Spring time brings flowers, nice weather, love, and people yelling out, Opa… Yia’sou… Kalos irthate… One Souvlaki, hold the onions! All of these sayings are heard throughout the United States at your local Greek Orthodox Church Greek festival. There are hundreds of them each year throughout this great land. My personal favorite announcement was said by Arthur Trizonis at the St. Luke GOC in Broomall, Pennsylvania. With his deep baritone voice reverberating over the loudspeakers, guests and visitors to the Greek festival, known as The Greek Affair, would hear the bouzouki playing “Fragosiriani” and Art belting out, “Welcome to the Greek Affair. It’s fun to be Greek!” It sure is.
Greeks, for thousands of years, have loved life and what better way to enjoy life than to hold a festival. In Ancient Greece, there were an abundance of festivals, such as the Thesmophoria, honoring the goddess who taught mankind to tend the soil. The tradition of holding a festival moved with the Greek immigration to North America. It’s hard to say which Church held the first Greek festival (St. Demetrios in Seattle claims that it has held a festival/bazaar since 1921, but I am sure another church will claim an earlier start). One thing that I do know is that every Church says that they have the best gyro, souvlaki, or the many other Greek foods and pastries. And you know what? They’re all right! They’re all the best!
For as many Greek churches that exist in the North America, there are that many Greek festivals and they all follow the same pattern or game plan, even though they rarely, if at all, communicate between themselves. First and foremost is the food. There are two types – fast food and home cooked. Fast food includes gyros and souvlakia. In my opinion, the best gyro is cut off a rotating (that’s why it’s called gyro) hunk of meat! Just something about the juices running down and soaking into that delicacy. Souvlaki is the other fast food. Easy to make… cut up into cubes some pork, chicken, or beef, marinate, put on a stick and place on a grill over charcoal… never, ever use gas!! You know the souvlaki will be good when the hair on your hand burns off as you are trying to turn them. Wearing a glove is… well, not manly, but when the temperature reaches skin-melting proportions… it’s time to put on the glove.
The home cooked foods usually includes Pastitsio, Moussaka, Leg of Lamb, Plaki-fish, Shish-ka-bob, and others, and all the trimmings… Tourlou, Rizi, Fasolia, Greek salads, etc. Depending on how old your Church is, it’s the men that usually do the cooking for the food with some places the Yiayias are in the back kitchen.
The other area is usually the pastries… Baklava, Kourabiedes, Melomakarona, and I include Spanakopites and Tiropites in this mix. These are definitely made generally by the women of the Church and each has their guarded secret recipe that they do not reveal to anyone… including the other ladies who are helping. To give it away is like giving state secrets to the Russians! It’s treason. And I am sure every Church has gone through a period where one lady wants to bake using her “special” recipe and another lady wants to use another… the Peloponnesian War is then refought!
After the pastries, it’s the entertainment including the local dance groups, bouzouki bands, flowing Greek wines and Ouzo, and everything else. Some festivals have tavernas where Greek music is played until the late hours of the night. Others have the bands outside for all to enjoy. Something about Greek music… just makes you want to get up and dance and our American neighbors and friends do by trying their hand at a kalamatiano or hasapiko. And what would be a Greek festival without our dance groups. The children of our communities perform in traditional costumes Greek folk dances, some dating back to Ancient Greek times. Think about it… some of these dances may have been danced by Socrates or Pericles!
Previously, I wrote an article entitled, “Stop the Souvlakia! Is It Time To Quit The Greek Festivals?” Wow, what a response. I’ve never seen so many comments. Most people understood the article and appreciated its levity and what I was saying, and I thank them for that. Others… well, my friends, you have to read the entire article to understand it. It’s like eating a Tootsie Pop and throwing it away before you get to the gooey center. You don’t get to experience the entire treat.
To set the record straight… I love Greek festivals. I think we need Greek festivals. Greek festivals are as important to the financial survival of our churches as much as they are a way for our communities to come together and show the rest of America what we are about. Plain and simple… they are fun and Greek festivals are not going away. Everyone happy now?
Many comments to that article were telling us to come to their festival… it’s the best. I’m sure it is because that is one of the main ingredients in a good Greek festival… pride. “Our festival is the best because we are smaller, ” one comment said. Another said, “Our festival is best because we’re the biggest. ” Yet another boasted, “Our festival is the best because we are more Greek. ” One person wrote, “No way [don’t stop Greek festivals]… this is where we go get all of those goodies that we don’t bake or cook at home. ” She definitely has a point.
One comment stated that when the person was young all their “American” friends would go to the festival with her and to this day, they still talk about the times they went to the Greek festival. ” That’s so true.
In the end, Greek festivals are here to stay and the Greek festival is as American as the county fair. It’s become part of the American culture. Greek foods and pastries have become part of the American diet. Look at the skyrocketing sales of pure Greek olive oil and Greek yogurt.
So go to a Greek festival and just have a good time and remember what my good friend, Art, said, “It’s fun to be Greek!”
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