The 33rd Annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival

A Legacy of Success Serving Culture & Cuisine from the Cradle of Civilization.

    icon Jun 09, 2011
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In the Great Lakes Bay Area the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival, held on the church grounds at 4970 Mackinaw at McCarty in Saginaw, has become as synonymous with summer as the 4th of July and concerts in the park. Held the weekend of June 17-19th, the Greek Festival offers a cornucopia of authentic Greek cuisine, ethnic dancers, musicians, fellowship and camaraderie unlike any other festival within our region.

Remarkably, when the Greek Festival began back in 1979 it attracted 35,000 visitors it's first year. Today it draws 60,000 supporters to the grounds at St. Demetrios, not only to imbibe and nourish upon the cuisine, but more importantly, to celebrate and become more familiar with Greek culture.

In actuality, the Greek Orthodox Church is the body of several churches within the larger communion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, sharing a common cultural tradition whose liturgy is also traditionally conducted in Koine Greek, the original language of the New Testament. The church's current territorial areas include Greece, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Cyprus, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Albania, Ethiopia and Italy.

Since the inception of the Greek Festival, Dr. Lou Economu has stood at the helm, shepherding the Greek Festival to the levels of success that it enjoys today. Dr. Economou's father was a Greek Orthodox priest who came to Saginaw in 1951 and remained here, retiring from St. Demetrios Church in 1976. Over the years because it was a relatively small community, several smaller church fundraisers and dances were held each year, including pastry sales.

"In 1978 I said to a bunch of friends, why don't we do a festival?" explains Dr. Economu about the origins of Saginaw's Greek Fest. "Other Greek festivals were held throughout the country, so I thought why couldn't we set one up here in Saginaw," he explains. "It took a year to prepare and I became the first Chairman of the festival, which officially began in 1979."

Today Festival Board members also include Mark & Koula Legner, Dennis Ostler, Bill & Yvonne DeLong, Soula Economu, Chris Psetas, Megal Rodriguez, Nick Makrianis, George Triantafillou and Doug Povich.

One of the pivotal reasons for having such a festival in the first place is because for members of St. Demetrious Church, it is important for them to spread their culture. "We wanted to introduce people living in our region to our culture and our religion," he explains. "So often people drive by the church and see our dome and think it's a temple or a mosque; but many still don't realize the Orthodox Church is the first Christian religion – really, where it all started in that area of the world. But we had definite goals for conducting the festival, with the last being to raise money."

While Dr. Economou followed the template of other Greek Festivals featured throughout the country, he also believed it important to weave divergent elements into the tapestry of the festival in order to distinguish it.

"What many other churches do not have at their disposal is 30 acres of property," he continues. "Because of the space we had at our disposal, we decided to cook all the foods that we offered on the spot, rather than prepare it days before and warm it up the day it was served."

"The first year we did the festival we brought in 30 foot long charcoal grills and served 25,000 shish-ka-bobs at one time. By the second year, we introduced the gyro, and then we featured other Greek foods like spinach pie and various Greek salads under the big tent."

Many other favorite staples of the Greek Festival such as calamari, flaming cheese, and flaming sausage were introduced in the 3rd and 4th years of the festival, and the sumptuous deserts have always been a festival staple. Because of the original home-cooked nature of the recipes featured at the Greek Festival, many introduced by the women of the church, with new generations coming into the fold, how are decisions about ingredients and preparation made?

"One of the things we are very conscious of is that fact that every section of Greece has their own distinct recipe for the same food item, so it is a very regional cuisine," reflects Dr. Economou. "Consequently, we determined which recipe would be best suited to the taste for the American people and created the recipes that appealed to the broadest taste. Then we did not allow anybody to change the recipes. After all these years, the core recipes remain the same."

Indeed, several new menu items will be introduced into the festival mix for 2011.
"This year we have decided to introduce lamb chops, which is something our executive board met and discussed over and over, determining which recipe to use. Within the Greek cuisine, lamb chops are done well. You can watch any food show that you want and see many top chefs cooking them medium rare, but ours are done well – plus the seasonings that we apply you can go to Greek Town in Detroit and find the exact same recipe, so that's the route we are going."

"Additionally, for the first time this year we will have a new Greek salad called Horiatiko, which stands for 'village' salad and consists of tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, red onion, and olive oil, with no lettuce. We'll give people this with some bread and a piece of spinach pie, along with 3 lamb chops. Once a year, we bring the fine Greek restaurant to the public," he smiles.

With attendance that seems to escalate each year, how much of a challenge is it to plan how much food to prepare, as the Festival has been known to get a rush on certain items and run out of them by the final day.

