The smell of sauerkraut and cabbage could not be denied when entering the doors of the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew in Columbia last weekend.
Like an irresistible lure, it led to the basement of the church, where volunteers quickly, and efficiently, scooped, rolled and created Romanian sarmale, a dish similar to the Russian halupki or stuffed cabbage roll.
“It’s a different taste,” said Dana Cherebetiu Potts, as she covered a tray of the tightly wrapped cabbage rolls filled with meat and topped with layers of sauerkraut, bacon, bay leaves and tomato sauce. “We do halupki, too.”
“I help with what I like to eat,” said volunteer Pat Valentine as she put on a pair of gloves. “I like to eat these. They are better than halupki.”
For 12 years, the church has held a festival the first weekend in October that highlights the food, art and culture of the many ethnic groups that form its congregation. While each group follows the Orthodox religion in English during Mass, the congregation consists of members from countries around the world including Romania, India, Greece, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Ethiopia and Korea.
Potts, herself, is originally from Romania, having come to the United States as a teenager. Sarmale, she said, is a dish served at all important occasions, from weddings to funerals, and everyone has a family recipe. Like many of the dishes that will be served at the festival, several came together to create the best one.
“Everybody has a little trick,” said Ani Caranfil, who was working in the kitchen preparing the tomato sauce to cover the cabbage rolls. “This is for the festival. I just follow the recipe. I know to do it.”
Each year, groups decide what, and if, they want to offer food at the festival. This year’s festival will feature Romanian, Ethopian, Greek, Lebanese, Slavic and for the first time, Indian food.
“Each group decides what to make,” Potts said. “People come together and do something unique to make people happy with the food they grew up with."
Four years ago, an Oktoberfest celebration was added to the two-day festival. Now German dishes, including red cabbage, bratwurst and strudel baked fresh are offered on Friday night, extending the festival to three days.
“People like it so much, we’re going to continue to do it," Potts said. “You adapt. We kind of have it where we like it.”
The festival attracts up to 6,000 people, who enjoy not only the food, but the entertainment, too, featuring ethnic dancing, martial arts demonstrations, ballet and music performed by various groups, including Valentine, who will perform on her recorder in the church’s entrance with her group Zephyrs and Flora.
“It adds a little atmosphere," said Valentine, who lives in Columbia. “The hallways . . . amplify it. We play early music [medieval] and Handel."
A children’s area will offer an inflatable play structure, crafts and games, including bubbles, hula hoops and jump ropes, according to the festival’s website.
“This is our main fundraiser for the church to pay for the building,” Potts said. “We still have a mortgage.”
The event also draws attention to the Orthodox religion, Potts said, as tours of the church are offered.
“Some people don’t know about Orthodox," Potts said.
Everything takes place under large tents, so the event is held rain or shine.
“They keep coming,” Potts said, of the crowds.
Food preparation begins in late summer, with trays of halupki all ready to go in the freezer as well as Slavic borsch soup. Romanian sarmale were soon ready on Saturday, and desserts, from nut and poppy seed rolls to Russian tortes and tea cakes, were to be made in the next couple weeks.
“It takes a lot of work to do all this food,” said Valentine, who decided not to fool with the stuffing and rolling of the sarmale.
“You have to make sure the meat doesn’t fall out and the cabbage leaves have to be the right size or you have to double them or overlap,” Valentine said as she picked up a measuring cup. “I like to measure the meat.”
Sitting near the middle of the table, Wayne Hajos effortlessly plopped properly measured balls of seasoned raw meat that were quickly grabbed and placed on a bed of cabbage leaves by the other helpers present.
“Everything is uniform,” Hajos said. “Nobody gets gypped.”
Asked his favorite food at the festival, Hajos was all smiles.
“The festival isn’t long enough for me to eat all of its good food,” Hajos said. “I like the Ethiopian food. I like spicy. The desserts are incredible. Better than anything you can find in a store.”
To that, all of the volunteers agreed.
Oktoberfest will take place on Friday, Oct. 4, 6-9 p.m.
The 12th annual Multi-Cultural Festival will take place Saturday, Oct. 5, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 6, from 12 to 8:30 p.m.
Both events take place at the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew, 7271 Eden Brook Drive, Columbia. For more information, call 240-755-0324.