Food, faith and good fellowship
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.