Weeks of cooking, pounds of butter make a Greek festival

Feeding the multitudes

November 10, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

The law that governs the kitchen of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation is direct: No culinary prima donnas allowed. It's a place were flying fingers and fast feet win out. How else could all those aluminum trays of cookies and delicacies be mass-produced for this weekend's Greek festival and bazaar, the annual event where the insiders know that the signature dishes vanish early? It begins at 11 a.m. today.

"I want everything here to taste like you're in Greece, facing the Aegean with mountains at your back," said head confectioner Alice Ioannou, who then issued a three-word imperative to her pastry-makers: "Butter. Butter. Butter."

The Greek Festival, a project of the 100-year-old Greek Orthodox Cathedral congregation, rivals Baltimore's autumnal mania for sour beef served in ecclesiastic basements. It can knot traffic at Preston Street and Maryland Avenue. Its guests lumber home happy and well-fed, if pleasantly overdosed on honey-infused walnuts and phyllo pastry.

It's been a week where delivery guys lugged tubs of Bulgarian cheeses and yellow plastic olive jugs into the cathedral's social hall, where the all-volunteer food traffic cops assign these raw materials to cold boxes. (Two stalwart volunteers, by the way, got locked within the lamb shank freezer for a 45-minute stay earlier this year. A priest heard their banging and released them, cold but healthy).

Ioannou (pronounced you-ah-new) describes herself as growing up in the "wonderful community of Hampden." She recalls spending Friday nights at restaurants her family owned: the St. Louis Restaurant, Jack's Keswick and Jimmy's on Broadway. If she had her way, she would have established her own restaurant but settled for the co-chairmanship of the pastry makers.

"I sort of talk to myself and unwind, relax in the quiet," she said of a recent culinary task, making gallons of honey-lemon-cinnamon syrup for baklava, a recipe involving 120 cups of sugar and a huge Vulcan range.

As she ladled her seductively perfumed delicacy, she smiled and says, "As good as it's made in Greece." No one disagrees.

She is enthusiastically assisted by dozens of other volunteers, many of whom grew up in and around restaurant kitchens and Baltimore's neighborhood frankfurter grills and lunchrooms, where their parents and grandparents worked hard and prospered. Others learned from mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.

Cooking began shortly after this summer's vacation season. In September, the cooks prepared the lamb shanks (by all indications, they'll be early sellers today). They rolled and stuffed 7,000 grape leaves.

"That was in the first hour," quipped Ethel Fotos, a congregation member who works in its thrift shop.

The ambitious lunch-dinner menu includes half-chicken dinners, squid, shrimp, pastitsio, moussaka, spinach and cheese pies, fish roe spread and Greek-style greens beans. All that before a trip to the sweets table.

"The proceeds go to the church's repair fund. It's an old building that we love," said Georgeann Morekas, an environmental engineer who is president of the Annunciation parish council and whose family owned George's Lunch near the Cross Street Market. She took a 5 a.m. flight in from an assignment in Georgia early Wednesday morning to work on the meal production, a task she's accepted for the past several years.

"I told my husband I'm taking the rest of the week off," said Pat Bartsocas, who owns Timonium's Rib `n Reef Restaurant with her spouse. She made shortbread cookies covered in an avalanche of powdered sugar.

The first festival, called the Athenian Agora, was held in the fall of 1971. It was the idea of Bill Koutrelakos, the retired principal of Brehm's Lane Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore and who, at 75, still substitutes in the Howard County system. He also found the time to run the Cathedral of the Annunciation's Sunday school for decades.

"The congregation was not getting together enough," he said as he manipulated some troublesome phyllo pastry. "The people were moving to the suburbs and growing scared of the city. The agora [festival] caught on and it brought us together."

For example, food prep volunteer Catherine Demos moved to a Charles Street apartment house so she could be on the bus line that would take to her to Annunciation liturgies, and where she worked on the baklava one day this week.

The recipe the Annunciation workers use involves 38 phyllo pastry sheets (each individually buttered) and sprinklings of sugared and crushed walnuts.

Several of the volunteer pastry chefs are retired from jobs in the scientific community, where they worked in laboratories at similar patience-sapping tasks.

Efrosene Kalezis, who worked at Johns Hopkins chemistry lab for many years, was present at the first 1971 festival. She, too works her nimble fingers around the sweet dough and walnuts.

"The way we make it at home is the way we make it here," said Julie Klicos, a former Jackson Street resident from South Baltimore, another 1971 agora alumna.

Asked if making baklava had anything in common with her usual work, Helen Sarafides, who owns and operates a garment reweaving shop in Highlandtown, said: "It's as tedious."

The 2006 Greek Festival, 11 a.m. to midnight today and tomorrow, is held at Maryland Avenue and Preston Street in a tent and within the cathedral complex. Sunday hours are noon to 6 p.m.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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