By Anne Ruisi
Annette Ritchey remembers visiting her grandfather’s homeland of Greece at 13 and watching people stomp grapes on one of the islands.
Years later, on a recent Saturday morning, she was in the parish hall of St. George Melkite-Greek Catholic Church on Birmingham’s Southside working with other church volunteers to use another part of the grapevine to make warak – rolled grape leaves stuffed with meat, rice and fragrant spices – for the church’s 40th annual Middle Eastern Food Festival being held Sept. 22-24.
“We do the grape leaves over two days. We’ll make 18,000,” said Ritchey, a North Shelby County resident who is co-chair of this year’s festival with her son, Jeremy Ritchey of Hoover.
The festival is an annual event at the 101-year-old church featuring traditional favorites based on church members’ family recipes passed down through the generations.
Falafel, meat pies, spinach pies and hummus are on the menu, as are kibbe – a baked ground beef dish mixed with cracked wheat and spices – golden baked chicken and green beans simmered with crushed tomatoes, spices, onions and garlic. Sweets for dessert include pastries such as baklava and zalabieh, or Arabic doughnuts. Booza, a type of Arabic ice cream, and Arabic coffee will be available.
The menu is online at www.saintgeorgeonline.org and everything is prepared in the parish hall’s commercial kitchen.
About 8,000 people will be served during the three-day festival, Jeremy Ritchey said.
Preparing all that food is a Herculean effort. Everyone pitches in, including several children who came with their parents.
“The kids all have a job. The small ones might put trays on a rack and push the racks to the kitchen,” Annette Ritchey said.
“This is a family affair,” noted volunteer Suzan Megerdigian of Hoover.
Work has been going on since early July, with members cooking different menu items on Saturday mornings. In mid-August, for example, church members cooked 1,500 pounds of kibbee – that’s 500 pounds short of a ton.
They’ve also made 4,098 pieces of falafel, 5,800 meat pies, 2,800 half chickens, 900 mamoul cookies and 4,200 ka’ak cookies in plain and date varieties, Annette Ritchey said.
The ka’ak cookies are circular rings representing that God is never ending, she said.
JoAnn Shahid added that the ka’ak is made using a Lebanese recipe from the family of her husband, Rickey Shahid.
On a recent Saturday cooking effort, about 80 church members worked on the rolled grape leaves.
Piles of prepared grape leaves were set before the dozens of volunteers, who took a leaf off the pile, placed a healthy dollop of the meat mixture onto the green leaf and carefully rolled it into a cylinder, tucking the sides in to create a neat roll.
Megerdigian and another volunteer, Jeanine Danforah of Vestavia Hills, recalled making rolled grape leaves with their own mothers when they were young, and it’s a tradition they’ve passed on to their own children.
While making rolled grape leaves is the main task today, a number of volunteers are working on making the last 1,000 spinach pies of the 7,000 being prepared for the festival. They place a small mound of spinach mixed with chopped onions, lemon juice and spices on a round of yeast dough and fold the edges to create a triangle.
The triangles are partly baked so the dough rises, then cooled down and placed in the church hall’s walk-in freezer, along with all the other food prepared in advance. Each day of the festival, the spinach pies will be thawed and then warmed, which will finish the baking process.
The Rev. Justin Rose, St. George’s pastor, said it was humbling that so many church members have volunteered.
Rose said he’s happy the church can contribute to the cultural renaissance he’s seen in Birmingham in the past few years.
This year’s food festival has a full menu, unlike the menu last year, which was abbreviated because of the COVID pandemic, Annette Ritchey said. Arabic salad is back, and individual sweets are, too. Last year, sweets were served in variety boxes. This year, they will be served in packages of two.
Church members will make the sweets Sept. 10.
Festivalgoers will not only have a lot of food to try. There will be continuous guided church tours during the festival, many led by church member Rosalie Ritchey of Hoover.
“I love this church and I am so proud of this church. Giving tours, to me, is one of my favorite things to do,” Rosalie Ritchey said. She said the highlight of the tour for her is to see scripture come alive through the icons in the church.
Vendors will be selling items such as hand-carved olive wood from the Holy Land, Byzantine icons and literature, glass jewelry made from the church’s original stained glass and the church’s cookbook, “Our Favorite Recipes.”
Entertainment will be available throughout the weekend, including performances from Amin and the Sultans, a band from New York that plays Middle Eastern music, and cultural dancing by the children of the parish.
All this helps the church, which is Catholic but follows the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and its members share their culture, Annette Ritchey said.
“We want people to see what Middle Eastern Christians are like,” her son added.