Brooklyn food fair cooks up Lebanese cuisine

Recently a section of Remsen Street in Brooklyn, New York was closed to traffic and was lined with food stalls displaying mouthwatering Levantine delicacies at the Lebanese Food Fair.  About 5,000 people stopped by throughout the three days of the event, seduced by the smells and sounds produced by this celebration of Lebanese food and culture.

What started as a fundraising festival for the church’s renovation, the Lebanese Food Fair, in its second year, has become an opportunity to bring back the feel of home to the heart of Brooklyn. “The purpose of this event is to keep our Lebanese culture alive and to raise money for the church and its activities,” said the Cathedral’s Reverend James Root as he molded a ball of raw meat for plating.

Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral, where local worshippers of Lebanese decent meet for mass, is the only Maronite church in New York City and the first neo-Romanesque church in the United States. It was remodeled using artifacts from different countries, and a large mural of the Lady of Lebanon on top of the hill in Harissa overlooking Jounieh Bay stands above the altar. The altar is made of marble and onyx tiles bought from the French and Lebanese pavilions at the World Fair in Queens.

Keeping alive Lebanese culture among the diaspora has been one of the most strident goals of the church. Georges Chedrawi, who has lived in the United States for 15 years, has taken time off from work to volunteer for the event. “My kids practice their language here,” he said, stressing the importance of an event where immigrants can reconnect with their heritage and teach their children about it. “I would like [my children] to know about who we are and what is Lebanon,” he said. “Lebanon is very small, but it has a big significance to us and we need to keep these Lebanese traditions.”

In charge of the barbecue spot at the beginning of the line, Chedrawi greeted customers with a big smile.

The sounds of sizzling kebabs and frying falafel balls competed with the Lebanese music that was playing; a buoyant ambiance that continued until evening. People danced and sang along with singer Sultan Amin, an entertainer who travels around the United States to perform at similar Lebanese events.

Not only Lebanese partook in the food fair; Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz made an appearance as well. Markowitz commended the Maronite cathedral for bringing many communities in Brooklyn together. “Today we are all Lebanese,” he said, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Markowitz described Brooklyn’s Lebanese community as hard working and vibrant. “[This community] adds to the tapestry of ethnic enclaves that Brooklyn celebrates,” he said.

Although ethnic fairs are common in New York, the Lebanese food festival had a unique flavor, said Carlyn Obendorfer, an American who lives on the same block as the church. Between bites of a sauce-drenched falafel sandwich she explained, “The food is great and the people are so friendly, I am so glad to be here.”

The delicacies were so popular that every food item offered quickly sold out. “We are Lebanese, we will figure something out,” said Root confidently, looking around the kitchen for leftovers. Soon enough, volunteers rolled up their sleeves, found more ingredients, and began to prepare even more food, refilling platters so the eating could continue.

Although the church organized the event, it was an opportunity to unite Lebanese immigrants from different religions as well. “I am Muslim and I am here. There is nothing that resembles home more than this community,” said Lamis Sleiman, 22, a graduate student in International Studies. “It is a shame that we travel all these distances to realize that we are associated with one another in a different country,” she said. ”We should do that in our country.”