Arts & Culture

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Scenes from the Little Italy meatball contest, Creative Alliance crankie fest, and bike party Bowie tribute.


East Pratt Street
January 18, 2017

“He flew in from Chicago, carrying 30 pounds of frozen meat, spatulas, a cutting board, knives, spoons, the works,” explains Marcella Volini, as her dad dishes meatballs at the sold-out Sons of Italy lodge. “He’s gone to the same butcher for 30 years, since before I was born, and doesn’t trust anyone else. And, of course, his youngest daughter couldn’t possibly have a well-stocked kitchen.”

Tom Volini, father of 12, made the trip to enter—along with his daughter, a Baltimore artist—the family meatballs into the 1st Annual Little Italy Meatball Fest “best recipe” contest.

“The meatball is a part of every Sunday dinner,” says Joe Gardella, the owner of Joe Benny’s Focacceria and organizer of the event, benefitting the nearby Rev. Oreste Pandola Adult Learning Center, which offers classes in Italian language, culture, and cooking. “Everybody has their own recipe and each family recipe has its own story.”

Naturally, there’s also plenty of baked ziti, rosemary bread, and Chianti.

The winning meatball recipe (as judged by taste-testing attendees) eventually goes to Margaret Miller, née Occhiogrosso, who works as an event planner at Aldo’s restaurant. “The veal and pork have a lot of flavor and then I substitute 10 percent beef brisket with regular beef. That’s the slight change,” she says, with a smile. “Just a little more flavor.”

The other contest this afternoon is a meatball-eating contest, which is won by Phil “the Fury” Fiore, who downs 31 meatballs made by Gardella himself.

Angelo Perri, who took third, came with nine family members, including his Italian immigrant mother, with whom he promises to enter the recipe contest next year. He ate 26 meatballs. “Honestly, I thought those were the best meatballs I had all day,” Perri says with a laugh. “I grabbed a few more to take home.”

Paper Dreams

Eastern Avenue
January 7, 2017

Katherine Fahey begins to unravel a long illustrated scroll at the Creative Alliance as an arabber just off center stage sings out: “Yeah, bananas, cantaloupes, and watermelons. Sweet potatoes and collard greens. Sweet apples and oranges.” Nearby, a musician clapping coconut shells and jingling bells mimics the jangled beat of a workhorse trodding through a narrow rowhouse street. “Each door on the block was a different color,” Fahey says, telling the story of “From Monument to Montford,” her paper cutout fable of an East Baltimore childhood when arabbers and their decorated horses and carts “seemed like fairy tale.”

Fahey’s narrative, hand-cranked scroll and musical accompaniment is based on a 19th-century visual storytelling form—once known as moving panoramas, and now called, with some endearment, “crankies.” In fact, the 4th Annual Baltimore Crankie Fest this weekend, the largest of its kind, sold out all three shows in advance.

“There is something really magical about it,” says Fahey, an award-winning artist who combines shadow puppetry with her exquisite backlit scrolls, and has collaborated on crankie music videos as well with the likes of Wye Oak and Ellen Cherry. “I remember at the first crankie fest being blown away by how entranced the audience becomes.”

Other crankies tonight revolve around a Syrian folktale, a girl from Nova Scotia, and a cosmic country ballad with roots in Alabama and Babylon. Musical pieces include performances by the Gospel Peacemakers, Caleb Stine, Liz Downing, and young old-time artists Anna & Elizabeth.

The most autobiographical “crankie” actually comes via a hand-held scroll sewn by 75-year-old German immigrant Ursula Populoh, who graduated with a degree in fiber art two years ago from the Maryland Institute College of Art. In a series of stitched images, Populoh recounts her story as a young widowed mother, her subsequent and nearly fatal bout with alcoholism, and her desperate hope of moving to America during her long stay in a German hospital.

“I was living in a small town with no money, shunned by my neighbors, and the dream of going to America kept me alive,” Populoh says. “I sold everything and I saw New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and New Orleans. When I got to Denver, someone took me to a square dance,” she continues. “And I was in heaven.”

Riding Off

Paca Street
December 30, 2016

With the temperature nearing the freezing mark, David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” blares from the back of a pedaled sound trailer as 150 bicyclists depart St. Mary’s Park.

Let’s dance for fear
your grace should fall
Let’s dance for fear tonight is all

Founded in the spring of 2012, the last-Friday-of-the-month Baltimore Bike Party has a theme—tonight is a tribute to those who left this world in 2016—with each ride becoming a unique celebration of bicycling and Baltimore. This evening’s ride, however, is somewhat bittersweet given the numerous homages to Bowie, George Michael, and Prince, whose “Little Red Corvette” sparks a group-sing among both bicyclists and local residents as the ride passes several bus stops through Greenmount West.

“My first bike party the theme was ‘Pirates!’—I didn’t know what to expect, so I didn’t dress up,” says Josh Miller, reprising Bowie’s blond mullet, makeup, and puffy shirt from the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth. “At stoplights people were swashbuckling. Ever since I’ve gone all out.”

Meanwhile, other bicyclists are donning boxing gloves, cowboy hats, moon suits, and gorilla masks, in honor, respectively, of Muhammad Ali, Merle Haggard, John Glenn, and Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla who was shot to death after a young boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

A few of the costumes—boxing gloves, for example—prove challenging to wear while operating a bike. Others are a surprisingly good fit, given the chilly conditions.

“The buns are great,” says physician’s assistant Fina Baca-Asher, 34, channeling recently departed Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia with the Star Wars heroine’s iconic hairstyle. “They’ll keep your ears warm.”