No sooner had I set foot in the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral kitchen did a rather tall and imposing Greek woman hand me a hairnet, a pair of gloves and a plastic apron to wear. The Yiasou Greek Festival was just days away and there were tens of thousands of Greek pastries to prepare for sale. The kitchen was already abuzz with activity and I quickly fell in line to help with this massive culinary feat.
I am greeted by the friendly face of Irene Politis, a member of Holy Trinity and an active member of Philoptochos, the women’s philanthropic society in charge of baking and preparing thousands of pastries for the festival. I am warmly shuffled around and introduced to the gaggle of curious women who are probably wondering, “Who brought the baby?” I am, without a doubt, the youngest woman in the room and Irene, who I attach myself to for the afternoon, is a distant second, old enough to be my mother.
We take our places at one of the long tables set up in rows while industrial baking sheets filled with melomakarona, honey-soaked spice cookies, are whisked off the rolling racks and placed in front of us. Our job is to line new sheets with pastry liners and transfer the cookies into a liner ready for sale.
Working near me is Bett Kofinas, a long-time member of the church who has been making pastries since before the festival began 35 years ago. Bett tells me, her bright-blue eyes sparkling like new marbles, that she was here in the 1950’s when it began as a bake sale for Valentine’s day.
“When the festival started,” says Bett, “we knew we [the Greek women] weren’t going to give up our bake sale.”
Bett is petite with an energetic spirit that defies her age. As she talks, she quickly doles out pastry liners to the women working along the line. There are clusters, one sitting across from another or a group of three like Irene, Bett and I standing over a tray working diligently. Conversations fly all around me in Greek and English or a combination of the two. Periodically, a man drops in to sneak a cookie before disappearing from the den of women. The task at hand is enormous but the air in the room, convivial. More women arrive and drop right into their places, joining the annual dance.
“Everyone here is a volunteer,” says Irene. “They’re here for the Church.”
To my right, Dina Stassinos pipes up in her unmistakably Greek accent and says, “I’m not a volunteer. I’m working for to be in the Paradise,” or, to get into heaven. She is my comic relief and from what Irene tells me, quite the cook, often milling around the kitchen whipping up something from nothing.
It is like this for three hours- talking, laughing, working, tray after industrial tray. I am told that the ladies make approximately 9,000 melomakarona alone. Of course, there are the 650 industrial trays of baklava and the 18,000 koularakia, their sweet braided Easter cookie, and the mountain of diples, fried dough rolled and honeyed, that sits in the back with the group of ladies who are tirelessly heaping the powdered sugar onto the kourambiethes, a Greek wedding cookie.
The women break for lunch and invite me to stay, eat! Reverend Father Michael Varvarelis comes and blesses the food and we dine on chicken pita and fat cubes of feta cheese. The ladies rest, their neatly permed hair still tucked inside a hairnet. After lunch, I will take my leave and they will stay and work packaging boxes of cookies and continuing to plate the trays of individual pastries.
The three hours of work I did is nothing compared to the months of preparation that go into this handmade tradition, one that the Greek community delights in sharing with Charlotte. These are recipes handed down over generations, preserved within the Greek community and passed on to Greeks and non-Greeks alike over these next four days. So, if you are in town this weekend, come! Eat!
The Yiasou Greek Festival begins this Thursday and lasts through Sunday at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral located on 600 East Boulevard in Charlotte. For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit YiasouFestival.org.