A long, long time ago, in 1894, the Johnson Steel Company made a home in the City of Lorain and changed the town forever. At first, thanks to an economic depression, the steel company easily pulled in eager workers from all over the United States. But after only a few short years, when the labor force ran dry in 1900, they reached out to labor overseas.
As hope for a better life brought waves of immigrants to America, Lorain would eventually become known as an international city. First came primarily Germans, Scots, and Italians, followed by Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, and so forth. And this lasted more than 50 years as ethnic groups lived together in separate communities to preserve their language and culture, and—you guessed it—put on plenty of cultural festivals.
In 1966, some residents looked around and noticed all the festivals around them. With each of the 55 various nationalities celebrating their own culture, these Lorain residents thought it would make sense to bring the festivals together in one big event that celebrated the city’s diversity. With the help of local churches and organizations, the Lorain International Festival and Bazaar commenced.
Today, the community holds a week’s worth of events culminating in the three-day festival, celebrating over 70 nationalities. One such event is Cultural Night, where the year’s spotlighted nationality (2014 highlights the Polish Community) is celebrated with a night of ethnic food, music, and dancing. Another big event is the International Princess Pageant. Princesses in their native dress representing various nationalities are sponsored by area businesses and showcased in the local paper with interviews about their family origin, favorite native dishes, and any general cultural interests. Then, during festival week, the International Festival queen is chosen.
The International Festival officially begins on Friday, when hungry festival goers flock to downtown Lorain’s Black River Landing. Here, rows of booths are decorated with national flags and décor as the aromas of hundreds of native dishes fill the air. Dishes such as moussaka, paprikash, and pierogi are homecooked by local ethnic organizations, churches, and groups of volunteers. The participants were often taught how to cook these dishes from their parents or grandparents, who have cooked it all their lives. To have so much history in one location is simply miraculous.
Of course, so much food and so little stomach space can be a little overwhelming. So allow me to offer you some advice for your visit.
Before going to the festival, get a map of the food vendors through the website or at the festival grounds. Often times, the map will show you not only where certain nationalities are, but also what the booths are serving. That way, if there are two Puerto Rican booths and only one is selling pasteles (fried meat pie), you’ll know where to get in line.
With so many delicious items available, you may want to attend the festival in numbers in order to break away and find something unique to share with the group. Once reunited, you can find a nice table, enjoy a live performance, and taste everyone’s purchases.
Some final advice? Try something new. But you know that already.
Apart from eating, visitors can browse through various ethnic souvenirs and crafts, enjoy plenty of ethnic music and entertainment, or walk along the Black River in hopes of seeing the world’s second largest bascule bridge lifting up for some passing boat. Inflatable rides and games are available for children and there are lighthouse ($20) and river ($10) tours for those who want to explore a little more.