Vicksburg’s St. George Orthodox Church Lebanese Dinner, February 5th, Is a Treasured Annual Tradition
by Ellis Nassour
Every community has fundraisers: pancake suppers, catfish fries, spaghetti and turkey dinners, carnivals. However, in Vicksburg, as Lent approaches, appetites are focused on the annual Lebanese dinner prepared by the Women of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, now celebrating the 111th anniversary of its founding. It’s a much-anticipated tasting extravaganza of savory Mediterranean dishes, mainly Lebanese and Syrian; and one of the largest of its kind in the state.
This year’s event is the 58th annual on Monday, February 5, in church’s Baroudy Hall [2709 South Washington Street at Bomar Avenue].
Lunch is 11 to 2 P.M.; dinner, 5-7. The date is set four to six months in advance, not only to order the massive commodities needed and begin prep, but, according to custom, the dinner must precede the Orthodox Lent.
“Our dinner celebrates the Old World traditions, charm and certainly the culinary talents passed down from generation to generation to mother and daughter, even sons,” says Lori West, president of the Women of St. George, who works in quality control manager at Clinton’s Gulf States Canning. She’s not only not Lebanese, but also a convert to Orthodoxy.
A longtime auxiliary member active in the dinner preparation says, “We haven’t changed the menu in years. It’s what the customers want!” And they come. The annual event attracts state, county and local officials and ministers from other faiths. Lunch and dinner are always sold out, and there’s always a long line for take-out.
Classic favorites served are kibbee, rolled cabbage, and the popular Lebanese salad tabouli (soaked cracked wheat, diced tomatoes, parsley, and seasoning). The $13 plate also includes savory green beans in tomato sauce, and pita bread. Coffee and water are on the tables. Middle Eastern pastries baklawa and nut-filled sumbuski and ma’mool are $1. Take-out meals are the same price.
Kibbee, known as the national dish of Lebanon, is a rich recipe of double-ground beef, soaked Number Two cracked wheat, pine nuts, and herbs. It can be prepared baked, fried (formed in oval balls), and raw. For the dinner, it’s served baked It is served fried, baked kibbee, and raw.
The church parking lot begins to fill and lines form at 10:30. Within an hour, the lot and area parking spaces are full. Police and county deputies direct traffic.
At the start, St. George’s women’s auxiliary couldn’t foresee dinners 57 years hence, “but,” says Dolores Nosser, sister of the first dinner co-chair, Polly Nasif, “With Vicksburg’s large Lebanese community and many Lebanese businesses [that have included supermarkets, restaurants, and clothing stores] and catering done by several church ladies, non-Lebanese were familiar with our food. They figured people would come, and they have never let us down. We had no idea how large it would become! One thing that hasn’t changed is the amount of work.”
However, states rolled cabbage co-chair Miriam Jabour, the former Vicksburg Post gardening columnist, “Church members don’t mind the work because our goal is to offset church expenses. Since everyone works with one purpose,
the dinner also strengthens and enriches our church family and our standing in the community.”
Funds dinner helped build a new church, dedicated in 1967, with modern amenities such as offices, Sunday school rooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and Baroudy Hall, named in memory of a decades-long and much beloved pastor.
Early on, because of lack of space at the former church building, dinners were held downtown at the B’nai B’rith Club. Parishioners made the various dishes at home. Dinner ware, glasses, and silverware were used. The kids rolled the silver in napkins. Everything was washed and dried by hand. Now, Baroudy Hall has a heavy-duty dishwasher; and everything on the tables is disposable. However, many of the pans still must be scrubbed by hand.
“We ran out of food a few times,” states Mrs. Nasif’s daughter Donna Thornton, a former publicity chair for the dinner. “There’s a great outpouring of fellowship among the congregation and community. Church members, often entire families, work very hard for weeks and weeks in food preparation. The one thing that keeps us going is there’s always laughter.”
The annual dinner is occasion to see old friends not only from Vicksburg, but Jackson, Port Gibson, Natchez, and, across the Mississippi River Bridge in Louisiana. Many who have moved away from Vicksburg here use the dinner as an excuse to spend a long weekend and to enjoy food they don’t often have. The dinner is a treasured tradition of passing along to the next generation and converts, such as Mrs.West, how to make authentic dishes.
Mrs. Jabour points out, that at least half of St. George’s congregation is converts. “I grew up Methodist and, before moving to Vicksburg, I’d never tasted Lebanese food. I learned to prepare it from my late mother-in-law and observing preparations for the dinner.”
The dinner is a multi-day and multi-tasking operation for volunteers. There are food and dessert committees, and chairs for ticket sales, dining room set-up, and take-out. A number of the committee chairs have held their position for years. They joke that once you have the job, the only way to lose it is in death – and, still, they’re doing their jobs in heaven.
Another joke, but this one among city business owners, is that they know they
better purchase tickets if they don’t want to hear about it from St. George congregates.
Mrs. West states that some 12,500 cabbage rolls and 4,000 squares of kibbee are served. Meals served are usually in excess of 3,500. On the rare occasion when there are left-overs, parishioners are eager to purchase.
The Friday before the dinner, prep begins in earnest with hours scheduled to core cabbage heads by the boxfuls and the next day, once they are steamed, preparing the leaves for stuffing with seasoned beef and rice and rolling them into cigar shapes. The rolled cabbage are stacked in restaurant kitchen-sized warmers so they’ll be cotton-soft when served.
Following Sunday service, the volunteers gather to prep green beans and wheat is soaked and tomatoes diced for tabouli. That night, the food assembly plant is transformed into a dining room. When the doors open the next morning, the dinner is run like a well-oiled machine.
What it takes to make the Lebanese Dinner
Kibbee: 200 lbs. of Number 2 cracked wheat; 300 lbs. of double-ground ground round; 100 lbs., ground chuck and 10 lbs., pine nuts for stuffing
Rolled cabbage: 150 lbs. of cabbage; 250 lbs., ground round; 250 lbs., rice
Tabouli: 50 lbs. of Number 2 cracked wheat; 280 lbs., tomatoes; 450 lbs., lettuce; 70 lbs., green onions; 80 lbs., parsley; 70 lbs., green onions
Green beans: 250 gallons of cut green beans; 30 lbs., chopped onions; five lbs., chopped garlic; 24 gallons, tomato sauce; 12 gallons, chopped tomatoes
Pita bread: 3, 840 pieces of pocket bread