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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Ethnic food fair in Santa Maria celebrates culinary diversity


The first thing that hit me when I walked into the Ethnic Food Fair at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation was the aroma. It was familiar and comforting, a scent that seeps into my body and awakens ancient memories of the evenings I spent watching my mother prepare the dishes of her homeland.

She is Austrian-Hungarian; her tight knit circle of friends included other immigrants like herself from Poland, Russia, Germany, Honduras, and many more. I didn’t eat much traditional American food; instead I ate schnitzel, perogies, sauerkraut, and goulash. A lot of goulash. Every week we had goulash or some variation of a hearty Hungarian stew, all painstakingly prepared by my mother, an immigrant single mom.

A pirozhki is a Russian puff dough pocket stuffed with meat, vegetables, and seasoning. Olga Howe prepared the dish for the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation’s Ethnic Food Fair, which she said offers people a chance to sample traditional meals from a variety of ethnic cultures that make up the community.

But it wasn’t my mother’s cooking on March 11 in Orcutt that stirred these memories. It was the food from the church’s members and volunteers who meticulously re-created dishes of their own homelands and spent hours doling it out and lovingly explaining each savory bite to attendees.

Churchmember Olga Howe, who invited me to the event, said it served as a fundraiser for the church. She said people who come to the event get excited about the unique food offerings they don’t see every day locally.

“We’ve been doing this for years,” she said. “People keep coming and they tell their friends.”

Howe said the event featured food from people of many different cultures and countries including Romanian, Greek, Syrian, Russian, and Ukrainian, who all contributed in some form or another.

For $10 at the fair, you could get a sampler plate that featured a little bit of everything, which sounded like a good idea to my fiancé and me. The plate featured tabouli, kielbasa, dolmas, vareniki, sarmale, pirozhki, and of course, baklava.

The kielbasa was courtesy of Rev. Lawrence Russell, who has the specialty meat shipped from Ohio every year for the event. It was delicious, not too spicy, with just the right amount of smoke. Store-bought kielbasa can sometimes have a certain Oscar Mayer Wiener-ness about them. But these tasted authentic, like the kind I would get at the Polish club in Florida I used to attend.

The vareniki were up next (you might know it better as the Russian pierogi). Mine were stuffed with melted cheese and tasted so much better than the frozen pierogis I resort to from time to time. There were also dolmas—grape leaves stuffed with meat or eggplant—and tabouli—a salad of bulgur wheat, tomatoes, parsley, mint, scallions, and lemon juice.

Howe made pirozhki, a flaky dough pocket she stuffed with season meat and egg or sauerkraut and peppers. She said the dish—which is seen in different variations in regional cuisines throughout the world including the Balkans, Iran, Finland, and Japan—was a reflection of her Russian heritage.

Maria Stanciulescu (right) prepared sarmale, a Romanian dish she learned as a child, for her contribution to the Ethnic Food Fair on March 11 at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Orcutt. Stanciulescu’s dish featured savory meat wrapped in cabbage with tomato dill sauce.

Happy Bistro in Santa Ynez provided the baklava, which is a dessert that’s become very familiar to American palates over the years. These were one perfect bite of crispy sweet indulgence.

Maria Stanciulescu, who was born in Transylvania, Romania, and grew up in Bucharest, was busy babysitting a boiling pot of verenikis when I came to ask her about her recipe. She described in great detail how she created the sarmale, a Romanian dish of cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice and served with a tomato dill sauce.

Let me declare loudly and assertively that this was one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life. If I had not stuffed two baklavas in my mouth before discovering Stanciulescu’s sarmale, I probably would have eaten more.

From the first bite, you could immediately tell both the love and affection and the casual ease with which it was made. With old family recipes, muscle memory takes over and you don’t even have to tell your hands what to do because they’ve done it so many times.

The minute Stanciulescu spoke I could hear my mother’s voice slowly explaining to me how to perfect a dish.

“It’s pork and beef, rice, onions,” she said. “I put dill in. I use a lot of dill in my country. Paprika, too.

“I sauté the onions, and then sauté the rice,” Stanciulescu went on to explain. “Then mix with the meat.”

The mixture is wrapped in cabbage and then baked.

“My grandmother taught me this recipe,” she said. “And my mother, too. And we cooked together. In Romania, nobody in my generation ate in restaurants. Everybody cooked at home.”

She said she was happy to share her food with the people who came to the event.

“We’re multinational, coming from different cultures,” she said. “I’m so happy, so proud for my culture.”

What strikes me when speaking to people like Stanciulescu as opposed to professional chefs is the latent casualness of their relationship with food. For Stanciulescu, it isn’t about crafting a highly precise meal that looks like it came off the cover of Food and Wine. It’s about throwing in a little of that, a bit of this, putting a dash of that, and adding a smidge of this. Stanciulescu learned to cook through her mother and grandmother, and the bones of those memories rattle with each step in the recipe, one that no longer needs to be read from a card.

he cultures represented at the Ethnic Food Fair on March 11 included Romanian, Greek, Syrian, Russian, Ukrainian, and more. Attendees were able to buy a sampler plate filled with dolmas, pirozhki, tabouli, kielbasa, vareniki, and baklava for $10 or select individual items for prices starting at $1.

My mother can’t write a recipe to tell me precisely what goes into her dishes but she can recreate them blindfolded, with no measuring cups or spoons because that food is in the language of her soul. This is what they mean by comfort food—food that is blessed with a thousand memories that you feel as vividly as when you first lived them. Comfort food is remembering my mom standing over a bowl of goulash and knowing it was done just by the way it smelled.

The event also included an army of diligent volunteers from different cultures, who were more than happy to answer questions about the food being served. Marah Sukkar came from war-torn Syria seven months ago. She said she was thankful to be able to help out at the event.

“[It means] a lot, especially in this situation, war,” she said. “Nobody [likes] us Syrian people, so it’s so kind to allow us to help and share things.”

I’ve heard a lot of heartbreaking things as a reporter in all my years, but listening to a woman who fled a country ravaged by war say she thinks people don’t like her simply because she’s a refugee trying to stay alive is at the top of the list. We are generations of diverse tradition and history from all over the world, funneled down into the American culture we enjoy today. Each serving doled out at a small church in Santa Maria was a representation of that culture. 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose knows the best American food is made by people who come from all over the world. Contact her at

• Growing Grounds is holding an Everything Edible sale in Santa Maria on March 25 and March 26, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on both days. I got a book on vegetable gardening from my fiancé’s grandparents, who have an enviable garden they’ve maintained for years. That got me started on trying to grow my own garden on our tiny apartment’s porch. Growing Grounds’ sale will feature herbs such as basil and vegetables including eggplants, peppers, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, and so much more. Last year they had more than 40 different kinds of tomatoes. Sale takes place at 820 W. Foster Road, Santa Maria.

• I’m living off of the A-Wakener at Pure Natural Juice (pictured) these days. They have plenty of incredible fresh squeezed juices (and I hear their açai bowls are to die for) but my favorite is a simple, refreshing blend of carrot, orange, and ginger. I have this drink so much I’m convinced I’m going to turn into an actual carrot. Try it for yourself at 3480 Orcutt Road.

• On March 26 from noon to 3 p.m., I will be indulging in the wines of Kalyra Winery during their Seventh Annual Around the World Food Wine and Food Pairing Tour. The event features a tour of the winery including the production area and bottling room, as well as a tasting of cheeses, hors d’oeuvres, and desserts. You had me at “cheeses.” Join me there and keep me company while I learn all about Kalyra’s wines at 343 N Refugio Road, Santa Ynez. Tickets are $15.