Eighty years ago, Lebanese and Syrian women rose before dawn to cook bread. They ferried the warm food to the corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. At their sidewalk bake sales, they hawked savory and sweet nibbles derived from various Middle Eastern traditions to raise money for a new Antiochian Orthodox church.
Two years later, a stone structure rose on East 11th Street just downhill from the Capitol and above Waller Creek’s floodplain. And each year since, parishioners have raised money by cooking and selling goodies at what became the St. Elias Mediterranean Festival, also known as the Med Fest.
Revelers have flocked to the fall fest for gyros, baklava, falafel, spanokopeta and kibbee — delicacies from the historical Orthodox Christian zone around the eastern Mediterranean. Yet far before Lebanese and Syrian immigrants arrived in Texas during the late 19th century, Orthodoxy had spread to — and prospered in — Russian, Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Caucasian, African and South Slavic realms.
"We pray in English, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Slavonic, Romanian, Spanish and Tigrinya," says the Very Rev. Fr. David Barr, pastor at St. Elias, now a diversified group. Tigrinya, by the way, is spoken in Eritrea. Barr explains that refugees from this Red Sea country journey through Brazil, Colombia and Mexico to seek asylum here.
These days, the St. Elias faithful include immigrants from dozens of countries. And the Med Fest reflects those cultures. Among the treats expected Friday and Saturday — along with dancing, singing and other ecstatic activities — are Romanian and Eritrean specialties, as well as Ukrainian goods in what is usually called the Mediterranean Market.
Teodora Pogonat, for instance, is preparing mixed-meat, caseless Romanian sausages known as mititei. The sausages pack enough garlic to fend off any real or fictional vampires. Saba Yebiyo and Miraf Tesfasion are cooking beef with onions and other ingredients for Eritrean tshebi, as well as a thick bread from their country.
One enduring strength of the Orthodox faith is that services are conducted, when possible, in a version of the local language. Many of the St. Elias founders spoke Arabic. As followers of the Antiochian Patriarch — who actually moved from Antioch, Turkey, to Damascus, Syria, because the powers there were more tolerant, Barr says — they heard service in Classical Arabic as well as English.
As early as the 1950s and ’60s, however, more and more Greek, Russian and Serbian names showed up on St. Elias’ parish roles.
"Even in the early days, St. Elias never saw itself as totally an Arabic or Lebanese enclave," Barr says. "Because it was the only (Orthodox) game in town."
More recently, Orthodox churches have sprung up in West Austin, Pflugerville, Leander, Cedar Park, Dripping Springs and elsewhere. They tend to cater, Barr says, to narrower ethnic and linguistic slices of Orthodoxy than does St. Elias.
Unlike some downtown churches, St. Elias did not wither during the long, midcentury flight to the suburbs.
"It’s as lively as it has ever been," Barr says. "Maybe more so."
A month before the festival, parish leaders Gene Attal and David Jabour shared a table at Russell’s Bistro. The nonprofit consultant and the Twin Liquors chain owner have been involved with the Med Fest all their lives. This year, Attal chairs the festival, while Jabour chairs the parish council.
Like many of Austin’s old Lebanese families, the Attals and Jabours are related through multiple marriages. Their ancestors arrived at the turn of the last century from El Mina, the harbor city of Tripoli on the northern coast of Lebanon.
The men came first. They were merchants who peddled goods door to door. Then they built shops, many of them in East Austin or along Red River Street, where they shared space with Chinese and Hispanic newcomers.
"It was green with water and hills," Jabour says. "It reminded them of Lebanon."
Almost four decades after they arrived, Attal and Jabour’s ancestors decided to built a church — during the Great Depression. They paid $400 for the land at what was then East 11th and Neches streets. They spent another $400 on the stones purchased from another church. Even factoring for inflation, that’s a mere $13,000 for a handsome building with a glowing interior.
Their families — along with the Josephs, Dagars and Mansours, among others — moved from shopkeeping to real estate, education and high tech. Yet they all returned to St. Elias for Sunday luncheons at the parish hall.
"As Austin grew, other food was added," Attal says. "Greek first. Most recently Romanian and Eritrean. Where else in Austin do you get that?"
The cousins expect between 5,000 and 10,000 guests.
"It’s unusual to get all this authentic cuisine all in once place," Jabour says. "Even in as diverse a place as Austin has become."
Unlike other outdoor festivals in Austin, Med Fest sticks to a strict Friday-Saturday schedule.
Attal: "Sunday we rest."