Food, faith and good fel­low­ship

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­ Fol­low a map of his 10 days of fes­ti­val trav­els at http: //­ti­vals .

With­out a doubt, it’s the first time I’ve ever helped a frocked Ortho­dox priest push a fullystacked pal­let of Coke into a reefer truck.

Other guys are help­ing. There’s “T-Dawg,” who’s put his large Star­bucks down on the curb (and his large shoul­der to the task), and there’s a wiry guy, Mi­lad, in a blue shirt. It’s not even nine in the morn­ing, and the in­side of the reefer truck is redo­lent with the rich smell of gar­lic and mar­i­nated chicken and beef. It’s also nice and cool in there: I could sit on the floor and just breathe in the smells.

It’s only later that I re­al­ize the three guys are ex­actly who I’m look­ing for: Fa­ther Max­imus is the founder of Hal­i­fax’s Le­banese Fes­ti­val, T-Dawg is ac­tu­ally Tony Na­has, who owns Mezza res­tau­rant and is over­see­ing the fes­ti­val’s acres of food, and Mi­lad Saikali is a set-up co­or­di­na­tor.

This fes­ti­val is the sort of fes­ti­val you kind of get dropped into. Soon enough, and for the rest of the week­end, there will be mu­sic, singing and danc­ing and food, but right now, most of all, seven hours be­fore it starts, it’s mostly about com­mu­nity.

“The whole com­mu­nity comes to­gether,” Saikali says. “We have 200 vol­un­teers, 20 of them peo­ple who vol­un­teer through­out the year for plan­ning.”

This is the fes­ti­val’s 14th year; it was Fa­ther Max­imus’ brain­child, a re­sponse to the 9/11 at­tacks. One vol­un­teer tells me that an Ortho­dox church dat­ing to 1916 was near the foot of the Twin Tow­ers. The idea was to show unity among peo­ple.

The fes­ti­val is help­ing to fund the ren­o­va­tion of the con­gre­ga­tion’s new church. In an in­ter­est­ing piece of syn­ergy, it’s a con­verted Angli­can church that wasn’t needed af­ter the amal­ga­ma­tion of three parishes. Many of its tra­di­tional fea­tures, in­clud­ing spec­tac­u­lar stained glass win­dows, have been main­tained. It will be the new An­ti­ochian Chris­tian Church’s Saint An­to­nios Church.

It’s easy to see why there are so many vol­un­teers: I end up un­load­ing beer and help­ing haul it to the cool­ers. I help with the Tshirts, then it’s back to load­ing beer, this time into the reefer truck. It’s one of the only ways to get to talk to peo­ple.

Eli Hage, the fes­ti­val chair­man, is load­ing the beer fridge. Na­has is stick-han­dling the kitchen - “Where’s Tony?” is a con­stant chant. He comes to the reefer for trays of small cold cu­cum­bers. He has a cu­cum­ber. I have a cu­cum­ber. Another guy - I don’t know his name and he doesn’t seem to know any­one else - has a cu­cum­ber.

Saikali says the fes­ti­val’s now host­ing 10,000 visi­tors over the four days, in­clud­ing the province’s lieu­tenant-gover­nor.

The big­gest draw? Tra­di­tional Le­banese food - and lots of if.

“Peo­ple line up for the food be­fore we even open,” Saikali says. “Last year, we had peo­ple come by for lunch.”

This year, too: at pre­cisely 12:02 p.m., there are peo­ple at the gate. “So when does the fes­ti­val open?” they ask. It’s a ques­tion oft re­peated through­out the af­ter­noon.

I get to taste chicken, beef, freshly-made hum­mus, sea­soned rice wrapped in vine leaves; I can see why, in a few short hours, the place will be packed. I’m talk­ing to a vol­un­teer run­ning a small plan­ta­tion of pars­ley through a chop­ping ma­chine when Fa­ther Max­imus ap­pears next to us.

“Those pick­les, you’re go­ing to cut those, too,” he says. (“He’s very in­volved,” Saikali says. “We’ve tried to wean him off a lit­tle. But ...”)

The pick­les ar­rived in what the de­liv­ery guy said was a “small” or­der for this fes­ti­val: “just a few lit­tle things — some jugs of pick­les,” he said.

“Some jugs” is 15 bar­rels of “Gar­den Crisp Dill Pick­les Whole,” or, to be pre­cise, 285 litres of dill pick­les.

The rest of the food comes in equally large num­bers: Joseph Ma­jess, head chef at Mezza, has mar­i­nated all the meat. There’s more than 1,000 kilo­grams of chicken, 600 kilo­grams of beef, 100 kilo­grams of lamb, and the list goes on. In the kitchen, one woman is mix­ing what is easily 15 kilo­grams of thyme, su­mac and sesame with her hands in a mas­sive bowl.

The fes­ti­val used to run for just three days, Fri­day through Sun­day. Thurs­day’s kind of a soft launch, an op­por­tu­nity to start a lit­tle slower than a full day of fes­ti­val.

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