‘Maronite marathon’

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.
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