Editor’s Note: Click here to find 4 recipes for some of the these amazing Lebanese dishes or to order a cookbook published by The Women of St. George.
Photography by Jeffrey West
Every community has fundraisers: pancake suppers, catfish fries, spaghetti and turkey dinners and carnivals. However, in Vicksburg, as Lent approaches, appetites are focused on the 58th annual Lebanese Dinner prepared by the Women of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, which is celebrating its 111th anniversary. 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.
The event will be held on Monday, Feb. 5, in the church’s Baroudy Hall. Lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner is from 5-7 p.m. 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, because the dinner must precede 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. “The Lebanese dinner is important to our church because it’s our biggest fundraiser.”
Dinner funds 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.
Mrs. West adds, “The most important aspect of the dinner is the sense of community it brings. I’m not only not Lebanese, but also a convert to Orthodoxy. The people of St. George always made me feel like family, and that extends to anyone coming to our church – whether to attend services or help with the dinner. We’re so blessed that many who are not members help year after year.”
Rolled Cabbage Co-Chair Miriam Jabour, the former Vicksburg Post gardening columnist, points out that at least half of St. George’s congregation are 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 from observing preparations for the dinner.”
One 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 on the menu include 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. Take-out dinners are the same price. Coffee and water are on the tables. Those tempting Middle Eastern pastries—baklawa, sumbuski and ma’mool—are $1 each.
Kibbee, known as the national dish of Lebanon, is a rich recipe of double-ground beef (or, as in the “old country,” lamb), soaked Number Two cracked wheat, pine nuts, and herbs. It can be prepared fried (formed in oval balls), raw or baked, patted down into a pan as you would a mixture for meatloaf. A stuffing known as hoshwee can be prepared for fried and raw kibbee (or, if you prefer, baked), to be layered between the beef and cracked wheat mix. For this dinner, it’s served baked.
The church parking lot begins to fill and lines form at 10:30 a.m. 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 Mrs. Jabour, “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.”
Early on, due to 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. Dinnerware, 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.”
Back in the day, St. George was the anchor for the Lebanese community and also the local Greek residents. But in this close-knit group were Lebanese members of the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Episcopalian and Methodist Churches.
The dinner has become a treasured tradition that passes along to the next generation and converts how to make authentic dishes.
“People look forward to the dinner,” says Ms. West, “both for the wonderful food and visits with family and friends—not to mention talk about 50 years of shared memories.” They come from Jackson, Clinton, Port Gibson, Greenwood, Clarksdale, Natchez, and, across the Mississippi River Bridge, Louisiana. The event boosts the local economy, and many use the dinner as an excuse to spend a long weekend in Vicksburg.
The dinner is a multi-day and multi-tasking operation for volunteers. There are food and dessert committees, chairs for ticket sales, dining room set-up, and take-out. A number of the committee chairs have held their positions 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.
Ms. 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 time scheduled to core cabbage heads by the boxfuls and, once they are steamed, to prepare the leaves for stuffing with seasoned beef and rice and rolling them into cigar shapes the next day. The rolled cabbages 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 the 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 event is run like a well-oiled machine.
Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline. He can be reached at ENassour@aol.com.