"We meet almost weekly," explains Lou, "so by doing that we determine what and how to plan, with everything on the table. We have a checklist for chronological things and what must happen by a certain date, such as getting a band to perform, as many of these artists operate a year in advance. This year once again we feature the Levandes, one of the most gifted and popular groups on the circuit.

Another entertainment focus consists of the colorful dance troupes that are featured each year, adorned in ethnic dress, spinning and cascading like floral petals in the wind. "Generally we bring in a professional group of dancers," explains Lou, "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.

For much of the manual labor, apart from volunteer help from members within the church and throughout the community, they also hire Northwood students and football players to handle some of the heavy work. "There are many details to this event," stresses Lou, "from sharpening the knives – which takes considerable time, to planning each serving item. The lamb chops, for example, will be coming from Chicago while the Pita Bread will be delivered from New York."

"Each year we have about a thousand boxes of deserts that are moved, so the question becomes where to store it? When we started we didn't know what to expect, but knew that food storage would be a problem. Initially the idea came to rent the old Swift storage area down on Washington Street in Saginaw, but you can't really prepare it at the church and then run it downtown in a car, the inspectors wouldn't allow it, plus who's going to carry it? So we bought several 15 x 8 foot freezers that we keep on site, which is enough to keep everything fresh."

"Things that we prepare in advance like Baklava we prepare and freeze ahead of time, without cooking them. We then take them out five days in advance so they can thaw and start to cook the pastries the day of the event. And eventually we moved away from charcoal grills, as the charcoal was running $8-$9.00 per 20 lb. bag and went to bottled gas for the last 15 years."

When they started the Greek Festival, weren't the Board and Church worried about competing with other more established events circulating in the area during the summer months? "At the time you really only had the Corn Festival and the Bavarian Festival," explains Lou. "And we went head-to-head with the Bavarian Festival for three years in a row until they changed their date earlier in the season."

"But in honesty, one of the things we strive to do in terms of making this enticing to the public is make a conscious effort not to overprice anything. Our prices are the same this year as they've been for the last four years, which is remarkable given the conditions we're going through right now economically. Our philosophy is not to change pricing for at least five years, and once it is changed, we stick to that price for another five years. We review pricing every year, but only make changes every five years. For example, calamari went up almost $2.00 a pound, but we aren't changing the price for it this year at the festival."

With an average of 60,000 people attending the Greek Festival during the 3rd week of June, it has grown statewide in stature. There was a time when it was held during the 4th of July weekend, only that was changed because many members of the church liked to travel to Greece at that time, so the current time frame was established. But how is it distinguished from other Greek festivals throughout the state? "I would say it is the quality of the food we serve," reflects Lou. "We never cut corners."

"Another thing we've done that distinguishes us from other festivals is more a policy decision," continues Dr. Ecnonomu. "Many festivals provide various stalls for vendors to rent, but we've kept away from that and do not allow it. Another big difference is that the people working the festival are part of St. Demetrios Church, so it allows for more courteous and personable service. If I mistreat you it's affecting the church and the people of the Greek community, Outside vendors do not have that allegiance."

Similarly, few corners are cut when it comes to the community outreach programs that St. Demetrios has established through the annual Greek Festival, donating thousands of dollars to various community programs and endeavors over the years. "We've probably given our a hundred thousand dollars away over the years to different groups within the community," explains Lou. "For three years in a row we bought $15,000 worth of books and donated them to the library; and for two or three years we donated considerable amounts of money for the Community Center courts and the soccer field. Each year it changes."

Perhaps the biggest memory of the Greek Festival that Lou Economu has retained over the years centers upon the infamous wind-storm of 1986, when at 2 PM in the afternoon a huge gust of wind came through, picking up the huge 160 foot long festival tent and collapsing it. "What surprised me is that the wind actually picked me up and threw me 30 feet right in front of the church steps," exclaims Lou. "And within 3 hours we were all set up again. People had heard about what happened and came up to lend a hand and help set us up again, and I'm talking non-Greeks – friends, neighbors, and customers. By 5 PM we were back in business and it was pouring rain out, but we sill had a phenomenal night. Later I thought to myself, well, I guess this shows that it doesn't matter what kind of weather we have, people will still come. But for the community to pull together like that and help us out was phenomenal."

With the Greek Festival such a deep-seated summer tradition in the Great Lakes Bay Area, according to Dr. Economu, today the most challenging thing about the Festival is to "make sure that our community isn't taking it for granted, or becoming apathetic about it. Back in 1970 we had 178 Greek families involved with the church and now we're down to about 125, which reflects the decline in population throughout our county."

"Really, it takes not only our church community but also the 100 non-Greek volunteers that graciously offer their assistance to pull this festival off. Without them we simply couldn't do it."

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