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A taste of the world

It’s the vaguest food festival name in Buffalo: Taste of Diversity.

Most food festivals are dedicated to one food, or one neighborhood, or one culture. But what, you may wonder, is diversity supposed to taste like? Where do you find it? And what makes this different from the already diverse array of food festivals happening here every summer?

As the next Taste of Diversity approaches on Saturday, its identity is finally becoming clear.

“It’s the West Side’s signature festival, or at least that’s what it’s turned into,” said Jen Silverman, sponsorship coordinator for the festival, which started in 2003 and took on its name in 2005. “We’re proud of the identity we’re developing, and the diversity we have is a big part of that.”

Silverman said the festival – which runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday – now serves a “twofold” mission: representing ethnic restaurants on the West Side and also representing the West Side itself, which has a long tradition of ethnic diversity that made a festival like this possible.

This year’s featured restaurants include Lucy Ethiopian, Buffalo’s first Ethiopian restaurant; Pure Peru, the city’s only Peruvian restaurant; and the Gypsy Parlor, a Mediterranean restaurant on Grant Street that doesn’t even open until later this year. Burmese, Puerto Rican, Chinese and Indian dishes also have a spot at the festival. (See sidebar for the full list of featured restaurants.) Most of the restaurants in the Taste of Diversity are family-owned, do not appear at any other festivals in the region and did not exist when the festival started. Even some of Buffalo’s biggest food festivals can’t match the diversity – of cultures, as well as cuisines – in this little, one-day celebration. Where else can you tour the tastes of empañadas, injera, mango black rice rolls and gypsy juice in one street, on one day?

“Walking around here is an experience of the world that most people in Western New York do not have,” said Sister Susan Bowles of Our Lady of Hope Parish, who has been involved in the festival since its beginning. “For me, that’s the most important part of all this. If people really want be a part of the global village that we’re living in, which most of us never think about ... it gives them a chance to see that.”

Even if the Taste of Diversity now resembles a global village of good food, the notion of it even being a festival – as in, an outdoor event with actual restaurants – is a relatively recent development, and a tribute to the West Side’s development.

In its first few years, the Taste of Diversity was more like a multicultural block party than a full-blown festival, with West Side residents and families cooking their food and bringing it to the event. All participants had placards designating which country they represented – it was like a United Nations of home-cooked meals.

“It was more of an amateur, small event,” said Meghann Rumps-Perry, who co-founded the festival and now works for Journey’s End Refugee Services.

But in just a few years, the West Side – already the most ethnically diverse area in Buffalo – went through another resurgence, with thousands more immigrants and refugees settling in the area. The influx of cultures brought an influx of cultural establishments, with many new residents eager to bring their native customs out of their homes and into the streets. Now, people didn’t have to get Peruvian or Ethiopian or Caribbean food from a neighbor’s house – the neighbors were opening restaurants for that. At the Taste of Diversity, those restaurants could bring this new world of flavors to Lafayette Avenue, where the festival was held for several years.

“It’s still a developing festival,” sponsorship coordinator Silverman said, but “it’s been a natural growth. We’ve just grown with the neighborhood.”

And with the help of this festival, the neighborhood just keeps getting more diverse.

After Gabrielle Mattina, owner of the up-and-coming Gypsy Parlor, attended last year’s Taste of Diversity, she was inspired to start working on her own Mediterranean restaurant, which will open soon in the area.

“There was all this really great food that you don’t really get at any festival, and all these drummers and these dancers – it was so random, I couldn’t believe it,” Mattina said. “There’s no huge developer coming in and dumping a bunch of money for this. It’s a homegrown festival, and all these different cultures are bringing a flavor to it.”

As a sign of the festival’s growth, Taste of Diversity this year moves to Grant Street, between Lafayette and Auburn avenues, in the heart of the West Side’s growing business district. It’s a move that allows for the festival’s greatest diversity yet, with food trucks and a few new restaurants from other parts of the city – not to mention a lineup of international entertainment, including belly dancers and sitar players.

But Silverman said that, even if the festival is expected to grow each year, the plan is to keep the Taste of Diversity small – small enough, at least, to keep this globe-trotting festival focused on its West Side home.

Or as Paul Murphy, a member of the festival’s planning committee, put it, “I don’t need it to be another Taste of Buffalo. We want to keep an emphasis on this really ethnically diverse community.”