When it comes to festivals in the Great Lakes Bay area, the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival has evolved into a clarion call for those seeking a cornucopia of authentic Greek cuisine, music, dance, and fellowship singularly unique to any festival within our region.
Once again this year's 34th Annual Greek Festival will be held the weekend of June 15-16-17 on the church grounds at 4970 Mackinaw at McCarty in Saginaw. It stands today as a testament to what community fellowship is capable of achieving. Indeed, when the Greek Festival began back in 1979 it attracted 35,000 visitors its first year. Today it draws 60,000 patrons from throughout the state eager to nourish themselves upon the many flavors and components of Greek culture.
On a sunny Saturday spring morning in mid-May about 30 church members & volunteers are congregated in the basement kitchen at St. Demetrios to bake deserts - and on this particular day they are tackling Diples - those sumptuous honey coated layers of meticulously layered philo dough that kiss your belly like a coated honey-bee.
According to festival co-chair Art Tselepis, the dessert crew starts in early February baking the Baklava, and the Festival committee starts meeting right after the first of the year to pull together their schedule for baking the numerous desserts that have comprised the icing on the cake for cementing the reputation of the St. Demetrios Greek Festival as one of the best in the state, if not the nation.
“Many of these cookies take three days to make,” he explains, such as the Diples we're making today. It takes one day to roll and deep fry the dough; then they need to be wrapped in paper towels, which often take several days to drain off the oil; and then we soak them in honey syrups, which the dough also needs to absorb. After that we sprinkle them with nuts, so as you see, it's quite a project.”
The dessert crew will make anywhere from 1500 to 2000 of these particular cookies and sell out every one of them. “We freeze these cookies,” continues Art, “so they stay fresh for the festival. One of our church members left a generous endowment to the church 20 years ago, which we were truly blessed with. This helped up purchase all the freezers we require for storage.”
Does the Greek Festival committee, which is also co-chaired this year by Chris Psetas, ever consider adding new desserts into the mix? “We've been baking the same ones for 35 years and these recipes don't change,” reflects Art. “We've tried to streamline approaches with them, but that doesn't work either. It's funny because actually they are very simple recipes, but their taste and quality comes from all the handwork and care that you put into them. You've got to really work the dough. And as my Mother used to say, “it's not the recipe honey, it's the love.”
The baking crew works dough not only for pastries, but prepares and works all the dough used for spinach pie, pastitsio, and other Greek favorites. Over 30 ovens are utilized for roasting the gyros and deep-frying squid.
According to Art, the Committee works with suppliers mainly out of Detroit and Chicago. “Because we order so many ingredients, we need to monitor price fluctuations carefully,” he explains. “If we hear of a good deal on nuts we'll pull a crew together and drive to Chicago with a cargo van to gather them, because the prices involved with all of these items fluctuate so much. We try our best to keep prices at the same level for at least five years. And we need a thousand pounds of walnuts to do all of our pastries.”
When I comment on how many divergent workers are spending their Saturday morning rolling philo dough, Art smiles and says, “We are a Greek Orthodox church and just like you don't have to be Roman to go to the Roman Catholic Church, people don't need to be Greek to join ours. We have a lot of Russians, Armenians and Arab people that come to our church because of its Orthodox faith. That guy over there is Spanish.”
Pleased that the crew has the dessert end of life professionally in hand, I head over to speak with Dr. Lou Economu, whom has been a pivotal figure with the St. Demitrios Greek Festival since its inception back in 1978.
“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.”
Economu says one of the primary reasons for having the festival is because church members feel it's important 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, so we had definite goals for conducting the festival, with the last being to raise money.”
“Traditionally we have anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 people attend the Greek Festival,” he explains. “But for us there's a couple of different ways to know if we've been successful. Number one is what our gross receipts are, not the net but the grand total. And number two is whether we sell out everything we make.”
Notwithstanding the festive and culinary satisfaction delivered by the Greek Festival, its role as a charitable benefactor is equally profound. “After all the expenses are covered we give a percentage of our receipts to charities in the area, which have ranged from Alzheimer's, Autism, the Hospitality House and McNalley House, Center Courts, and the soccer complex.”
“When the township was building their community center and looking for help from people, rather than break out contributions into several different allotments, one year we gave everything to their building fund and turned out to be their highest non-corporate contributor,” explains Lou.
“We also give money to Senior Citizens and the Children's Fund and whatever is left over we give to the building fund of the church, not the operational fund. Because someday you're always going to need a new roof.”
In addition to the many culinary specialties and favorites of Greek cuisine, this year The Levandes will 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 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.”
As I compliment Lou on the incredibly success that the Greek Festival has evolved into over the past 34 years, he laughs and points out how from year-to-year, success is relative because it hinges upon one factor - the weather.
“It's hard for me to believe that what started with a 24 x 24 pole 34 years ago is now the massive operation that it is,” he reflects. “But the irony is that with the thousands of dollars in equipment, tents, inventory, freezers, not to mention all the time involved over the expanse of a year, everything you have invested comes down to three days where you pray for good weather!”
“That's why I always say my prayers and look at the skies as we roll around to the time of Greek Fest. But yes, I think its safe to say that the rewards of this labor of love have paid off.”
“You know it's a success when other Greeks come to your festival!”