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‘Maronite marathon’

Church members gear up for 27th annual Lebanese Food Festival
Nazira Haboush (left) and Dalal El-Jour prepare food for the Lebanese Food Festival.
Take a few hundred pounds of grape and cabbage leaves, another few hundred pounds of ground lamb, an army of industrious volunteers and what do you get?

Enough Lebanese delicacies to last through the weekend – you hope.

When the 27th annual Lebanese Food Festival opens May 13 at 10 a.m., it will bring an end to months of preparation for the volunteers from St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Church – and launch a three-day weekend of even more frenzied chopping, baking, stuffing and grilling.

As an estimated crowd of 20,000 hungry festival-goers descends on the church's 15-acre campus to gorge on shawirma, bubbaghanooge, zalabia and other Lebanese treats, church members circle the wagons: four refrigerated trucks to hold all the fresh ingredients.

One entire truck is dedicated to storing the vegetables for tabouli – a mixture of parsley, cracked wheat, onion and tomato that must be hand-chopped. At least half the festival offerings will be made fresh over the weekend, according to festival spokeswoman Sandra Joseph Brown.

"We call it the Maronite Marathon," says Brown.

Pie wars
As for the rest of the menu items, they got their start on the first Tuesday in February, when volunteers begin meeting two or more days a week in the banquet hall behind the church to stuff squash, make meat, cheese and spinach pies and roll cabbage and grape leaves to freeze for the festival.

They'll need 24,000 pies – enough to sell one every four seconds on festival weekend. The volunteers jokingly call this stage of preparation, and the friendly competitions it inspires between the workers, the "Pie Wars."

As volunteers sat down March 29 to begin stuffing and rolling 1500 pounds of raw grape leaves and cabbage leaves – enough leaves, it's been estimated, to stretch from St. Anthony's to Short Pump Town Center if laid end to end – they did not appear the least bit daunted by the task.

On the contrary; they were just relieved to have finished the meat pies.

"We're always glad to get those over with," said Rosie Shaia, one of the volunteer coordinators. "They're so messy because of the flour."

As the women worked, they gossiped about celebrities, speculated on the outcome of "Dancing with the Stars" – and laughed a lot.

"We don't just work," said Shaia. "We talk; we celebrate birthdays.

"But," she added with an amused smile, "I crack the whip if they get too lazy!"

Going to pot
Held annually on the weekend after Mother's Day, the festival began more than two decades ago as a Sunday picnic, and has grown to become a popular family and community event – one of the largest festivals in the Richmond area.

So, while the ladies of St. Anthony's will enjoy their Mother's Day meals, gifts and family get-togethers as much as anyone else, they will also be bracing themselves for the "Mother's Day hangover" of intense preparation that begins first thing next morning.

"We start on Monday and go round the clock," says Shaia.

On Friday, as little Sadler Road becomes a bumper-to-bumper thoroughfare and cars stream into the parking lot, the pace picks up a hundredfold. Some 300 volunteers are needed to staff the festival itself.

"We're all here all week," says Theresa Esper, a veteran of 24 years with the festival. "The house goes to pot. And so does the family!"

From the smile on her face, however, it's plain she can't imagine spending Mother's Day week any other way.

The Lebanese Food Festival will take place May 13-15 at St. Anthony's Maronite Catholic Church, 4611 Sadler Road in Glen Allen. For details and a complete menu, visit stanthonymaronitechurch.org, or call 346-1161 or 270-7234.


Community

Garden tails

The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.

Western Henrico Rotary helps fund Midwives For Haiti Jeep


Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.

The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.

Agencies combine on new entry point to Chickahominy


Canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts soon will have a new access point to the Chickahominy River. VDOT, the James River Association and Henrico County Parks and Recreation are teaming up to establish a new site in Eastern Henrico.

The James River Association negotiated the deal with VDOT to procure official access to the area located just east of I-295 on North Airport Road in Sandston. The site includes a park-and-ride commuter lot bordering the Chickahominy River and has been an unofficial launch site used by paddlers for years. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


An eclectic array of events are taking place this weekend throughout the county. In the West End, we have the Richmond Wedding Expo, the Under the Stars Family Film Series and Henrico Theatre Company’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” In the eastern part of the county, we have a blood drive at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, Gallmeyer Farm’s annual Sweet Corn Festival and an origami workshop at Fairfield Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

New Italian restaurant opens in Short Pump

Charlottesville's Bella’s Restaurant recently opened a location in Short Pump Village, at 11408 West Broad Street. The restaurant is owned by Valeria Biesnti, a native of Rome who arrived in the U.S. at age 21 and later became a U.S. citizen. With her restaurants, Bisenti has sought to create an ambiance that welcomes diners in a casual setting, like her favorites from her hometown. > Read more.

Henrico native to appear on Travel Channel show


A Henrico native will appear on the third episode of the Travel Channel's new grilling competition series “American Grilled.”

The episode, filmed in Charlottesville, will premier July 16 at 9 p.m. and feature Glen Allen-native Rex Holmes, a patent lawyer who operates http://SavoryReviews.com a blo,g centered around tasty recipes and BBQ.

The show features hardcore grilling enthusiasts from across the country going head-to-head for a chance to compete for a $10,000 cash prize and bragging rights when they are crowned the ultimate “grill master.” > Read more.

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