Vendors new and old help celebrate 25th annual Ethnic Fest

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Drew Carter

Tanya  Burke's grandparents moved from the Bahamas to the U.S. in the early part of the last century, but eating Bahamian food is something she's done all of her life.

Now she and her family operate a restaurant supply company (Haggi Group, A Taste and See Company) that produces a batter for conch fritters. Those are the fried dumplings common to the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean. They're made from the meat from those shells thought to give the sound of the sea when held closely to the ear.

On Saturday, she hopes to introduce many in Oak Park to her family's conch fritters, which she'll serve as part of District 97's 25th annual Ethnic Festival.

"My hope is that when people try our product, it will conjure up a positive experience they had while traveling in the Caribbean or especially the Bahamas," Burke said.

Introducing new people to Bahamian food (they'll also serve peas and rice, another Bahamian staple) is just part of what
brought Burke back to the festival after first coming last year. Her parents, who help run the business, are retired teachers, and two siblings are educators, too.

"So, education is really important to us," Burke said.

The idea for the festival, or Ethnic Fest as everybody calls it, was based on a similar festival Brooks teacher Gail Liebman attended while growing up and attending college in Pittsburgh. That festival lasted three days, but organizers at Whittier Elementary School (where Liebman used to work, and where the District 97 Multicultural Center used to be housed) quickly decided to limit the Oak Park version to one day.

To the uninitiated, Ethnic Fest is a celebration of diversity in the community, featuring school projects done throughout the year by students in Dist. 97 schools, a parade, and food from around the world. This year's theme is "Respect for diversity in Oak Park is important," which is used as the theme for an annual student essay contest. Director of Multicultural Education Lynn Allen said some students really nailed the argument she was looking for: that there will never be peace without respect for diversity.

Oak Park food superstar Charlie Robinson of Robinson's #1 Ribs has been every year.

"I just think it's a lovely event," he said. "I think what's so special about this event is the kids. They seem to think this particular event is like the Fourth of July."

In the early years, the food was made by families from other countries sharing a part of their heritage. As the festival grew, the village Health Department intervened, and began enforcing food service standards and required vendors to be licensed.

Robinson helped with that transition.

"We've done a lot to help some of the smaller vendors who've wanted to be part of the event," Robinson said, sharing refrigeration and supplies with them.

This year Ethnic Fest is a week late, as it normally falls on the first Sunday of the month. An early Mother's Day prompted organizers to push it back.

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