When Houstonians descend on the Original Greek Festival this month, they’ll come face-to-face with the zesty staples of Greece’s ancient culture—music, dancing, arts, crafts, and food—especially the food.
There will be mountains of baklava, gyros, souvlaki, dolmathes, and sweets. You’d think the festival would need a consortium of local restaurants to feed the 40,000 people who are expected to attend the four-day festival. Or maybe a bunch of caterers who would pool their talents and feed the masses.
But the reality is every morsel is lovingly prepared by a small army of Yia Yias—Greek grandmothers who worked for weeks to bring recognition and respect to their native land. Sure, there are a few guys and a few whippersnappers who pitch in to help. But make no mistake, without the Greek grandmas, there would be no Greek Festival.
I spent a few lunch hours working with the ladies, learning the finer points of making a few Greek foods, and getting a crash course in their quick-witted banter.
“That Rachel Ray needs to stop cooking Greek food. She doesn’t know what she is doing,” one woman sitting near me seethes. “She throws some feta on it and thinks it’s Greek!”
One of the stalwart volunteers at these gatherings is Penny Andronis, who came to America 54 years ago. Today, the diminutive 91-year-old works while seated in a chair, her legs too short to reach the floor. So she rests her sensible shoes on a cardboard box tucked under the table.
Penny was one of the original volunteers who put together Houston’s first Greek Festival 41 years ago. From those humble beginnings, Houston now boasts one of the largest Greek Orthodox communities in the US.
“How many can I make in a sitting? I never count, but probably 100,” Penny says as her nimble fingers crank out dolmathes at an impressive rate.
I tried my hand at stuffing and rolling the grape leaves—imagine making a burrito with a thin leaf and a dollop of ground meat, rice, and spices—and then tucking everything up as tight as a cigar. It’s much harder than it looks, and many had to be redone by patient Yia Yias sitting near me.
When our group had produced the first 100 dolmathes, the committee captain Donna Doxakis looked at the little pyramid of food and announced, “One hundred down, only 8,900 more to go.”
Working next to Miss Penny in the festival center at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral—the church is the host, sponsor, and site of the annual festival—is Galatia Gray, another longtime volunteer.
“A lot of our friends and family have been married in this church. Our children have been baptized here,” Galatia observes. “So this is fun for us. It’s a chance for us to get together, speak the language.”
All around her, the women chatter in Greek. The hot topic today is a new nonstop route from Newark to Athens shaving many hours off the annual vacation many will take back to the home country. Sometimes the conversation turns delightfully spicy.
“You watch Emeril on TV?” Galatia Gray asks sweetly. “I tried to make Greek food like he does. I couldn’t eat it.”
While wearing a hairnet and plastic gloves, I try to listen in to as much gossip as possible. Then one of the Yia Yias catches me watching and eavesdropping on her conversation.
“YOU!” she says in a commanding voice. “COME HERE!”
As I shuffle over, most eyes in the rooms are eagerly watching to see what will happen next. I have no idea.
“I saw you looking. Are you trying to flirt with me?” demands the woman, who is at least 80 years old.
Yes, I confess. I was flirting. Forgive my clumsiness. I was trying to be discreet. Pleased, the Yia Yia smiles and lets me go back to my work.
On this afternoon, the festival center is buzzing with 28 volunteers. The average age of each worker is probably somewhere in the mid-70s. But the place is rocking, a chaotic din of work, conversation, and laughter.
The grandmothers are going to need this energy if they are going to make their quota of 18,000 spanikopita, 24,000 koulourakia, 16,000 finikia, 32,000 servings of baklava, 520 pans of pastizo and 17,500 of kourambiedes. That’s not to mention the salads, the kababs, and the gyros that will be made and devoured by the dozens.
If you don’t know what all these Greek words mean, do yourself a favor and get over to the festival, which takes place from October 4 through 7. For more information, visit www.greekfestival.org.
Editor’s Note: Greg Hassell is a contributing writer for The Buzz Magazines. If you have a new adventure for Greg to write about, please e-mail your suggestions to (email@example.com) greg (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com.