Surviving The Greek Festival
Another year, another successful Cleveland Heights Greek Festival!
It was a sultry, hot weekend until Sunday the 21st of August, where scattered rain often sent visitors inside or under the huge tents. Every year thousands of people come through Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral as guests and leave as friends. The annual Greek Festival is the cathedral’s four-day party for the community.
Okay, obviously I’m biased being Greek and that it’s my church, but it really is a great festival, and Marguarite, Anna, Dean and all the people who help put it together are amazing. Everyone comes from all around. There is music, jewelry, food — lots and lots of food — handmade pastries, bounce houses, wine, Zeus’ Juices, frappes, baklava sundaes, and of course — the dancers.
The dancers are exceptional, especially the Senior Dancers. Even dancers that are no longer part of the St. Con’s Senior Dancers come and still entertain the thousands of visitors we get for the four-day weekend. They practice all summer and have performances at various events throughout the region. Alumni of the dance group even come and participate, putting on an amazing show. One year, when their performances were rained out, the dancers came in their street clothes and danced for the thousands that had gathered to watch them.
I had planned on it — even scheduled someone to work the booth so that we-who-dwelled-below in the church basement could get some dinner and see at least one of the performances. That didn’t happen. Instead, despite all the wonderful-smelling food around us, we ended up scarfing down fast food after it was all over. Sigh.
And a major part of the event, the renowned homemade pastries, almost didn’t happen. Cleveland Heights had a massive, destructive microburst storm on August 9th, that took down power lines, uprooted trees, and turned out the lights for days. In fact, my house (which is about a half-mile from St. Con’s) had no power for 52 hours. We were caught so unawares that our phones, laptops, and tablets were dead. We were also trapped when a tree from the front lawn was struck by lightning and fell across our driveway. After a burly white-bearded man with a claw-like bulldozer moved the tree, (and we now know what Santa does in the off-season), we went to the church to see if we could charge our equipment and have somewhere to work. They were in worse shape than we were, but a massive freezer truck was quickly donated to salvage all the food and pastries — nearly 100,000 of them.
This was my first year in charge of a booth, and I learned some valuable lessons which I am going to implement next year. Those of us in the basement go down early in the day and some of us never see daylight until the next day. My booth was called the Agora, but it wasn’t quite the scintillating ancient assembly area where artists, athletes, and philosophers met and discussed the world.
We were selling t-shirts and a few chachkies, like bumper stickers, license plate holders and, for some reason, really tight wristbands that could cut off circulation. We were just feet away from the Gourmet booth that sold spices, feta, phyllo, cookies and of course, kalamata olives.
Other basement dwellers included the flea market, the loukoumathes booth (a delectable fried dough ball slathered in honey, nuts, and cinnamon), the bakers hidden in a back room delivering pastries for sale, and the occasional cooking demonstration. The closest we got to see the dancers perform was when the Jr. Dancers marched through the room and we applauded and cheered them. For a moment we all felt as if we were connected to the upstairs and the outside world.
Occasionally, we tried to schedule someone to help us so we could escape, but when we really needed it, our scheduled help never showed up or let us know in time so we could eat dinner. That wasn’t fun. So next year, I’m booking the booth staff early and making sure the back-ups have back-ups. The first thing is to ensure that every shift is covered so no one has to stay in the basement, like me, for 12 hours at a stretch. I should point out that the extensive stretches of time happened on the weekend. Maria Kappos Kehres and her amazing dad, Alex Kappos, worked on Thursday evening, and we had help on Friday night as well. But those long long weekend hours really took their toll. One can only eat so many loukoumathes!
For as long as I can remember there has been a Greek Festival. One particularly poignant year, my Uncle Mike, who was in a wheelchair by then, having lost his legs to atherosclerosis at a very young age, was at the end of the food line, operating the cash register. He worked for hours, hardly ever taking a break. He had devised the “stifado” recipe that is still served to this day. For some reason, all my cousins showed up at St. Con’s that Saturday afternoon. Usually we were never there at the same time. We convinced Uncle Mike to take a break and for an hour or so, we all sat around and talked, laughed, drank some wine, ate food, and had a wonderful sharing experience.
Two weeks later, we gathered again at St. Con’s, only this time for Uncle Mike’s funeral. But I always remember that festival with great fondness and appreciate that we had that final happy afternoon together.
Back then, we had the Agora outside, and while we were able to see everyone who came and went, we were also subject to the deluge. It came down in buckets and everything was soaked, including the workers, who cowered under a tent until it finally ended. I think that’s the year they decided it was better to put the Agora in the basement. I enjoyed it outside, but I do see the logic of keeping the consignment merchandise dry.
One think I really like about the festival is how everyone works together. I know for a fact that my political views don’t reflect the community. That’s fine. A lot of people don’t share mine either. What we do share is a common purpose and goal. We work together and despite differences, we achieve that goal.
Maybe Congress ought to come to our Greek Festival and see how it’s done. After all, we are Greeks, and we are the lodestar of democracy. Like my Yiayia always said, “1oo Έλληνες 101 πολιτικά κόμματα” (loosely translated, “100 Greeks, 101 political parties”). Argue, be passionate, and then go out, have some wine, and dance. It evens out in the end. Conservatives and progressives can become good friends, working towards a common goal: having a festival worth celebrating.
Next year, if you are in the area, be sure to come to the Greek Festival in Cleveland Heights. Drop by the basement, follow the succulent smells of the loukoumathes, and come say hello. I’ll be the one trying to sell you another t-shirt you probably don’t need.
I thought I’d share two of my favorite recipes for Uncle Mike’s Stifado and Loukoumathes.
2 lbs lean beef stew
2 ½ lbs small onions
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup water
2 cloves garlic
¼ tsp. ground cloves
3 medium-size bay leaves
½ cup tomato sauce
½ cup dry red wine
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Slow cook meat in olive oil and garlic for 45 minutes. (You may need to use some of the water, so the meat doesn’t stick) Add tomato sauce, water, spices, wine, and vinegar. Simmer another 15 minutes. Add onions. Cook over medium flame until onions and meat are tender. If you think there is too much sauce uncover it and let it cook down.
10 lb flour
1 cup corn oil
1/3 cup orange or lemon juice
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbs salt
2 large yeast cakes
4 ½ quarts water
Dilute yeast with a little sugar and water from the above quantities
Beat eggs, add oil, orange or lemon juice. Add yeast mixture, flour, water — slowly beat until thoroughly mixed. Beat for 4 minutes at medium speed.
Place in oiled container. Raise 1 ½ hours covered with plastic
Heat oil in deep fryer or deep sauce pan. Drop by teaspoon into the hot oil. Fry 3 to 5 minutes, turning puffs with slotted spoon until golden brown on all sides. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon and ground walnuts if desired. Best served warm and gooey.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on August 26, 2016.