On a sun-soaked day, in the bowels of St. Matthew Orthodox Church, the air was scented with enticing comfort food, the atmosphere warm and welcoming. Bursts of laughter erupted at measured intervals among the dozen women who had gathered with a common goal — to produce 800 halupkis, one of the mainstays of the Multi-Cultural Festival.
The sixth annual fundraising event is set for this weekend, Oct. 3 and 4, at the church in the Village of Kings Contrivance. Over the years, according to organizers, it has grown into the largest international activity of its kind in Howard County.
An icon, framed by a stoic image of Christ, oversees the proceedings from a wall behind the long tables studded with commercial-grade bowls, pans and cutting boards. Oversize trays overflowing with cabbage are whisked from the kitchen to waiting hands.
The timeless dish forms the hardy culinary glue for a far-reaching swath of Eastern Europe from Russia to Ukraine to Romania and beyond. Always a crowd-pleaser at the event, the uncomplicated dish features the marriage of blanched cabbage leaves, spiced ground beef, and, often, tomato sauce. Then it slides into the gas oven at 325 for 45 minutes.
Preparation is a key ingredient in the festival's recipe.
"We start planning around April each year, if not earlier," said Susan Petry, one of the mainstays. "Even though now we have a basic plan from the previous year, it takes a good six months to pull it together. We learn something new every year, from basic logistics such as how to handle recycling, moving hot foods safely and having enough volunteers to having the right number of activities for children and accessible seating for seniors."
During the weeks running up to the festival, in this same Fellowship Hall, other cooks meet to prepare entrees and desserts from Romania, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Greece. Thelast of the series of cooking sessions is scheduled on Oct.2, when Lebanese lamb kabobs are being made.
And, while parishioners at the church represent a rich mosaic of cultures, organizers emphasized that you don't have to be a member of one ethnic group in order to roll up your sleeves and help cook food from another part of the world or work at one of the individual food booths during the two-day event.
Clad in a cheery red apron and hunched over a commercial-size baking tray, Denise Royal gingerly placed the ovals of raw ground beef, nine to a row, on the tray.
She looked back on her childhood in Greenbelt and the role ethnic food played in her Russian-Lithuanian family.
"It took a lot of time to do it right," the Columbia resident said, "and the house smelled of the cabbage cooking."
Royal said the time set aside to get ready for the event is important, since it goes beyond seeing faces at the Divine Liturgy or at the coffee hour. "It's a wonderful way to socialize. You become aware of people's pasts. It's a good community project."
With her hand gasping the handle of the electric dishwasher as it cycles through a load, Natasha Jones said preparing for the festival is a labor-intensive exercise.
"Yesterday," she said above the hum of the motor, "we cored and boiled the cabbage and prepared the rice." The Ellicott City resident, born in India, is half Russian and half Swiss. "My favorite Russian food probably is the halupki. Oh, I just love the taste! It's a rich flavor."
However, she admitted that she doesn't make it at home.
"My husband doesn't like cabbage."
In the days and months leading up to each festival, a thorough analysis of what sold and what didn't the previous year is conducted, said Dana Potts, the event's co-chair. "This year, we are keeping the quantity the same as last year."
Cutting off the edges of the cabbage with a paring knife before tucking the meat inside, Joanne Derives underscored the various expressions that halupkis take. In her native Cleveland, she remembered, her mother "boiled her cabbage leaves all day long instead of baking them. Every family has a slightly different recipe."
Looking up from her workspace, under a red bandana, Judy Foland remarked that she has been coming to the cooking sessions for a few years. "I enjoy being around my fellow parishioners," said Foland, who is of Polish descent.
From the kitchen stepped Eva Bailey. It was her recipe for halupkis that was chosen among the other women to use at the festival.
Bailey, who is of Czechoslovakian heritage, grew up in the coal-mining country of West Virginia. "My mom cooked the cabbage on the stove. But some like the baked recipe. She used her own tomatoes that she canned. But if you're going to bake them, you want a heartier sauce."
Before being summoned back to the kitchen, Bailey noted that "everyone's heard of stuffed cabbage. People want that. It's delicious. But you don't just go around the corner to buy halupkis."
The Multi-Cultural Festival at St. Matthew Church is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the church, 7271 Eden Brook Drive in the Kings Contrivance Village Center.