Going Greek

By Hyacinth Miles

You might have noticed the past three weeks have seen Lexington blanketed in blue and white signs advertising our annual Greek Festival, from the small bumper stickers on cars about town, to the billboards on the sides of buses. It seems strange therefore, that it would be so difficult to get in touch with the cooks from the festival.

First I tried calling the church, but, getting no answer I tried The Oleika Temple, where the event will be held this year. But the woman who answered the phone had no contact information for anyone actually involved in the festival. So I called the Lexington Tourism Bureau.

“Do you have a contact number for the Greek Festival?”

“Uh. Can I just give you the name of the University?” asked the guy.

What? Oh. “No,” I said, “Greek like a country, not Greek like a fraternity.”

“We don’t have one of those.” He said. “There’s one in Louisville, but not in Lexington.”

Quick, I thought, someone better tell the guys at Lextran to take down all those signs. Eventually I did things the old fashioned way. I got a coworker to call her Greek friend, who called her mother, who gave her the number of a great aunt, who put me in touch with Kallie Theodre-Sawaya, festival volunteer and captain of the Spanakopita team.

Cooking for the Greek festival is a massive job. The menu has 20 hand-cooked items, about half of which are pastries requiring laborious preparation. Most of these pastries are assigned a special day and a team captain oversees their preparation in the basement of the Panagia Pantovasilissa Greek Orthodox Church, which sponsors the event.

Saturday, the day I dropped by was Baklava day. In an especially cruel twist of fate I’d gotten my wisdom teeth removed two days before, and the smells coming from the kitchen were more than enough to remind me that I hadn’t eaten anything solid in 48 hours.

I’d wrapped a scarf around my head a la 1950’s rain slicker, in a vain attempt to hide my rounded cheeks and was sort of proud of the effect, since the scarf perfectly matched my shirt—a good deal more fashion conscious than I generally am. However, I still looked ridiculous. As I entered the church people stared. But Mrs. Theodre-Sawaya was quite gracious, as if everyone who’d dropped by the kitchen that day was dressed like a Greta Garbo impersonator.

She introduced me to Maria Boosalis, the baklava captain, and thus nominally in charge of the day’s cooking. She worked busily assembling trays of tissue thin Phyllo and nuts while I tested my journalistic skills on her.

“Er. I’ve heard baklava is one of the hardest things in the world to make.” I said.

“Oh it’s not that hard,” said Mrs. Boosalis, “Working with Phyllo can be a little tricky if you aren’t used to it. You have to be quick or it dries out and cracks.”

“So how long does each tray take to assemble?”

“About 20 minutes.”

“Really?” That didn’t seem too bad. But then the air was filled with addendums, coming from every direction.

“Oh, but before that you have to melt the butter.”

“And prepare the nuts.”

“Oh, right the nuts. You have to prepares and chop the nuts.”

“And after you layer the butter and the nuts and the Phyllo, you have to tuck in the edges.”

“And then you have to cut it.”

“Right, and that takes a while, you use a peg board and a ruler.”

“And then the cooking takes a few hours.”

“Then you add the syrup. And you have to do that right out of the oven. Hot baklava, cold syrup.”

“And making the syrup takes days in itself.”

“But assembling the tray only takes about 20 minutes.”

“Right,” I said faintly. “Simple.”

“Here, come into the kitchen.”

There I met David Norris and Angel Levas, bakers and syrup makers extraordinaire. Mr. Norris explained a little to me about the process of actually baking the baklava.

“Careful David.” someone shouted. “You don’t want to give away the recipe.”

“No worries.” I said. Two months of writing this column and I still haven’t figured out how to turn on my oven.

After meeting the bakers and the syrup makers and the tray assemblers I met Bob Cuzick the cutter, and a few of the other team leaders. “Don’t use my name,” everyone said. “But be sure to mention…” and they’d point to someone who had just told me not to use their name.

“Well I have to mention someone by name.” I joked. “I can’t use indefinite pronouns through the entire article.”

But everyone insisted on giving credit where it was due, which was everywhere apparently. The Parish is small, between 60 and 80 families, but the festival itself draws well over 30 times that number. The cooking alone takes two weeks and will go one up until and after the festival open this Saturday. The day I visited them, the goal was to make 2,886 pieces of baklava. That’s 180 lbs. of Phyllo and 120 lbs. of sugar for the festival’s baklava alone.

Luckily, in your own kitchen there is no need for such heroic proportions. As a matter of fact, if you want to try your own hand at baklava, have I got recipe for you:

Get in your car the afternoon of August 28th or 29th.

Turn it on.

Drive to the Oleika Temple, 326 Southland Drive, off of Nicholasville Rd.

Pay $1.50 (although I warn you, based on the smell one piece won’t be enough).

Enjoy. n