Ethnic eateries Churches offer international fare in St. Louis

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Bountiful buffets are served at weekly lunches at three churches.

By Cheryl Wittenauer ~ The Associated Press

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 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 historic 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.

"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 tabbouleh -- 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, Lebanese coffee.

Kitchen chairwoman Diana Deeba, who's been volunteering for 12 years, said the weekly lunches raise thousands of dollars. "Food is a big part of our heritage," she said. "The ladies always cooked to raise money."

The Lebanese lunch tradition started in the 1930s in a four-family flat that the church then called home. The church women raised enough money from the lunches to help build the lovely St. Raymond's church and hall, a block from Nestle Purina PetCare Co.'s North America headquarters.

"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."

Deeba couldn't confirm the Holy Family dining connection, but customers agreed the food is delicious and healthy.

"We're ethnic-food people," said Michelle Fletcher, a nurse who had brought her 4-year-old son, Justin. "He loves the grape leaves and spinach pies. He loves the green beans."

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 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, honey 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. But these days the Ladies Sodality of the historic church, surrounded by warehouses near the Mississippi River, only puts on its Hungarian spread the third Sunday of the month at 1 p.m.

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."


If You Go...

Information for eating well at St. Louis' ethnic churches.

St. Raymond's Maronite Catholic Church, 931 Lebanon Drive, (314) 621-0056; Lebanese lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays. Festival in October.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 4967 Forest Park Blvd., (314) 361-6924; fish fry and Greek food, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays. Greek Fest on Labor Day weekend.

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, 1755 Des Peres Road, Town and Country, (314) 966-2255; Greek food, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays. Festival Sept. 19-21.

St. Mary of Victories Catholic Church, 744 S. Third St., (314) 231-8101; Hungarian lunch every third Sunday of the month at 1 p.m.

St. Joseph Croatian Catholic Church, 2112 S. 12th St., (314) 771-0958; festivals celebrating spring, Croatian Day, Croatian Independence Day. Croatian food. Call for dates.

St. John Nepomuk Catholic Church, 1625 S. 11th St., (314) 231-0141; Czech food at picnic and homecoming in April, Sept. 14, goulash festival Nov. 9.

Holy Trinity Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church, 1910 Serbian Drive (formerly McNair), (314) 776-3262; Serb Fest Aug. 9-10, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., ethnic food, folk dancing, church tours; Banquets June 15, Oct. 26 1 p.m.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church, 1413 N. 20th St., (314) 421-5948; Polka Mass at 11 a.m. July 20 followed by picnic.

St. Thomas of Aquin Catholic Church, 3949 Iowa Ave., (314) 772-2644; Vietnamese parish hosts festivals for Lunar New Year and spring.

St. Ambrose Catholic Church, 5130 Wilson Ave. in The Hill neighborhood, (314) 771-1228; La Festa, 12 to 6 p.m. Oct. 5, featuring Italian food.

St. Lucas Evangelical Lutheran Church, 7100 Morganford Road, (314) 351-2628; Slovak Festival first Saturday in November.

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