Lebanese Food Festival: Made with love, served with pride, eaten with enthusiasm

The 250 families of the St. Anthony Maronite parish invite you to sample some culture, enjoy their beautiful grounds, and make yourself borderline ill on some of the most delicious food. We got a sneak peek.

What were you doing in February? Did you make 30,000 pies?

The families of the St. Anthony Maronite Church parish did. Oh, and on Monday of this week, they hulled and cleaned 2,000 pounds (that’s a literal ton!) of squash. In one day. Each day between the piemaking and the squash-hulling was filled with other spectacular culinary feats. All handmade with love and pride to feed you, hungry reader, at this weekend’s Lebanese Food Festival.

Sandra Joseph Brown, showing off the baked stuffed squash before they're cut and presented.

Sandra Joseph Brown, showing off the baked stuffed squash before they’re cut and presented.

At St. Anthony’s in Glen Allen, each one of the parish’s 250 families contributes time, labor, and talent to pulling off the festival, which has been running for 31 years. The brainchild of Monsignor George Sebaali, the festival was created as a way to keep the parish together. Now, four generations work hard at it for months, and not just cooking–setting up tents, learning to dance, rehearsing music.

“You can start being in a dance group when you’re four,” says Sandra Joseph Brown, who generously took a break from directing the 30 or so people swarming around the hundreds of metal trays of food in the church’s community center. “But we get a lot of tears from the really little ones who aren’t old enough yet. Everyone wants to be involved.”

Even the parish’s college students will come home to help out (two young men fit that description that day, wearing aprons, working hard, and looking positively cheerful about it).

I learned that there’s a for-real hierarchy among the cooks. Brown explained to me that “there are about 20 who are the pros, and they can do about four to one what the rest of us can.” Her mother, Barbara, is one of these pros. She and four others give me a demonstration on how to stuff squash with the rice and beef mixture. All agree that it’s one of their favorite dishes to make, and each gives me a morsel of advice on how best to do it (FYI: Do not fill too full, tap it on the table to let it all settle, cleaning the squash is the hardest part, eating it is divine.)

Betty Simon, Regina Shaar Loher, Barbara Joseph, Eva Fadool, and Alicia Azar. The former three are cousins, and the latter two are sisters. I love this place.

Betty Simon, Regina Shaar Loher, Barbara Joseph, Eva Fadool, and Alicia Azar. The former three are cousins, and the latter two are sisters. I love this place.

“Can you see the pride involved?” asks Brown as we watch. And I definitely can. These are generations-old flavors that–though bickering happens every year over whose version is best–are not only being preserved through this festival, but passed along to the greater Richmond community at large.

When I ask these VIPs if it feels good to walk through the festival and see people enjoying the food, they all speak at once in a resounding affirmative.

Do not fill too full!

Do not fill too full!

Lebanese food shares so much with its Mediterranean neighbors, Greek and Armenian–olive oil, lean meats, grape leaves. “It’s like when you talk about your favorite of your mother’s recipes versus somebody else’s mother’s,” explains Brown. “We love it all, but of course there are variations.”

Lemon, parsley, thyme, and allspice take a front seat in Lebanese cuisine more than they might in their counterparts’. They recently finished making 500 gallons of loubiyeh, the vegetarian string bean dish. The quantities are blowing my mind, but that’s what you’ve got to prepare when you’re cooking for more than 20,000 eaters. This week, they’re working from early morning until late in the day to prepare the last-minute stuff–things like falafel.

“Mediterranean food is healthy, and a lot of it is vegetarian,” says Brown, but don’t worry, people who fear vitamins and nutrients. You can still walk out of here uncomfortably full, having only spent $15 or so.

In fact, now might be a good time to take a gander at the menu (PDF). It’s currently making me tear up with impatience, like those three-year-olds who just want to dance.

Stuffed squash, the finished product!

Stuffed squash, the finished product!

When I ask Sandra Joseph Brown to name her favorite of the 34 dishes they’ll have available, she can’t. “It truly depends on what time of day it is or what I’m in the mood for. If it’s in the morning, I might have zalabia, which is our fried dough dipped in syrup, and then later I might have shawirma [broiled, spiced meat with pita and tahini].”

She thinks for awhile but still comes up short of a favorite. “By the time the festival is over, I’ll probably have eaten some of everything. We love it all! It’s the same things we make at home in our kitchens, and that’s what makes it so personal for us.”

I change tacks and ask what her favorite dish is that her mother makes at home. “Kibbee,” she says, almost before I’ve even finished my question. No hesitation there.

Lebanese Food Festival Details

  • Friday, May 15th — Sunday, May 17th • 10:00 AM – 10:00 PM (8:00 PM on Sunday)
  • St. Anthony Maronite Church, 4611 Sadler Road
  • Free to attend, low low prices for food (see site). For the first time this year, they’ll offer free satellite parking at Markel (4521 Highwoods Parkway) from 4:00 PM – 10:00 PM on Friday and Saturday and 4:00 PM – 8:00 PM on Sunday, with shuttle service to the festival.
  • The festival is rain or shain, with plenty of tent and indoor space in case of rain. Also, there are some awesome playground facilities, and lots of room for a picnic.
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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