To Do: Tastes of Texas at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival kicks off this week. Visitors looking to explore diverse cultures might be tempted to watch Bhutanese dancing or meet a NASA astronaut, but catch a whiff of 16-hour smoked brisket and you’ll likely follow it over to the Texas food and wine activities just behind the Smithsonian Castle.

That’s where Louis McMillan of McMillan’s Bar-B-Q in Fannin, Texas—one of five visiting chefs—will exhibit hardcore Texas-style barbecue. He’ll give down-home demonstrations every hour for the two weeks of the festival—today through June 29 and July 2 to 6.

“I could not have a Texas food program without a barbecue restaurant or else I’d be drawn and quartered,” says Dawn Orsak, food-and-wine curator of the Texas program. She sought out McMillan, who learned his open-pit skills from locals at Texas’s annual June barbecue celebrations and studied food service at Texas A&M.

McMillan will give away secrets of his signature barbecue sauce and demonstrate how to prepare spice rubs, slice brisket, and evaluate smoke ring and color to determine when the meat is done.

Beyond barbecue, Orsak brought in Texas celebrity chef Tom Perini of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. Perini has cooked for President Bush, shown his stuff six times at New York’s James Beard House, and has appeared on the Food Network. Here at the festival, he’ll show crowds the basics of cowboy cooking and the heritage behind it.

“The food is sort of an excuse for [the chefs] to talk about their cultural backgrounds,” says Orsak. “Watching [a chef] make a chicken-fried steak is not just so they can go home and make it themselves. It’s to learn what it’s like to be a cowboy in Texas.”

Mmm . . . chicken-fried steak. Sound mouth-watering? Unfortunately, watching and learning is all guests will be allowed to do during the demonstrations. The chicken, sausage, and ribs the Texas chefs cook onstage won’t be served; it’s against National Park Service policy. To calm hunger cravings, the festival will offer Texas-inspired concessions from Washington-area restaurants.

Capital Q
will serve quarter racks of pork ribs, beef brisket, and sweet tea plus sausage shipped from Elgin, Texas. La Mexicana Bakery of Manassas will bring steak fajitas and taquitos. Asian Grille of Springfield will add its steamed pork buns and red chicken curry to the menu to complement the demonstrations of Lyly Nguyen, a chef representing the large Vietnamese immigrant population on Texas’s Gulf Coast. For her part, Nguyen will simmer crab-and-asparagus soup and make spring rolls with shrimp and beef.

Who knew there were vineyards in Texas? To round out a food-and-culture-filled day on the Mall, stop by the Texas wine tent to observe all stages of the state’s winemaking process, from crushing to fermentation. “People don’t normally think about Texas as a grape-growing state,” Orsak says. “We’ve actually been growing grapes and making wine since the 17th century.”

Again, per NPS regulations, there will be no free sips to sample, but visitors can purchase tastes of wines from Texas’s Fall Creek Vineyards.

The festival runs daily on the National Mall (between 7th and 14th sts.) from 11 AM to 5:30 PM. For more information, click here.

Chilies, Astronauts, and Texas Swing at the Folklife Festival

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