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‘Food is the thing’: Birmingham Ethnic Festival celebrates Hungarian culture, more

August 13, 2013

Written by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor |

From chicken paprikas to “Hunky Turkey” (roasted bacon sandwich), stuffed cabbage, kolbasz (sausage sandwiches), gulyás, palacsinta (crepes), cabbage and noodles, pastries and more, the Birmingham Ethnic Festival offers attendees a mouthwatering array of food options each year, organizers say.

“I’m pretty sure the food is the thing that brings people out more than anything,” said Betsy Ujvagi, secretary of the Birmingham Ethnic Festival Committee.

Ethnic food is always among the biggest draws of the Birmingham Ethnic Festival. Photo Courtesy Birmingham Ethnic Festival Committee

The festival, an annual event in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood, will once again run for two days — offering twice as many opportunities to soak in the music, dancing and, of course, the food. Hours are noon to 10 p.m. Aug. 17 and noon to 9 p.m. Aug. 18. Admission is free.

New this year will be free tours of Magyar Gardens on York Street and a neighborhood yard sale. The yard sale, set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 17, was inspired by the one at the Old West End Festival, Ujvagi said.

“We were trying to get something like that started and about 40 families wanted to do it,” she said. “We’re trying it out this year and hopefully it can expand in coming years.”

Garden tours will be offered 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 17. The community garden has been in the same spot for more than 100 years and was recently recognized by The Ohio State University Extension Service as one of Ohio’s best community gardens, Ujvagi said.

“Every year we get more and more people involved,” she said. “We’re really excited about being able to show off the community garden.”

The Cakwalkin’ Jass Band will kick off the festivities Aug. 17 with a strolling performance down Consaul Street.

The annual Waiter’s Race — a European tradition featuring four-person relay teams carrying trays holding a full pitcher and two glasses of beer — has become one of the most popular events, Ujvagi said. This year’s race is set for 4 p.m. Aug. 17.

“It’s so much fun to watch people running up and down the streets, trying not to spill their beer,” Ujvagi said. “The whole concept is not something you see around here very often. Every year we get some new teams. When it first began, it was just all the bars and restaurants on Consaul Street, but it’s expanded more each year.”

The second day of the festival will start with a recognition ceremony on the steps of St. Stephen’s Church. Organizers will announce the recipient of the annual Friend of the Birmingham Neighborhood Award and present the Beer Keg Trophy to the winner of the Waiter’s Race.

The neighborhood has a large Hungarian population, but the festival celebrates all ethnicities, Ujvagi said.

“The great thing about our festival and the thing I think makes it different is it’s a celebration of Birmingham and the people who live here and the ethnicities that are reflected in the people who live in the neighborhood,” Ujvagi said.

Live entertainment, including musicians and ethnic dance groups, will perform both days on three stages. Hungarian folk dance groups, including the Kossuth Folkdancers of Kitchener, Ontario, and Kis Szivek Dancers of Detroit, will perform. Other dance groups to be featured include Echoes of Poland,  Molly’s Irish Dancers, Rumbling Rhythm Cloggers and the Holzhackerbuam Schuhplattlers. The Gyanta Hungarian Folk Ensemble from New Jersey, one of the premier Hungarian folk music groups in the United States, will also perform. Local acts include Big Ticket, Tru Brew, Arctic Clam and Shout!, a Beatles tribute band.

Vendors will sell crafts and other items, including honey from the neighborhood’s community garden. There will also be a children’s area.

Betsy’s father, Peter Ujvagi, a member of the festival committee, said the festival is like a homecoming because it draws people from across the state and even the country.

“People who have lived in the neighborhood never really leave it, so there are many folks who are what we call Birmingham alumni,” said Peter, who was born in Hungary and grew up in Birmingham. “We have some that come back from Texas every year. We’re expecting buses from Cleveland and Columbus, from the Hungarian communities there.”

The festival was started 39 years ago to celebrate the neighborhood’s success in stopping the construction of a four-lane overpass that would have wiped out one side of Consaul Street, including Tony Packo’s, Peter said. Today, the neighborhood is fighting to minimize the number of homes to be demolished by an expansion of the City of Toledo’s water works.

“The heart and soul of the festival is that for more than two generations there has been a group of people who have fought to both preserve and enhance the neighborhood, both physically and in terms of its ethnicity and cultural identity,” Peter said.

Last year was the first year the festival was officially two days and organizers called it a success.

“It went very, very well and we’re hoping for it to be even better this year,” Peter said. “People can come on Saturday, then come back on Sunday and they’ll enjoy it even more.”

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