St. George’s festival celebrates Middle Eastern foods, family ties

September 3, 2018
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Abdullah Buchi shows off his freshly prepared falafel during the St. Geroge Orthodox Church’s annual food festival on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.

Abdullah Buchi grew up in Syria making and eating his father’s falafel recipe. Now he gets to share a little piece of his home with the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Buchi spent Saturday cooking and serving the traditional Middle Eastern dish, a fried patty made from ground chickpeas mixed with spices, during the St. George Orthodox Church’s annual food festival in New Kensington.

Buchi, who lives in Lower Burrell, joined the church when he moved here from Syria in 2014. When he found out the church used a pre-made mix for falafel, he knew he could step it up.

“I told them, ‘hey, I can do it from scratch,’” Buchi said. “The people love it.”

Hundreds of people showed up Saturday to try not only Buchi’s falafel, but other traditional Middle Eastern dishes such as hummus, tabbouleh, kafta and grape leaves. A line wrapped around the room for most of the afternoon.

Many of the congregation’s families trace their ancestry back to Syria and surrounding nations. The church, located on Leishman Avenue, is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, which originated in the ancient city of Antioch, a center of early Christianity in what is now southern Turkey.

The food festival is an integral part of the church’s 100-year history in the Alle-Kiski Valley. It started out as a community picnic and has changed locations over the years. It has been held in the church basement for the past five years.

“Everything is handmade, and a lot of love is put into everything we make,” said Cathy Firek, a lifelong member of the church. “We’re trying to keep this town alive.”

Organizers started prepping the food months in advance to prepare for the festival. Within two hours of opening, they were already starting to run out of some items because of the high demand.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Joe Shaheen, co-chair of the event. “I wish we had more to offer.”

Pittsburgh resident Jeff George made his way to New Kensington to try the food. He’s a member of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland.

He said he tries to make it to similar food festivals around the region so he can take a break from cooking the dishes himself.

“It’s nice to not make it,” he said as he carried a tray stacked with different foods.

John Thomas, lifelong member of the church, said the festival brings everyone together through hard work and a shared appreciation for the food.

“It’s the life and breath of the church and the people here,” he said. “You get to know everybody.”

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