THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Festival Season Begins with the Biggest and Most Definitive Celebration of Authentic Greek Cuisine in the State of Michigan
11th June, 2015 0
Summer Festival season in the Great Lakes Bay Region kicks off once again with the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival, which during the weekend of June 19-20-21st will celebrate its 37th year of serving up fellowship, music, dance, and the finest variety of authentic & sumptuous Greek cuisine to be found in the State of Michigan.
With an average of 40,000 attendees each year over the expanse of this weekend celebration, the origins and levels of community involvement and reciprocation generated by this annual gathering on the church grounds of St. Demetrios church, which is located at 4970 Mackinaw, epitomizes what both a church and community are capable of achieving, having grown consistently to a point where it not only brings friends & family together, but draws in tens of thousands of patrons from all regions of the state, eager to indulge themselves with the many flavors & components of Greek culture.
The spirit and soul of this annual celebration dates back to ancient Greece, when cities and villages would celebrate Thesmophoria, to honor the goddess Demeter, who taught mankind to tend the soil; and according to Greek legend, gave mankind the gift of agriculture. Whatever power provides the bounty of harvest deserves praise; and such are the origins of the ‘first’ Greek festival thousands of years ago.
But the true heroes of this annual celebration are the members of St. Demetrios Church, who gather together every weekend beginning in February to bake and prepare the many delectable items that populate the incomparable menu of the Greek festival. Each weekend different teams consisting of 20-40 people assemble to tackle the preparation of different items, with various committee chairs assembling the teams.
Heading up the organizational network that diligently structures the architectural teamwork together that makes this ambitious celebration possible are 2015 festival co-chairman Mark Legner and Kevin Kato. Mark has been involved with the festival for 18 years, while Kevin’s involvement spans 11 years, last year serving his first year as co-chair and 2015 marking his first year as Chairman of the festival.
Both Legner and Kato agree that the most challenging component of staging the Greek Festival involves pulling all the logistics together. “We have so much to do from putting up the fencing to working with the different companies as they arrive to putting the tents up that getting things to coincide so everything falls together smoothly is the biggest challenge,” reflects Mark. “It takes a good week to get everything set up and one day to tear it down,” he smiles.
With approximately 70% of St. Demetrios membership in their 60s and late 70s and approximately 218 families involved with the church, Kevin says that he joined St. Demerios a couple years ago, while his wife has been a member for many years. “I finally converted to the Greek Orthodox religion two years ago the weekend of the Greek fest,” notes Kevin. “We’re gradually getting new members involved with the church and have a new young energetic priest here, so are moving forward with getting younger members involved.”
“We have anywhere from 100 to 150 people helping us during the festival; and not all of them are church members, but many are friends of committee members,” he continues. “The Dance Troupes that perform start as young as age 4 and go up to age 18 and young adulthood; and the dancers have been practicing since December. Many volunteers are often here from 9 am to 11:30 at night, so it is definitely a commitment.
“What distinguishes the Greek Festival for me is that it’s the first major outdoor festival of the year for the most part, so is actually a kickoff for summer,” continues Kevin. “Kids that grew up in the area are back from college and come back for the festival, so it also works as reunion for friends and family of sorts.”
“People have returned for this festival year-after-year for 20 years or longer,” adds Mark. “It’s definitely one of the biggest Greek celebrations in the state. There are two or three other Greek ethnic festivals down in Ann Arbor and Detroit, but they don’t compare to this one. Larger cities like Dayton and Cincinnati also hold similar celebrations, but they also don’t compare to the one we pull together.”
“I remember the first year I chaired the festival very well,” reflects Mark, “because I was the first non-Greek Orthodox to be a festival chairman; and I was amazed at the magnitude of this event from start to finish. It was challenging that first year because at the general assembly they asked who wants to be festival chairman; and I raised my hand and had no clue what was taking place or what I was getting myself into. But I learned real fast,” he smiles.
Kevin relates how his involvement began with the first festival that he attended when he and his wife were still dating. “She told me: if you want to be part of the family you have to do the Greek Festival; and from that point on I went from helping out to becoming chairman of one of the shish-ka-bob stations. From there I got invited to be part of the Board of Directors and started helping making decisions; and last year they decided to take my training wheels off and teach me everything I needed to know to run the festival. They said they needed some young blood to get more people from my generation involved; and when you have someone my age its easier for me show other younger kids how to step in and get involved.”
And whether you’re a church member or a fan of the festival that would like to lend a helping hand, there is plenty to involve and immerse oneself in, whether its assembling, preparing and baking 2500 pieces of katiaifi, which is an art in itself involving over 140 pounds of shredded dough and 2000 cloves, with the desert broken down in pans; or baking Baklava and Spinach Pie – there is indeed a place for you on any one of the 18-people teams that prepare all the food items served at the festival fresh from scratch, religiously following home-prepared authentic recipes handed down over the generations.
And as a gauge to assess the collective appetite for the Greek Fest throughout the region and beyond, consider this: last year was their best year ever for gyros. “We went through roughly eighty 30 lb. gyro combs,” notes Kevin.
New Additions & Family Favorites
On Father’s Day June 21st this year will offer the opportunity to win a 60 Inch Flat Screen Television, which is something introduced last year at the festival. Additionally, Sparky the Fire Dog will also be there on Saturday from noon to 2:00 PM; and the Michigan State Police will also be on hand Saturday to take fingerprint ID’s of children in the pastry tent, plus the festival will feature face painting for kids on all three days. Senior Citizens age 55 and UP will also receive free admission on Friday from Noon to 4:00 PM.
Kevin also notes that this year the Festival will be adding Oberon craft beer into the mix at the beer tent, which is something they’ve never featured before. “We wanted to feature a Michigan beer this year and Oberon has a big following, so it’s a good summer beer to bring into the fold.”
“We will also be offering samples of Festival Founder Lou Economou’s roasted lamb,” notes Mark. “When this Festival was first started by Lou Economou and others, his Dad was the Priest here at the church, and they started this tradition of slow-roasting a lamb at the festival, which disappeared for several years. Lou started doing this again last year and we’ll be giving people a little taste in a small container for all three days of the festival because it went over so well last year.”
In addition to the many culinary specialties and favorites of Greek cuisine, this year The Levandes will once again return to perform Greek music with colorful dance troupes spinning and cascading like floral petals in the wind to entertain patrons. “Generally we bring in a professional group of dancers,” explains Chris Psetas “and then we also want our young children to meet others within our culture, so we open it up to other groups in the Midwest and Canada, offering to put them up in area hotels and feed them. Now we bring in four or five different dance groups, primarily featuring the Kyklos Dance Troupe.”
And of course, another consistently admirable quality about the Greek Festival is the monetary contributions they dedicate towards various community projects. “After the festival is completed, depending upon how we do, the Committee decides upon how to distribute additional proceeds after our expenses are met,” explains Chris. “In the past we’ve donated to the Soccer complex, one time we put money into the new Veterans Memorial on Washington Street in downtown Saginaw; and in other years we’ve donated to the township library system and the YMCA. Over the years we’ve probably invested $100,000 back into the community. I know we’ve reinvested at least $35,000 in the years that I’ve been involved with the festival.”
Despite the energy, commitment, time, and dedication that all the St. Demetrios volunteers invest into the Greek Festival, the paybacks are indeed immense. And as Festival originator Lou Economu stated it so well to me several years ago: “You know it’s a success when other Greeks come to your festival!”
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)