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Lebanese Food Festival Requires Community in the Kitchen

Janet Fodill, Theresa Shibley, her uncle Eddie Shibley, and Tom Brown and his wife, Sandra Joseph Brown, are MVPs in the kitchen. The five longtime parishioners of St. Anthony’s Maronite Catholic Church are part of over 250 families that volunteer to prepare for and work the Lebanese Food Festival.

All are 34-year “kitchen” veterans of the festival, started in 1984 by Monsignor George M. Sebaali of the church. “We do all the foods we can prepare ahead,” says Janet. “We do all the time consuming work.”

Their work begins in mid-February and runs through the festival, this year May 18 through 20. Senior cook, Eddie, who is eighty-nine years young, comes to the church every Tuesday to prepare food. “I like being out here with these people,” he says, pointing to the volunteers scurrying around the kitchen. “It’s a job that has to be done.”

Among the items they make are the popular cheese, spinach and cheese and spinach combo pies. They make over 40,000 of these tasty treats. And, they sell out every year. “They are our specialty,” says Theresa. “They’re made from scratch. They don’t look like cookie-cutter pies.”

Each of the women making the pies “has her way of folding them into a triangle,” adds Tom.

Another task at hand: rolling the three-inch-long stuffed grape leaves. “If you put them end-by-end, they can stretch from St. Anthony’s to the Goochland County line on Broad Street and back,” says Sandra. “We also make about 800 pounds of baked kibbee – Lebanese baked meat loaf.”

The festival started as an event for the church community and friends. By year twelve, the number of people attending had doubled. “We began growing exponentially,” says Sandra.

The recipes they use are handed down from generation to generation. “We don’t cut any corners,” Sandra says. “We cook like we would cook for our family.”

The festival draws well over 30,000 people each year. “And, we continue to get bigger,” Sandra says. “We are blessed to have a wonderful showing of people. They come from as far away as Washington, D.C., Charlottesville, and Southwest Virginia. They come from all over.”

In addition to all the menu items, the festival features live entertainment. This year, the professional Saint Rafqa Choir from Lebanon will perform both Friday and Saturday night at 7 p.m. “They have toured all over the world,” Sandra says.

Dance groups from the parish perform as well. “We have dance troupes that start dancing at the age of three,” Sandra says.

And there will be music from the Mazloom family, which has played at the festival for thirty-four years.

“We know this festival is going to keep our church and our traditions alive,” says Theresa. “We feel it’s very important to showcase our culture and our food.”

Visit the Lebanese Food Festival for more information.

An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.

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