiative, which has elevated the entire field to wider attention.  Our main argument in support the program and ones like it is in order bring equity to arts and culture programming and funding within organizations dedicated to all that is implied in the term “Arts”, they need to be directed by knowledgeable and competent people, who are trained in working across diverse cultures in an ethical and accountable manner.  This is an important part of what a public sector folklorist is, and it is what we encourage in each other.

At the BAC hearing, the representatives talked about replacing the folk arts program with one that one focused on “cultural heritage.”  In so doing, they are perhaps aligning themselves with a term used internationally, most prominently by UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage program.  This term concerns the same thing that we mean by “folk culture” but in the US, the latter term has a far longer and deeper history of research and engagement, as well as a solid footing in the academic and theoretical filed of Folklore.

Late in the two-hour BAC hearing, its program director Desirée Gordon, who is to serve as an interim director of this new cultural heritage effort until funding allows for a new hire, revealed an interesting point about the terms we use.  She cited both community scholars and academics who are adverse to the term “folk,” going so far as to imply a racist bias in the term itself, perhaps one rooted in the Anglo European origins of the field of folklore.   While it is true that the early field did focus on local cultures in Europe, and that some early American folklorists explored the cultural roots of Euro-Americans, tracing English origins to Appalachian culture, for example, nonetheless, over the past sixty years the field has gone to great lengths to widen its purview to the full range of cultures in the US, and the elevation of diverse voices of both master artists and their community supporters.  While it is true that academically trained folklorists are not as diverse a group as the cultures they study and work with, we have sought to diversity our ranks and the perspectives that are at the center of our work.

In this time of reckoning with the racial dynamics of American society and history, perhaps it is inevitable that our field would be seen as yet another manifestation of institutional racism, relegating black and brown cultures to an apparently pejorative lower status that some might interpret the term “folk” to describe.   I know, and my colleagues know, that what we call folk is something we hold in the highest esteem.  Unfortunately, we may be confronting a wider social perception.  Despite our efforts to serve as translators, publicists and advocates for under represented arts and cultures, we may have attracted the wrong kinds of attention to what we do.

Just three months before COVID struck in New York, we at New York Folklore celebrated the 75th anniversary, since our founding as a membership organization to promote an intersection of academic and public sector focus on the diverse traditional cultures of New York State.   We will do everything possible to ensure another 75 years of this work, but our first task is going to involve reckoning with both the challenges of surviving this pandemic and coming to terms with the ugly history that lies behind America’s diversity.  Without equity, perhaps diversity itself is of little meaning.  I am sorry that the leadership of the Brooklyn Arts Council came to their decision before hearing the many voices of the artists and communities who have participated in its programs as well as those of folklorists across the state who have worked long and hard to do justice to the challenges of trying to bring a small measure of cultural equity to a society that otherwise disregards the particular qualities that give our lives some meaning beyond the commercialized and mass mediated versions of ourselves.  We will continue this work, despite the obstacles we face.  We must seek common ground in the spirit of affirmation for all cultures and welcome allies wherever they may be found.

 

New York Folklore Distributes Relief Funds for Artists Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic

New York Folklore Distributes Relief Funds for Artists Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic

New York Folklore is pleased to announce the disbursement of funds totaling $11,000.00 to benefit folk and traditional artists in New York State. These funds are made possible through  the generosity of donors from throughout the United States, including support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation as well as many private donors.  Private donations were received  through a Go Fund Me Campaign for COVID-19 Relief for Folk and Traditional Artists in New York State.

Thanks to a successful campaign, grant funds of $500.00 or $250.00 will be distributed to twenty-five folk and traditional artists across the state, with each  of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Economic Development Regions of the State being represented by a grant to at least one artist.  The artists chosen represent diverse cultural groups.  They are practicing traditional art that reflects one’s location or one’s membership in a specific population group of New Yorkers.  Haudenosaunee artists were awarded funds, with support going to those who are known for their beadwork, bone and antler carving, traditional music and dance, and splint ash basketmaking from Seneca, Tuscarora, Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawk nations.   Artists continuing cultural traditions from Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico, Ireland, Guinea, Ghana, Turkey, Argentina, China, The Republic of Georgia, Algeria, and Tibet received support, as did artists who make art stemming from the African American experience (hair design, gourd instruments, quilting), Adirondack rustic furniture making, and the LGBTQ tradition of ballroom/runway.

