Marian Days

I started writing up a whole thing about how I didn’t have anything to talk about and how I’m pretty sure that meant my brain was broken, but then I remembered A Thing I Did, so I made friends with the delete key and started over.

A couple weeks ago I did a fun thing with a couple of friends, even though we were in the middle of an extended heat advisory: we went to Marian Days!

“What is Marian Days?” I hear many of you asking, picturing a festival celebrating little old grannies, or Robin Hood’s main squeeze, or one of my favorite authors whose name is often misspelled (but not usually that way). I suppose, in theory, there could be festivals of the same name for any of those things, but the Marian Days that I’m talking about is an annual event in the next town over, Carthage, and is a convention of Vietnamese-American Catholics in celebration of the Virgin Mary.

“Holly, that sounds very specific,” I hear you say skeptically, because you and I both know that the most convincing lies feature specific details. I also hear your unvoiced questions of, “I didn’t know you were Vietnamese. Or Catholic. Who are you?” I’m a terrible liar (not as in, I’m pathological, but as in I’m really bad at lying), which almost makes those details seem more like I’m telling a bizarre lie, but unless I’ve been woefully misinformed, that is actually what the festival is, and I’m not Vietnamese or Catholic, so I haven’t been deceiving you about my identity (those would be bizarre deceptions, though, wouldn’t they? Why?) I am, however, always appreciative for chances to experience other cultures and this is the kind of cultural opportunity that is very rare in the Ozarks. Except, I guess, for the fact that it happens every year, same place, same time.

Marian Days is a big deal, though, on big years bringing as many as 80,000 people to Carthage (a town of about 14,000 for comparison). Locals tend to have one of two sentiments about the festival. They either grumble about it and hate it (sometimes for legitimate frustrations like road closures and massive traffic influx, but usually it’s just thinly-veiled racism, or open, blatant racism; this is the Ozarks after all), or they love it. I fall into this second category.

While the gathering is by definition a religious one, with nightly outdoor mass and prayer services, it is open to the public and if Catholicism isn’t your thing, it’s pretty easy to overlook if you don’t speak Vietnamese (I sure don’t). The festivities take place on a 28-acre campus that I’ve been told used to be a monastery but now is a seminary, or maybe vice-versa, or used to be each of those and now is something else. Either way, it’s a big expanse of land and in the weeks leading up to Marian Days, the grounds fill with sprawling tents that will serve as meeting points for members of various congregations arriving from around the country, pop-up markets for fresh produce, and food tents serving a wide variety of Vietnamese cuisine.

The cuisine is the main draw for local attendees (who are generally not Vietnamese Americans). This was only my second or third visit to Marian Days, but each time I am astounded at how immersive an experience it is. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but as soon as you step onto the grounds, it’s easy to imagine you’re not in the Ozarks anymore. Signs at all the food tents and at the large gift shop are all in Vietnamese. Most have English translations, but not all of them. White people are suddenly the minority, and if a service is going, it’s easy to forget that everyone around you definitely can speak English, even if they might not be doing so at that moment. It’s brilliant and beautiful and so much fun (not to mention a much shorter journey than a 20 hour flight).

The festival takes place the first Thursday through Sunday of each August, with Saturday being the busiest. My friends and I went for dinner Thursday evening before the crowd got too unbearable, which was a good decision because the heat was pretty oppressive as it was. There were so many options of places to eat, and while many of them have similar options (there’s a lot of pho, and bahn mi, and sea food), they’re all a little different. Darcy, with the most experience (a Marian Days veteran, if you will, not to be confused with at Vietnam veteran), chose a tent she’d liked in the past. Pork features heavily in a lot of East Asian dishes, and pho is typically beef-based. Since I don’t eat either of those, I had to pick a little more carefully from the menu (although Darcy and Krista said the pho was unbelievable). I opted for soft summer rolls, and while I had to remove a few thin slices of pork, it wasn’t difficult and the rolls were a nice refreshing option in the heat. Kalen and I often get similar rolls from our favorite Thai restaurant, and I lovingly refer to them as tube salad.

The most popular item from the vast sprawl of tents is boba. There are more boba tents than I can keep track of, many offering flavors that aren’t especially common around here. I mean, there aren’t a ton of places to get boba here anyway, but even those don’t usually have avocado, durian, or green bean pennywort smoothies. (I still have no idea what “green bean pennywort” even means, but it was definitely on the sign.) Of course, there were flavors I was familiar with, too, though, like cappuccino, strawberry, mango, and piña colada. The tents are prepared for large crowds and have an amazing system to keep the line moving. When you order, you give your money to the first worker while the second server flips through a box of laminated cards containing every option they offer (every flavor, with or without boba), and gives you the one you asked for.

Then you join the crowd waiting while a crew in the back bustles around making the drinks before handing them to an announcer with a microphone who calls out whatever drink has been handed to her, calling the flavor in both Vietnamese and English. It’s kind of like bingo, except someone wins every time. You exchange your card for the drink, and move out of the way for the next people. They’ve clearly worked on the process for some time to perfect it, and the drinks were especially refreshing in the still August heat (I had the taro flavored one, which I hadn’t tried before. I can’t quite describe it, but it was really nice and not overly sweet).

My favorite treat, though, is something we discovered by accident a few years ago, when we were no longer looking for food. We were already full, and hot, and tired, and had wandered away from the main tent area to see some of the other parts of the grounds when we saw one more little tent ladling a beautiful pastel green batter into a waffle maker and we tasted the joy of the pandan waffle.

Pandan is a tropical shrub that is used in southeast Asian cuisine and has a subtle vanilla-like flavor and a beautiful green color. I have long felt betrayed by matcha for being such a stunning color but tasting rather disappointingly like the underside of a lawn mower. Pandan is a similar color but actually tastes nice. (Aside from being green and found in Asian cuisines, I don’t think they really have much of anything in common).

Of course, when you cook the waffle batter, it browns a little, but the green is still there, and the end result is a gorgeous, lightly sweet, almost custardy waffle, served hot off the griddle waffle iron. Even if you never visit Marian Days, if someone offers you a pandan waffle, you should take it. I mean, unless they picked it out of the trash or something. Maybe don’t take that one. But a fresh, clean pandan waffle? You don’t know what you’re missing.

There are also market tents with Asian produce where you can buy jackfruit, durian, lychee, and other fruits and vegetables that, in the US are typically only found in specialty markets. I also enjoy seeing the station where crews make the rice paper wraps that are used to roll up spring and summer rolls. As we were visiting at the very beginning of the festival this time, the station was set up but not in operation. Other times, you can watch as the workers move in sync to create the gelatinous wraps, spreading the rice mixture over a screen and covering it to steam while preparing the next screen. The cover is then moved from the first screen to the second and the first wrap is carefully removed and given to a second worker who adds the rice paper wrap to a stack that will eventually go to someone preparing summer rolls. It’s like a dance, so perfectly timed and choreographed.

It’s only been a couple weeks since this year’s Marian Days, but I’m already looking forward to next year.

6 thoughts on “Marian Days

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  1. I had never heard of pandan before. It’s not on our local menus but I look forward to finding it someday 😋

    1. Oh I hope you do! I’ve only found it here in waffles, and in a baked roll in London’s Chinatown. You’ll have to let me know what you think when you do get to try it!

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