By Anne Ruissi
Homemade savory dishes and sweets based on recipes passed down through four generations of Birmingham’s Greek community will draw around 30,000 people to the 49th annual Greek Food Festival at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral from October 13-15 .
“This is our expression of comfort and love,” said Fanoula Gulas, president of the church’s Philoptoches Society, a women’s philanthropic group. “Hospitality is important to our culture.”
Sonthe Burge, a longtime parishioner in charge of baking koulourakia butter cookies, agreed.
“We love to cook,” said longtime parishioner Sonthe Burge. “It’s a way of sharing our heritage, our culture and our faith with the community.
Menu offerings for the 10,000 people expected each day will include long-time favorites such as souvlakia, pastichio, Greek chicken, spanokopeta (spinach pie), dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves), Greek rice, vegetable plates, Greek salad and gyros. Greek pastries on hand will include baklava; kourambethes, also known as Greek wedding cookies; melomakarana, a Greek honey cookie; and koulourakia, or butter cookie twists.
As they have done for nearly 50 years, church members prepare most food in the church kitchen.
“We do all the cooking, the pastries and the pastichio,” Gulas said, referring to the popular casserole sometimes called “Greek lasagna,” made with Greek bechamel sauce instead of the tomato sauce Italians use. to make the signature dish.
Baking is a major project involving hundreds of pounds of ingredients and hours of preparation.
Burge supervised the volunteers who bake koulourakia, a butter cookie, for 30 years. After mixing the ingredients, the dough is rolled by hand, cut into strips and twisted before being baked.
“We make over 1,000 dozen every year, probably 1,100 dozen this year,” Burge said.
The volunteers started making baklava in June and have continued with cookies in regular baking sessions they call workshops. The sweets were cooked in batches. Each batch of koulourakia, Burge said, requires about 7 pounds of flour and makes 21 dozen cookies.
Burge also helped make other cookies and the pastichio, which is made ahead of time.
While pastries and cookies are prepared months in advance, the rest of the food, such as Greek chicken, rice and green beans with tomatoes, is prepared fresh every day during the festival, Pete said. Graphos, a Crestline resident who’s been the festival’s head chef for 15 or 20 years.
“Last year we cooked 13,000 pieces of chicken, 500 pans of pastichio – each pan has 24 servings. That’s 10,000 servings,” Graphos said.
About 20,000 dolmathe, or stuffed grape leaves, were served last year and rice was cooked in two 50-pound batches every hour.
The Greek chicken is marinated in lemon juice, butter and seasonings for 24 hours before being cooked for an hour in one of eight convection ovens in the church kitchen, Graphos said. Each oven can cook 100 pieces at a time, or 800 pieces of chicken cooked every hour.
The kitchen is constant during the festival, but the kitchen is like a well-oiled machine, with around 10 volunteers working at a time. Excellent kitchen equipment, including sophisticated combination ovens that are programmable, and volunteers help make it a success.
The ovens, for example, can bake 20 pastichio molds at a time, all automatically. The same goes for the green beans and the tomato dish.
“Everything is going perfectly,” Graphos said.
The ingredients help achieve that perfect taste. The lemon juice used for Greek chicken is not domestic; it’s imported from Greece and has more flavor, Graphos said. Seasonings, also imported from Greece, are sprinkled on both sides of the chicken to give it more flavor.
“We take great pride in the quality of our food,” Graphos said.
Gulas said there is another element that elevates food to a higher level.
“Every item is touched with love,” Gulas said.
Food plates will be priced individually and Greek pastries will be prepackaged and sold in food lines. Soft drinks, beer and Greek wines will be available on site to accompany meals.
Music, tours and wine
Along with great food, there will be entertainment, with performances of Greek music and dancing by nearly 100 church members, from “lovely little kids in high school,” Gulas said.
Mediterranean and Orthodox souvenirs will be available in the festival’s Greek market square, as will the church’s cookbook, ‘The Greeks Have a Recipe for It’, which has been updated several times over the years with new new editions, Burge said.
“It’s an easy to follow cookbook, it’s not hard to use,” she said. “My copy is from 1981, the fourth printing.”
Holy Trinity – Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Parish was established in 1906 and is the fourth oldest Greek Orthodox parish in the Southeast.
Self-guided tours of the cathedral, the only Greek Orthodox cathedral in Alabama, will be available during the festival and parishioners will be available to answer “every question” between 10:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. Organizers suggest that schools and religious groups call ahead. to schedule a visit.
“We encourage guests to take a look at the beautiful iconography and art” of the church, Burge said.
The festival is not only an opportunity to share the love of good food and hospitality, but it is also an important fundraising effort for the church. The church, in turn, donates a portion of the festival proceeds to charity.
This year, the sale of 1,300 pans of frozen pastichio at $50 each will go to charities including Children’s of Alabama, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama and the Firehouse Shelter, which the church supports. offering a meal once a week throughout the year, Graphos said.
The hours of preparation and effort to organize the festival every year are worth it, the volunteers agreed.
“We really like doing this for Birmingham,” Gulas said. “We worked so hard on this. We are tired, but we love it.
“It’s a joyful and very fun thing,” he said.
The Greek Food Festival is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. from October 13 to 15, with drive-thrus from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Online ordering will be available at birminghamgreekfestival.net and orders can be taken and delivered by mount.
Those who want to enjoy their food onsite can do so in the tented dining area.