Located in Schenectady, New York Folklore works to nurture traditional arts and culture in New York State through education, support, and outreach. New York Folklore envisions a world where the diverse traditions of New York State are fully recognized, appreciated, and supported.  This COVID-19 initiative by New York Folklore recognizes that folk artists who rely on work in the gig economy are suffering greatly during the pandemic. The loss of income is especially prevalent during the summer months, as during this time New York’s communities stage outdoor events focused upon their own community cultural expressions, providing one-time fees for artists’ participation.  The widespread cancellation of performances, festivals, exhibitions, and teaching opportunities has directly impacted New York’s folk and traditional artists.

Taylor Swift Asks us to Reflect on the meaning of “folklore”

Taylor Swift Asks us to Reflect on the meaning of “folklore”

The July 23, 2020 release of Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, begs the question, “What is folklore?”.  Refinery 29, the media and entertainment company dedicated to women’s perspectives, asks, “what does folklore mean anyway?”  Natalie Morin, writing for Refinery 29, explains that “folklore is the traditional customs preserved among a community, like stories, legends, songs, sayings, dances and popular beliefs,” and also “folklore is a belief that’s been widely circulated and well-known without any supporting evidence.”  (Morin, Refinery 29, July 23, 2020).

As the Executive Director of New York Folklore – New York’s statewide organization for the field of folklore– I am writing to suggest a more accurate portrayal of folklore and its role in human life.  While often portrayed as “inaccuracies,” or “quaint and old-fashioned,” folklore is much more than that misunderstood characterization.  Although folklore does connect people to their past, the expression of folklore is an integral part of life in the present.  Its manifestation is at the center of the idea of culture.  While folklore may include, as Morin states, “traditional customs,” as well as ideas that are not backed up by “evidence” (the multiple reports of Bigfoot occurrences nationwide, for example), folklore is, more accurately, the human, creative responses to very real, lived experiences.  Perhaps Laura Snapes’ review in The Guardian, (July 24, 2020) gives us the best rationale for the album’s title when she says that Folklore shows an “authentic” side to Swift.

“Authenticity” is an important concept to folklorists and those who follow and study folklore.  Every group of people that shares a sense of identity shares folklore as part of their identity.   Folklore is the “authentic” way that people comment upon their shared experiences.  Folklore during the current COVID-19 pandemic is all around us and it is easily apparent in the ways that people are responding creatively to their experiences.  Folklore is visible through the creative fabrications of the home-made facemasks.  Folklore is expressed through the changing ways that teens and schools are marking an important rite of passage by creatively re-working high school graduation ceremonies.  Folklore is visible in the Black Lives Movement through the memorials and street art created by communities expressing their grief over the murder of George Floyd, and through the ways that the shared experience of being Black in America is commented upon and creatively expressed through folk narrative, folk art, folk music, and practice throughout the Black community – no matter the geography, social class, educational attainment or age of the individual.

I ask those who are intrigued with Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, to use this moment as a stepping-off place to find out about folklore in your own communities.  Folklorists are working throughout New York State – in arts organization, museums, universities, and libraries – to draw attention to the diverse ways that folklore is apparent in our communities and to support folklore and folk arts at the grassroots.  One doesn’t have to look far, as there are vast resources at your fingertips – including New York’s statewide organization, New York Folklore (www.nyfolklore.org), the American Folklore Society (www.afsnet.org); and the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, (www.loc.gov/folklife).   Like Swift’s song titled “Cardigan,” you may find that folklore is that part of yourself that is familiar and well-worn, yet evocative and deeply meaningful.  Folklore is complicated.