After Joe Valencic’s plane landed in Slovenia back in August, he didn’t have enough time to get to his hotel and check in. He was expected at the National/Official Slovenian Sausage Contest. “Well, that’s what it translates to, loosely,” he said. “I served as a judge and I also handed out awards. Only receiving just a chunk of each sausage, I didn’t get too stuffed.”
Less than a month later, Valencic, who is president of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum, was walking the grounds of the SNPJ Farm, at 10946 Heath Road in Kirtland, during the Sept. 14 Slovenian Sausage Festival, smiling and assessing the event’s popularity as dozens of people filtered through the entrance gate.
“We’re in our 13th year, and the fest brings a lot of folks to Lake County,” he said. “It’s always a great combination when you have polka music and sausage. Cleveland has the largest Slovenian concentration of people outside of Europe, so this event is always a big hit. “And we welcome everyone. Last year we had 1,500 people (come out). If the weather stays good, we may have even more.”
The SNPJ (Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota) Farm, which was founded in 1939, translates to Slovene National Benefit Society. The event, hosted by the Polka Hall of Fame, at 605 East 222nd St. in Euclid, allows attendees to cast their vote for the Top Klobása (Slovak sausage) from several sausage-makers and dance to various celebrated button box artists and polka bands, including Grammy Award-winning musician Walter Ostanek, also known as “Canada’s Polka King.”
Other outdoor events take place in addition, such as cornhole and bocce. During the fest, the iconic pork links are smoked and prepared with basic seasonings (salt, pepper and garlic), said Valencic. “We have five vendors this year and we conduct a blind taste test,” he said. “Prizes are awarded by people’s choice and the juried Best of Fest, where the winning sausage-maker becomes the official supplier to the three-day Thanksgiving Polka Weekend at the Cleveland Downtown Marriott Hotel.
“In attendance, also, as part of the jury is Andrej Rode, Consulate General of the Republic of Slovenia in Cleveland. He is the only foreign diplomat (living) in the state of Ohio,” Valencic said.
One of the first-year vendors included Harry’s Hofbrau, at 8500 Station St. in Mentor. Owner and Chef Tom Quick said he was glad to accept the festival’s invite.
“I’ve been here about two hours and have already sold a lot,” he said, adding that a bus from Michigan carrying about 100 people recently pulled into the parking area. “I’ve got about 300 (sausages), so I’ll keep going until I run out.” Attendees also take advantage of an assortment of sweet treats and other refreshments from vendors and the farm’s kitchen, with shirts, souvenirs and CDs available as well.
Mark Habat, Sr., vice president of the Polka Hall of Fame, and chairman of the festival, said the annual, circulating rumors of the celebration’s demise are highly exaggerated. “This is the biggest day of the year at this farm,” he said, gesturing toward the crowd. “Every year they say the fest is ‘dead,’ and every year we get a day like this. We just need a little publicity push and the fun continues. Organizing this is a labor of love, but it is well worth it. The community loves it.”