GREEK FESTIVALS aren’t unusual in and of themselves. Most every medium or large city in the U.S. with a Greek Orthodox congregation puts one on, with a similar range of food, music, dancing, and merchandise.
But the annual Savannah Greek Festival, now in its 61st year, is unique — and becoming more unique each passing year.
Our local festival still makes most of their menu items from scratch, but this is increasingly a rarity around the country. Most other Greek Festivals nowadays opt to buy their menu from wholesalers to reheat and resell at their events. The only catch is, someone’s got to make all that food!
So members of the congregation of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church and volunteers from throughout the regional Eastern Orthodox fellowship still do things the old–fashioned way. The Savannah Greek Festival happens each October, but planning, prepping, and cooking starts many months before, usually at the end of the previous spring.
Each year we like to spotlight one of the many delicious menu items to give our readers an idea of how much work actually goes into this beloved annual event. This year I visited the Hellenic Center to spend a couple of hours making — or trying to make — koulourakia, the scrumptious, slightly sweet biscotti–type pastries that are perfect for dipping in a strong cup of Greek coffee. The Savannah Greek Festival will make and sell nearly 20,000 of these tasty treats this year.
On the surface they’re the easiest things in the world to make: Twist some dough, throw on a tray, brush with butter, bake.
I should have asked to brush the butter. But instead I sit down at one of the volunteer tables, where a couple dozen folks of all ages are twisting dough into that braided spiral that is the local style, and lining them up in wax paper–lined baking sheets for brushing and baking.
“You could twist them anyway you wanted to,” says my tablemate Georgia Lamas, showing me a much easier version that just involves folding the dough once, and another version that results in an “S” shape. “But this is how we’ve always done it here.”
It does look great, much more stylish than the other designs. It also takes a lot of practice.
First you have to roll the dough into a long rope shape for braiding. This I do, except mine is way too skinny. It’s basically a shoestring, and looks about as appetizing.
I ball it back up and start over.
And over. And over.
Meanwhile, young Mary and Savannah Simmons are whipping out koulourakia like it’s going out of style. Every now and then they look across the table at my pathetic efforts and giggle.
So I overcompensate. I start rolling my dough much thicker, more robust. Manly.
“You don’t want to make ‘em too thick,” Georgia says, bursting my bubble. “Then it just tastes like bread. You want it thinner so it crisps up.”
I look over at the next table, where some of the most veteran cooks in the congregation sit, speaking Greek and whipping out tray after tray of perfect koulourakia without even thinking about it.
Connie Pahno, more or less in charge of quality control, comes over to see how I’m doing.
She just shakes her head.
“These are no good. You have to start over.” She takes my pastries off the tray, rolls them into a big ball and plops the ball back on the table in front of me.
“Roll it gently. Make sure it’s even, and the ends aren’t skinnier than the rest.”
Breakthrough! She’s right. I was rolling too hard.
Then, Connie shows me how she does it: All in the palm of one hand, in about two seconds. Perfectly.
It’s like Michael Jordan showing me how to drive to the basket: Inspiring, and also impossible.
I make about four or five passable koulourakia and decide to declare victory and leave the table. I mosey over to Mary Catherine Mousourakis, who’s smart enough to volunteer to brush butter instead.
Mousourakis represents the new face of St. Paul’s. Not Greek, not born into the Orthodox faith, like many younger members of the congregation she came to St. Paul’s through marriage.
Others come simply because they’re attracted to the old–school Orthodox liturgy, with ancient roots in the earliest days of Christianity.
“These recipes are handed down from generation to generation,” Mary Catherine says as she brushes. “We’re trying to keep this tradition alive and make sure it continues to be handed down, and make sure we can continue to cook everything here from scratch like we’ve always done it.”
Savannah Greek Festival
When: Thu. Oct. 11, 11 am–9 pm, Fri. Oct. noon–11 am–9 pm, Sat. Oct. 13, 11 am–9pm
Where: St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church Hellenic Center, 14 W. Anderson St.
Cost: Free admission until 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday requested $2 donation after 4 p.m. Requested $2 donation all day Saturday.
Info: savannahgreekfest.com, fax orders to (912) 236–7321