This year marks the 10th anniversary of a foodie’s dream – and one of the best-kept secrets in central Arkansas.
More than 600 people are expected to attend the International Food Festival at St. James Catholic Church in Searcy on Saturday, Feb. 3. While sampling various ethnic foods from 25 countries representing five continents, participants are sure to find something they love, as well as something they have never tried before.
Michael Willems, chairman of the committee for the 2018 event, explains why food is such an important part of the culture.
“A family with Italian roots still recognizes that they have different food from those with German or Irish roots,” he says. “Still, everyone has to eat. It’s a way to build a bond between you and a culture you’re not familiar with.”
St. James is a very ethnically diverse parish. In addition to the food, participants glean other bits of information about the host country, as every room is decorated in the various countries’ themes. The Greek room will be styled with scenes from the Greek Islands, for example. And the hosts dress in the custom of the countries they represent.
Kristin Stafford, a Searcy native who will be attending for the fifth year, says it’s hard for her to pick a favorite cuisine because it all is so good. “I am partial to the Greek and the Southeast Asian rooms,” she says. “The American room has the best gumbo, though. Everyone is so nice and so proud of their food. They are quick to answer questions and really seem to love serving their food to others.”
Willems says the festival began very humbly. St. James constructed a new building in 2006-07 and dedicated it in 2008. “We had debt that comes with a new church, and we were looking for ideas to ease that debt,” he explains. “The first year was a minor success, and each year we kept trying to improve it. It has gotten to the point where we can’t really grow the event anymore because of the building’s space limitations.”
Now that the debt has been paid off, proceeds benefit a building fund in anticipation of a family life center, as well as charities that have a connection to the parish. The Christian Research Hospital in Cameroon is one such example. Harding University pharmacy professor and St. James parishioner Dr. Landry Kamdem founded the nonprofit hospital, which seeks to treat HIV, malaria and tuberculosis in the world’s poorest and sickest communities.
Willems says more than 100 people from the parish participate directly by cooking and serving or preparing the building for the event and then cleaning it up for church the next morning.
He concurs that the Southeast Asian room – featuring the Philippines and Vietnam – tends to be the most popular. “But the Italian room makes a good run for the money,” he says. “And Germany has all the bratwurst you can shake a stick at.”
In addition to the food offerings, more than 250 items donated by businesses and private individuals will be available during the silent auction in the parish hall an hour before the main event at 6:30 p.m. Samples and hors-d’oeuvres will be passed around during this time, from 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Advance tickets are $10 through Friday, Feb. 2. They are available at the church office, as well as The Boutique, Henry’s G Nails & Spa, and through parishioners. Tickets are $20 at the door. Contact the parish rectory office at (501) 268-5252 for more information or to purchase tickets.