Ethnic churches in St. Louis offer international fare

Monday, June 16, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Got a hankering for roast pork, dumplings, sauerkraut and the Eastern European pastry called kolacky? Head to St. John Nepomuk, the first Czech Catholic church in America, just south of downtown St. Louis.

Or is it cevap, sarma, or djuvedic you're craving? The veal and pork sausage, pigs in a blanket and the rice dish are on the menu at Holy Trinity Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church on the city's near south side.

St. Louis' panoply of spired, 19th-century churches fed the spirits of the city's German, Italian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Croatian, Greek and Lebanese immigrants -- and still serve their descendants.

Now, those churches also sate the appetites of lunchtime and festival crowds hungry for ethnic fare. At least three -- two Greek Orthodox and one Lebanese Maronite Catholic -- serve weekly lunches patronized by business people, professionals, police, blue-collar workers, families, school groups and tourists.

Other churches open their dining halls monthly or at festivals celebrating saints days or national holidays, like the upcoming Croatian Day feast at St. Joseph Croatian Catholic Church, serving newly arrived Croatians from Bosnia, in the city's Soulard neighborhood.

The prices are hard to beat, the food is authentic and the ambiance is as comfortable as a truck stop lunch counter, with longtime church volunteers in the kitchens and dining rooms treating customers like family.

At St. Raymond's Maronite Catholic Church, which serves a Lebanese lunch each Wednesday, and at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which offers Friday fish fries featuring gyros, spanakopita and baklava, hospitality and warmth seem part of the hosts' job.

'Noted for big mouths'

"It's fun. I work two minutes and talk eight minutes," said John Louis, a St. Raymond's parishioner who cleans tables every week at the Lebanese food fest. "I kibitz with the crowd. We're noted for big mouths."

On a recent Wednesday at St. Raymond's, as many as 500 patrons queued up outside the banquet hall for their "Lebanese fix."

The bountiful buffet -- each dish homemade by parish women -- includes stuffed grape leaves and stuffed cabbage rolls, lentils and rice, spinach and meat pies, chicken and dumplings, hummus and Lebanese bread. There's also tabbooleh -- a Lebanese salad -- and kibbi, a traditional Lebanese dish of specially ground meat mixed with spices and cracked wheat.

The only items not prepared at St. Raymond's are desserts bought from a Lebanese bakery in Dearborn, Mich., home to one of the nation's largest Arab communities. Baklava, birds' nests -- crepes of pistachios and phyllo dough -- and other delicacies are irresistibly displayed on a table covered by a starched white cloth. Diners are beckoned by the aroma of thick, sweetened coffee.

Kitchen chairwoman Diana Deeba, who's been volunteering for 12 years, said the weekly lunches raise thousands of dollars.

"It's biblical food, the same food Mary served Jesus and St. Joseph," said Sister Philip Marie Abdellah Burle, a Catholic nun whose Lebanese mother and aunt cooked at St. Raymond's. "It's very healthy and delicious in every way."

Friday fish fries with a Greek twist and the annual Labor Day weekend Greek Fest are traditions at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the city's tony Central West End, near Forest Park.

Legend has it that the first church picnic in 1906 drew hungry passers-by attracted by the aroma of lamb cooking on a spit. Greek Fest officially opened to the public in 1968.

"People love Greek food," festival chairman Nick Tharenos, 69, said with a wide smile. "We get tremendous support here."

Parishioners begin cooking and freezing food for Greek Fest months in advance.

On an early June day, dozens of men and women worked side-by-side at long tables assembling trays of Greek entrees and pastries including baklava, the quintessential Greek pastry of walnuts, cinnamon, special syrup and phyllo dough.

"You pour hot syrup over cold baklava or cold syrup over hot," one cook said, disclosing the secret to spreading the sweetness around.

Come Labor Day weekend, about 30,000 festival visitors will feast on shish-kebab, moussaka, spanakopita, gyros, flamed Greek cheese and other dishes and desserts. Folk dancing and live Greek music round out the experience.

Until recently, Hungarian-American luncheons were served three times each week at St. Mary of Victories, the city's second-oldest Catholic church.

Photographer Richard Marty, a former lunch regular whose forebears were parishioners, is still disappointed.

"I'd go once or twice a week," Marty said. "I was drawn by family history, but it was a very nice meal, very inexpensive for all you could eat. You'd never starve."

But devotees can still get an occasional reminder of what they're now missing. The historic church, surrounded by warehouses near the Mississippi River, still serves foreign-born Hungarians, and the Ladies Sodality still puts on a Hungarian spread the third Sunday of the month at 1 p.m. Specialties are goulash and pastries.

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