By Donna Cornelius
It’s a few weeks before Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s 44th annual Greek Festival, and the church’s banquet hall is buzzing.
Women wearing aprons and gloves have gathered for one of several cooking sessions to prepare food for the festival. On this day, they’re making pastichio, a lasagna-style dish that’s always one of the event’s most popular foods. Ten stand mixers are whirling away, a table is full of containers holding the 100 dozen eggs that had to be cracked for the recipe, and pots full of pasta are bubbling away in the kitchen.
Lots of laughter is mixed into the cooking session, too.
“The festival is something that brings us together in a different way than going to church,” said Helen Bekrakis, a church member who was involved with the event in its early days. “Everyone works a lot of hours, but what you see is that commitment, the expressions on the workers’ faces, that feeling of giving.”
This year’s three-day Greek extravaganza is set for Sept. 15-17 at the downtown Birmingham church. The church’s Ladies Philoptochos Society officially started the festival in 1972, but the seeds for the event were planted about 60 years ago, Bekrakis said.
“It wasn’t really a festival at first but more a community thing,” she said. “People heard about us selling baklava, and they’d come by to pick some up. We started slowly, and it just grew and grew and grew.”
Those who attend the festival can take guided tours of the church, hear Greek musicians, see Greek dancing by the church’s young people, and shop for souvenirs at the Greek Market Place. But the headliner of the event is the food.
“A lot of Greek churches all across the country do these festivals, but what sets ours apart is the quality of the food,” said Pete Lafakis, this year’s festival chairman. “Ours is homemade.”
Becky Kampakis, who’s in charge of the pastichio and pastry cooking, is “a perfectionist,” Lafakis said.
“For the pastichio, we use a special noodle that you can’t just buy off the shelf, and our ground chuck is the best quality,” he said. “We make close to 20,000 pieces of baklava alone.”
The festival in recent years has added take-out and drive-through options. There’s just one menu item that’s not available for take-outs: loukoumathes, which are Greek doughnuts fried on site, dipped in warm honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. That’s because the treats are best eaten fresh.
“There’s a line for them all the time,” Bekrakis said.
Also on the menu are appetizers such as pitas and stuffed grape leaves, called dolmathes. Entrée choices include a deluxe plate with Greek-style chicken served with pastichio, rice pilaf, savory pastries called spanakopita and tiropita, Greek salad and a roll. Other options are souvlakia – marinated lamb grilled over an open fire – plus veggie plates, gyros and Greek salad.
On the sweet side are traditional and chocolate baklava, Greek wedding cookies called kourambethes, almond crescents and other treats.
Lafakis said the festival always draws a crowd.
“We may have over 25,000 plates of food we serve over three days,” he said.
The church strives to make the festival user-friendly.
“We try to keep our pricing reasonable,” Lafakis said. “A lot of festivals charge admission. We don’t do that, and we give people free parking, too. We try to be as hospitable as we can be.”
During the festival, the section of 19th Street on which the church is located is closed to traffic, he said.
“We have tables with well over 1,000 seats set up inside and outside,” Lafakis said.
The event has a charitable as well as a culinary and cultural purpose.
“We give scholarship assistance to our kids and also give to numerous charities,” said Chum Atkins, a Philoptochos Society member. “Last year, we gave more than $35,000 to scholarships and donations.”
While society members do almost all the pre-festival baking, the entire church participates in the annual event. Lafakis said hundreds of volunteers pitch in. Even the youngest members of the church can take part in the Greek dancing.
Bekrakis has “retired” from active festival duty but was at the pastichio cooking session to offer her support and enjoy the fun. She brought along her daughter, Alycia White.
“Alycia danced in the festival when she was little and helped with it up through her college years,” Bekrakis said. “This is something that’s passed down from generation to generation.”
One of the other volunteers this year isn’t even a church member. Penny Gilmore said she got involved after attending a Greek cookie-making demonstration at the Homewood Senior Center.
“I love to cook, and I love to bake, and I just wanted to come and help,” Gilmore said. “These are wonderful ladies.”
Between the cooking and baking sessions, the extensive planning and the long hours needed to run the three-day event, the Greek Festival is not a simple production.
“People will say, ‘Oh, it’s so much work,’” Bekrakis said. “But nobody is willing to give it up.”
The 44th annual Birmingham Greek Festival is Sept. 15-17 at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 307 19th St. S. in Birmingham. Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. There’s no admission charge. Free parking is available in the old Liberty National building on Third Avenue and 20th Street South. For more information, visit bhamgreekfestival.com or follow the festival on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.