My meal at the St. James Food Festival, with kibbeh, malmouf (cabbage rolls), hummus, pita, and salad.
In Greater Cincinnati, June is the month of Middle Eastern church food festivals. Probably the most well known is the Panegyri Festival, celebrated by the Greek Orthodox community of St. Nicholas-Holy Trinity Church in Finneytown. The Maronite Catholic community of St. Anthony of Padua in Walnut Hills, celebrates their festival the same weekend. St. Anthony is made up of Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Israeli immigrants. The Maronite Catholics were united in speaking Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and was the only of the Eastern churches to maintain ties to the Pope. Finally, there’s the community of St. James in Loveland , which is made up of Syro-Levantine Christian Arabs, refugees from the former Ottoman Empire, who come from chiefly Turkey, Damascus and Aleppo, Syria; and Beirut, Lebanon.
All three have been home parishes of the Cincinnati Chili pioneers who hailed from Greece, Turkey, the former Macedonia, and Jordan. The Kiradjieffs of Empress and the Lambrinides of Skyline congregated around St. Nicholas, while the Jordanian Daouds of Gold Star helped to start the St. James community. Other pioneers, like the Mislehs, who owned Skyline franchises and other restaurants, congregated around St. Anthony.
It’s a complicated history between the Arabs, Armenians, Greeks and Turks, but their food is very similar. Theirs is the food of the New Testament. The foods are thousands of years old, and, as many doctors now promote, it’s some of the heart-healthiest cuisine in the world.
This past weekend was the start of this season with St. James Antiochan Orthodox Church’s food festival. They’ve opened their community for this wonderful food festival for the past ten years. I’d never gone, so decided to go this past Sunday for a taste of this wonderful Levantine food. Like the Greek Panegyri festival, some of the highlights at St. James, were the desserts. The Maamoul, were my favorite. They’re round Easter cookies filled with dates, to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns. They could be described as a round, crispy fig newton.
Lebanese desserts at the St. James Food Festival – the delicious maamoul are the round date-filled cookies in the foreground.
The Western Church was not so nice to the Eastern Church, and it’s no surprise there was a schism. During the crusades, the Western Church stole the majority of the relics of the early church from what would become the Orthodox churches, for ‘safe keeping in the West’ from the Muslim invaders. But, we never returned any of this holy booty. Emperor Constantine and his mother famously went on relic collecting trips to the Middle East, securing such items as the true cross, while other crusaders stole the Shroud of Turin, and the Mandylion of Edessa, purported to be the image of the risen Christ transposed onto a silk shroud, lain on his face in the tomb, and often mistaken to be the Shroud of Veronica. There’s still an argument over whether the Vatican’s shroud of Veronica, and one an isolated town in Italy called Mannoppelo is the true Mandylion of Christ from the tomb.
The icon of Christ at the entrance to St. James Church, based on the Mandylion of Edessa.
In addition to stealing the East’s holy Christian relics, we also did a good job of stealing their foods. Austro-Germanic strudel, for example is said to be a modification of baklava. We took the Turkish baharat spice blend, fused it into the Greek makaroni mi kima, and created Cincinnati style chili threeways. We stole their cabbage rolls – that the Lebanese call Malfouf. And, as it turns out, we might have stolen what would become goetta from a Middle Eastern food cousin called kibbeh.
Kibbeh is the national dish of Lebanon, and is made with ground beef, bulgar or cracked wheat, pine nuts, fine chopped onions and assorted spices. Ask a chef from the Middle East how to make kibbeh and you will get different answers from each chef. Like goetta, it’s an ingenious way to extend meat scraps with a grain, in this case cracked wheat instead of steel cut oats. The St. James festival’s version is a crispy, deep fried, football shaped, oversized meatball. The taste is remarkably similar to goetta and is delicious. As took my first bite of the kibbeh, I felt myself wanting to dress it with ketchup, as I do my crispy goetta. But kibbeh is at least a millenia older than goetta, and so wins the origin award.
The next time I sit down to a plate of crispy goetta, I’ll think of it as a holy food with an old heritage spanning back to the time of Jesus. I wonder how Jesus would have dressed his kibbeh?