Being Greek is not just a nationality but a way of life, according to the Rev. Michael A. Kouremetis of Salt Lake City's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The church's annual Greek Festival is also a way of life for the church members who host it.
The cooking and baking starts in May. A revolving group of about 50 to 75 members of the Philoptokhos, the women's philanthropic organization in the church, spend at least three days a week throughout the summer cooking assembly-line fashion in the church's kitchen. Pork is cubed, skewered and frozen for souvlakia. Ground beef and rice are wrapped in grape leaves for dolmathes. Baklava and other pastries are baked and boxed.
At the festival, people can eat, enjoy the Greek music, traditional folk dances and Byzantine choir concerts, shop at the boutique or take a tour of the cathedral. The Hellenic Cultural Museum, which documents the history of Greek culture in Utah, will be open, too.
It is the largest Greek Festival west of the Mississippi and the largest ethnic festival in Utah, using over 10,420 volunteer hours from more than 500 volunteers.
"There are a lot of Greek festivals across the country, and ours is considered one of the best," said Nola Slager, the Philoptokthos president. "Even back East, they know about us. Many of those festivals buy their sweets, but here, they're authentic and handmade. And they might make only four or five different pastries, where we make about 12. We've had people come and buy boxes of our sweets because they freeze them for Christmas."
The average festivalgoer spends about $15, according to the calculations of Louie Thiros, who did a cost analysis of the food sales.
"With donated labor we are making money," he said. "But if you paid even $5 an hour, it would really be costly."
Thiros spent two years documenting the festival's recipes and entering them into a computer database. "I wanted them to be standardized so they could go from generation to generation," Thiros said.
"The first time I came down here to watch and write everything down, they thought I was just trying to steal the recipes. They said, 'Doesn't your wife have these recipes at home?' "
But it's a first-hand lesson in traditional cooking and baking skills that otherwise could disappear in today's ready-made, fast-food world. Last week, Effie Carr and Margo Sotiriou were among the volunteers who were pouring syrup over kataifi, a pastry made with shredded filo dough. Carr said she's been a regular at the baking sessions since retiring from her job 14 years ago. Before that, she would use one vacation day a month to come and help.
Margo Sotiriou has been doing this 25 or 26 years now. "I was a schoolteacher, and in the summer I devoted my time to making the sweets," she said. For more than 56 years, her family has owned the Broadway Shopping Center, which carries some of the hard-to-find ingredients.
"Now you see Greek cheese in a lot of the other stores, but 50 years ago it was only eaten by the Greeks," Sotiriou said, noting how many Greek specialities are now considered "gourmet" fare. "Our festival wouldn't be successful if it wasn't for the non-Greeks who come to buy everything, because we can cook all this for ourselves at home."
The group is selling macaroons for the first time in years, said Slager. Also new is an hors d'oeuvre plate called mezedaki, that has a meatball, a grape leaf, olives and a small cheese triangle. Other food items you'll find are chicken a la Grecque, Greek-style green beans, squid, gyros, keftethes (meatballs), Greek salad, spanakopites (filo pastry of spinach and feta cheese), Stifatho (beef stewed in tomato sauce) and lamb-on-a-spit.
The food is a great opportunity to share Greek traditions with others, said Perry B. Drossos, the church's operations manager. "Part of the Greek culture is to remember where you came from and honor the memories of those who came before you."
Here's a recipe from the Greek Festival, adapted for the home cook (but it still feeds a small crowd):
1 tablespoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons orange zest
1/2 cup sugar
2 pounds coarsely chopped walnuts
2 pounds coarsely chopped almonds
4 pounds butter
4 pounds shredded filo dough
Spray release oil
1 gallon water
7 pounds sugar
1 whole lemon
1/2 of a large orange
1 1/3 cinnamon sticks
3-4 whole cloves
1/3 to 1/2 gallon honey
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 18-by-24- by-2-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Combine the first five ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with your hands. Melt the butter and brush the pan with butter. Spread 2 pounds of shredded filo on bottom of pan. Brush well with butter. Evenly spread the dry ingredient mixture on top of the filo and tap lightly. Spread the remaining two pounds of filo over the top, and butter extremely well.
Bake for 60 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
To make the syrup, mix water and sugar in a large pan until sugar has dissolved. Cut the oranges and lemons in quarters, squeeze juice and add to mixture. Add the cinnamon and cloves and bring to a boil. Boil vigorously 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and add honey. Stir well. This makes approximately 1 gallon. While it's still warm, pour syrup evenly on top of the baked kataifi. Each pan makes about 54 pieces.
If you go
What: Greek Festival
Where: Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 279 S. 300 West
When: Friday, Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10 p.m.
How much: Adults $2; children 5-12 and seniors $1
Phone number: 328-9681
By the numbers
If you thought the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was over the top, consider the amount of food needed to feed the 40,000 people expected at this year's event:
4,500 pounds pork loin; 1,000 pounds squid; 1,600 pounds feta cheese; 5,000 pounds chicken quarters; 70 gallons gyro sauce; 16,860 eggs; 20,000 dolmathes; 1,600 pounds sugar; 2,500 pounds butter.