Summer Cooking Series: Lana Hand and Lebanese Cooking coming to Catfish Row Museum

Published 10:47 am Wednesday, July 19, 2023

By Jim Beaugez | Guest Contributor

For decades, Vicksburg residents have lined up to experience traditional Lebanese dishes such as kibbeh and tabooli at the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church’s Lebanese dinner, a tradition for 62 years.  

On Saturday at 2 p.m., they’ll have the opportunity to learn how it’s prepared — and even get hands-on in the process — during a cooking demonstration by Vicksburg native and resident Lana Hand at Catfish Row Museum.

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“I’ve had people call me and say, ‘Can you tell me how to make these dishes?’” said Hand, a granddaughter of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who grew up eating the food of that region at home. “But it’s best to learn from somebody by watching because it’s hard to tell somebody how to make this food.”

Hand, a former elementary school teacher, has taught cooking classes in Vicksburg and Oxford and along the Gulf Coast rooted in the food she watched her parents cook as a child. Her family has been a mainstay on the Vicksburg culinary scene through the restaurants her father, Charles Toney Sr., owned or operated, including Toney’s Sidewalk Café at Battlefield Mall, as well as an ice cream shop and bakery. For years, he ran Tuminello’s at the foot of Speed Street, and her brother, Charles Jr., currently owns Toney’s Grill & Seafood Market on Highway 61.

Growing up, Hand watched her mother and father prepare traditional kibbeh (or koubeh, as her family spelled it), as well as tabooli salad and cabbage rolls at home. But when she started her own family, she realized that while she had observed the process all her life, and even helped make cabbage rolls at St. George’s annual dinner, she still didn’t fully grasp the intricacies of the work. Asking her father for help only got her halfway home, though. 

“He didn’t measure anything,” she said.

When making kibbeh, Toney Sr. would grind his own lamb meat and add the bulgar wheat, a grain native to the Mediterranean, and spices such as salt and pepper to taste. Hand wasn’t interested in trying it that way, though, because her father prepared and ate kibbeh the traditional way. That is to say, completely raw.

“My daddy lived to be 97, and he was still eating kibbeh,” Hand said. “He used to have luncheons at the house, and some of the doctors in town would come, and the feast was as raw as could be. I laughed about that.”

Rest assured, Hand’s kibbeh is skillet fried and fully cooked into football-shaped portions. She eventually landed on the correct proportions of ingredients at a birthday party for one of her father’s friends, when the cooked kibbeh served tasted exactly like her family’s version. Ironically, it was at the home of a non-Lebanese family who enjoyed the dish so much they began making it themselves.

Since some of the dishes Hand will demonstrate usually take hours to prepare, she will bring some ready to cook while giving attendees the chance to chop ingredients alongside her, although she stresses that part is voluntary. Due to the high prices of lamb meat, she now uses beef with all fat removed and ground three times by a butcher to give it the proper consistency. 

Hand says it’s important to her that others learn about the food and heritage that has been part of Vicksburg’s own history for many years, and she’ll have recipes available so people can try them themselves at home.

“It’s something that I really enjoy doing because people love the food and I just want to share it with them,” she said. “And those that aren’t familiar with it will learn a new kind of food. They can just add this to their little repertoire of different types of foods to eat.”

Upcoming presentations in the series include the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and Vicksburg National Military Park; the American Heart Association with Miss Mississippi Outstanding Teen Nataleigh Nix on Aug.12; and celebrity chef Nick Wallace on Aug. 19.