WASHINGTON, DC - The Smithsonian Institution is building its first tequila distillery on the National Mall. That's right. The family friendly museum complex is preparing to brew booze. The catch is there won't be a drop of tequila to drink.
The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, running June 24-28 and July 1-5, will feature several exhibits on Mexican culture, with demonstrations on traditional foods and agricultural techniques. This includes the tequila-making station to highlight the country's native agave plant.
As for the tequila itself?
"That's for demonstration purposes only," stressed festival director Stephen Kidd.
The Mexican theme is one of three large-scale outdoor exhibits on display during the 44th annual festival. It commemorates the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain and the centennial of Mexico's revolutionary war.
Set up outdoors on the mall, the free festival will also feature two other themes: "Asian Pacific Americans: Local Lives, Global Ties" and "Smithsonian Inside Out."
The Smithsonian spends between $5 million and $6 million every year on the event - always scheduled during two of the hottest and busiest weeks of the Washington summer. It is expected to draw more than a million tourists from around the globe.
And though there will not be any margarita-fueled conga lines snaking past the somber seated Abraham Lincoln, there will be singing, there will be dancing and there will be lots of noshing. Food vendors and culinary demonstrations are among the major draws for many festival-goers, Kidd said.
"It's a very sensory kind of thing," he said. "Some of your earliest experiences are in the kitchen or sitting down to meals with family and friends, and because of those common experiences, it's a really good pathway for discussing other cultures."
Franklin Fung Chow, a retired federal government investigator, will light up his skillet on June 24. Part of the Asian Pacific American exhibit, Fung Chow, a District of Columbia resident, will demonstrate in his al fresco cooking class how to de-bone a whole chicken and how to make a stir fry dish with cashews. He will separate the bones from the flesh, before slivering the thigh meat for his stir fry.
"Our culture is coming to the point where people won't know how to cook because they don't have the time," Fung Chow said.
His traditional Cantonese recipe - one passed down from his father - is simple, he said. "You have to have a good marinade. My marinade is six 'Ss,' two 'Gs' and a 'P,'" he said. That's salt, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, dry sherry, ginger, garlic and pepper.
Vendors will offer dishes ranging from simmered chicken in a mole poblano sauce for $9, to bhelpuri, a popular Indian street food made with puffed rice and chutney, for $5. Each menu item has been carefully selected for its cultural significance and relevance to the festival's themes, including a variety of international beer for $6 a pop.
There will be plenty of nonedible exhibits, too. Asian Pacific American demonstrations will include a workshop on traditional calligraphy arts. The "Smithsonian Inside Out" theme offers a behind-the-scenes look at the storied institution, with lectures and exhibits by museum staffers.
Another installation - part of the Mexican exhibit - will show an ancient Meso-American agricultural technique, chinampa, which is a method of growing crops in rectangular beds.
Olivia Cadaval, co-curator of the Mexico exhibit, said these demonstrations encourage people from different cultures, who otherwise would never speak face-to-face, to engage in meaningful conversations.
Many times, using food to bridge those barriers is an easy place to begin, she said.
"We're telling stories about communities and their way of life - everyday and ceremonial. There are different elements that are part of their lives and a very important element is the kitchen," Cadaval said. "It's truly a learning experience. It's going to be a lot of fun."