Smoke drifts from the mouths of several tandoors set up in Artesia Park for the annual Diwali Mela. This Hindu New Year Fair is one giant schmooze fest for the Indian community. Parents gossip, kids race around, people wander from booth to booth, where cooks turn out fragile dosas and hawk all sorts of curries. It's hot and the sun glints off the thousands of tiny jewels that decorate the women's diaphanous saris. Snapping firecrackers stir the emotions of the homesick. A flame billows into the air, burning in effigy the evil king Ravana, symbolizing that good will triumph over evil in the new year.
Welcome to Parks and Recreation L.A.-style, where on any weekend in any local park you may encounter the Peruvian-American Medical Association picnic, or the Seoul National College of Music Alumni barbecue, or the L.A. All-Japan Rugby Club.
Local parks used to be reserved for birthday parties, scout meetings and church socials. Picnics were made up of fried chicken and potato salad, or unevenly scorched hot dogs rescued from the grill and plunked into Wonder buns. But that was before half of L.A.'s residents were born outside the U.S. I got to thinking about this, not because I'm particularly plugged into Department of Parks and Recreation doings but because I was tracking down information for what seemed like an incredibly bland assignment: "picnics in L.A. parks."
Once I began talking to people about picnics and related activities in L.A., I found my finger moving toward the pulse of the city's populace. Even more than demographic statistics, more than watching Channel 18, listening to NPR or frequenting the club of the moment, a look into food-related outdoor festivities gave me a revealing picture of how Angelenos celebrate life.
One appetizing outcome of this diversity (and of the two-income family) is our city's improved selection of ready-to-eat foods, offered by enterprising entrepreneurs, that are usually better than supermarket offerings. Just about anything may be had, from whole roasted lamb and marinated pulgogi, to cheeses from obscure Portuguese villages in the Azores. So pack up the blanket, put the ice chest in the car, and follow your nose toward the smoke. It just might lead you into another land.
A discussion of Peruvian picnics, for instance, led me to the PNA - Peruvian Nikkei Association. A distinct offshoot of the Peruvian community, this group is made up solely of Peruvians with Japanese ancestry (Nobu Matsuhisa may even be a member). Teresa Nakasone, owner of the restaurant Pollos Tumis, explains that one need be only a fraction Japanese to be Nikkei. For the past few years, the PNA has gathered on Mother's Day at Santa Fe Dam in San Dimas. The picnic is a huge family affair and potluck, to which everyone brings food and a donation for the poor. The menu, says Nakasone's daughter Nicki, is pretty straightforward Peruvian, with items like papas huancainas, chicken and rice, and anticuchos grilled over coals.
The common bond among the dozen or so Southern California Peruvian clubs and social groups is the Kermess, an outdoor, carnival-like, all-day eating and entertainment festival organized to raise money for a good cause. Last January, in Balboa Park near Sherman Oaks, the Association of Peruvian Clubs threw a Kermess to raise aid for the devastated area of Piura, in northern Peru, which was almost wiped out by severe El Nino rains.
"Kids just love a Kermess," said Willie Veliz of Amazonas Natural Foods, a wholesale importing company. There's something for every taste. Club members team up for impromptu soccer tournaments. A loud voice over the microphone constantly booms out new chances to win another raffle - stuff donated by local businesses and services, and trips to Peru from the airlines. Clowns and Inkaqena musicians share the stage. There is folkloric dancing and a DJ who spins more-contemporary dance music. Restaurants donate time and food; money from sales goes to the cause. In this case tons of clothing were collected to send to Peru. "That's the main thing," Veliz mused. "It makes you feel good you can do something to help, even though you have to stay here and work."
The fat chickens revolving in Pollos Tumis' rotisserie just beg to be taken on a picnic. These juicy, lemon-spiced birds taste fabulous, hot or cold. But there's more to this Peruvian cafe than pollos. Carry away some of the excellent ceviche, papa a la huancaina (instead of the usual potato salad), the terrific Peruvian-style tamales, or the rice-and-bean stew (seco con frejoles y arroz). Giant roasted corn kernels, called canchas, make a change from pedestrian chips. Open Mon.-Sat. noon-8 p.m., Sun. noon-7 p.m. 5870 Melrose Ave.; (323) 962-2027.
In a city that makes it easy to lose a sense of identity, it's refreshing to witness a community that still fosters a strong connectedness to traditions. Artesia, better known as the home of Little India, is also the heart of a tight-knit Portuguese enclave that makes a ritual of keeping its customs alive. Artesia's Portuguese use Mayfair Park in nearby Lakewood or Cerritos Regional County Park for family gatherings or sports tournaments. But the community's most extravagant celebration of the year, the Festa do Espiritu Santo, moves through the city streets between the Portuguese Community Hall - known as Artesia DES, on Ashworth Street - and Holy Family Catholic Church on Clarkdale Avenue.