For seven years, the Serbian Festival has followed one motto: Put a little ethnic in your life. And the organizers choose to do that, mostly through the belly. From the popular sarmas (cabbage rolls) to sausages called cevapi to apple strudel and nut rolls, the traditional foods and beverages of the eastern European area will be the highlight of Saturday's festival at St. Stevan of Dechani Serbian Orthodox Church.
For seven years, the Serbian Festival has followed one motto: Put a little ethnic in your life.
And the organizers choose to do that, mostly through the belly.
From the popular sarmas (cabbage rolls) to sausages called cevapi to apple strudel and nut rolls, the traditional foods and beverages of the eastern European area will be the highlight of Saturday’s festival at St. Stevan of Dechani Serbian Orthodox Church.
Most of the food is authentic and made by members of the Northeast Side church, generally from recipes handed down from generations, said Vera Jovanovic, co-chair of the festival.
“It’s as homemade as you’re going to get,” the Northwest Side resident said.
Preparations started in October, said Annette Merrick, when church members pickled several hundred cabbages. In March, the cabbages were ready to be stuffed with meats and seasonings.
Ten to 15 women gathered to assemble the sarmas before freezing them in preparation for this weekend.
“We made over 1,000 of those,” said Merrick, of Galena. “We’re a very small church.”
Almost all of the 100 or so families help with cooking — including the priest’s wife, Dejana Kisin, who is making lepinje, a flatbread, and chicken paprikash, a stewlike dish.
Several men will rise before the sun on Saturday to have lambs roasting on an open fire by 8 a.m., Jovanovic said.
“People buy the lamb by the pound, and it’s wrapped in butcher paper,” she said. “It’s real bohemian.”
The church has been the host of informal picnics, with plenty of food to share and recipes to swap, since its inception in 1972, said Dave Tumbas, co-chairman of the festival, but members took a break from the gatherings during the 1990s when war broke out in their native country.
Since 2008, the church has refocused its efforts on creating a public gathering to share its heritage.
“We’re growing every year,” Tumbas said. “The past three or four years, we’ve done more advertising. Eight out of 10 people are just guests who are interested and want to try our food."
People enjoy the food, said Merrick, who is of Russian and Italian heritage but married into a Serbian family. She has learned to cook from church members of various nationalities — Bosnian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Turkish — during her 40 years at the church.
“We value this,” Merrick said. “Our grandparents came here and brought with them many traditions. Along with the music, dance, food, it’s also a love of our heritage.”
She and others with the church want to be an important part of the community.
That is why she spent the week cooking, and she’ll finally relax (or “collapse,” in her words) on Saturday evening.
“We put our heart and soul into making this food,” Merrick said. “When people come here, they know that they’re getting something unique that you can’t get anywhere else in town.”