Food and Family: A Greek Tradition in Columbus

Opa!

 

It’s my favorite summer food holiday. Hades considers it his Christmas. It’s the Greek Festival held annually (38 times annually to be exact) by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on High Street. When Hades and I moved here three years ago, it was the first festival we went to in Columbus. We had our five month old cherub with us who was fawned over by seemingly everyone we met. And then there was the food. 

Oh my, the food. I’m a sucker for a Mythos Red and a good Pastitio. It tastes like the Greek food that somebody’s mom might make. And come to find out, it is made by somebody’s mom. And grandma. A lot of moms and grandmas. 

A volunteer slices a tower of pastitio.

 

I spent some time Sunday in the kitchen talking with one of the festival’s founders as well as one of the new generation, leading a very busy kitchen, feeding thousands of hungry revelers. 

There are a lot of folks to cook for: Pauline Hesske, this year’s festival chair, said about 40,000 people come through the gates a day during the four days. 

But the really remarkable thing about the piles and piles of delicious food that come out of the kitchen is that it’s all been made by volunteers at the church. Moms and grandmas and granddaughters get together in the weeks preceding the festival to cook and assemble all those pans of Pastitio and Mousaka, and fill and wrap thousands of Spanakopita, Tyropita and Dolmades. 

Ninety year old Demetrios Michaelides’s favorite Greek dish at the festival is the chicken and rice. He recounted a story that one year, the food was all gone by Saturday night. Fortunately, one of the festival cooks had a friend that had a lot of chickens. In the tiny kitchen with no a/c, the quick -thinking Greek cooks ended up roasting and serving them over rice. They had a hit on their hands. It’s one of the most popular meals at the festival. 

Jim Jelett is the young culinary student running the kitchen when I visit. Between ensuring the ovens were full of Pastitio and expediting three huge pans of rice pudding, he took a minute to talk with me. “The recipes come from the men and women who started the festival in 1973. We now measure ingredients in pounds instead of cups, but the spirit is still there.” When I asked if anybody was willing to part with any of those original recipes, I was given a warm smile. “Probably not. A lot of festivals have companies that come in and do the food for the church. Not here, we’ve got our own stocks in 60 quart pots and we do it all ourselves.” 

Rumor had it that the Spanakopita would be gone by tonight. Considering that 120,000 people will have been through the gates by tonight, I wasn’t surprised. Somehow for our little family, this Greek Festival has become a symbol of all that is good about living in Columbus: a rich food culture, family-centric and downright welcoming. 

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