On January 31, 2023, volunteers and parishioners from Saint Anthony Church gathered in the church’s kitchen to start preparing food for the 38th Lebanese Food Festival, held this year May 19, 20, and 21. It was the first of twenty-seven cooking sessions leading up to the festival, which will draw up to 40,000 attendees.
Over those twenty-seven sessions, volunteers will have made 40,000 three-inch, hand-folded and rolled stuffed grape leaves. Lined up, they would stretch from the Goochland County line on Broad Street to St. Anthony’s in Glen Allen.
Volunteers have also made 1,500 pounds of baked kibbee, a traditional Middle Eastern meat dish, 40,000 handmade pastries and close to one hundred gallons of syrup to go with those pastries. During the last week before the festival, 3,000 pounds of yellow gooseneck squash will be hulled out and stuffed with ground beef, rice, and Middle Eastern spices.
“We’ve already soaked 500 pounds of fava beans and ground and premixed the falafel,” says Sandra Joseph Brown, a parishioner and volunteer.
Brown is pleased with the number and level of volunteers for this year’s festival.
“Because of the devastation in Lebanon with the bombing and collapse of the economy, we have had a large number of Lebanese families come to the U.S. Many have come to Saint Anthony’s because they have family here. They see keeping the culture alive a priority like we do. They are embracing what we are doing and are very much a part of our identity,” she says.
In addition, the volume of young adult volunteers from the parish has been unbelievable, she says. “We would not be able to manage the festival without them because it grows exponentially.”
The festival has multi-generational families that participate. For example, this year there will be a passing of the torch to the third generation of the Okey family who were the original makers of the ever popular zalabia (fried donuts).
“They have embraced it,” Brown says. “They have taken charge and are moving forward with the booth.”
Already, more than 150 gallons of syrup have been made for the zalabia. “During the festival, we will go through 4,000 pounds of flour and sugar making the fried dough,” Brown says. “As a kid, I used to have it on New Year’s Day because it was supposed to bring you good luck.”
She is proud of the fact that the volunteers in production have beaten every deadline this year.
“We are ahead of the game. Our young adults ages eighteen to thirty-two have really stepped up,” she says. “They realize they are the future of the festival.”
For more information on the Lebanese Food Festival, which runs May 19 through 21, visit lebanesefoodfestival.com.