While there are many notable and long-standing festivals & celebrations that usher in the start of summer in the Great Lakes Bay region, one of my own personal favorites is the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival, which will celebrate its 35th year of serving music, dance, fellowship, and a broad variety of authentic, fresh & sumptuous Greek cuisine on the weekend of June 14-16th.
Held on the St. Demetrios church grounds which are located at 4970 Mackinaw at McCarty in Saginaw, to my mind this festival epitomizes what both a church and community are capable of achieving, having grown from attracting 35,000 visitors its first year to a point today where it draws over 60,000 patrons from throughout the state eager to immerse themselves within the many flavors and components of Greek culture.
In modern society people are often alienated and divorced from their heritage and the ancient rituals and practices that connect them to the earth's bounty and the natural order that sustains them. And perhaps one of the components that make this annual ritual so nourishing and embracing for the spirit and soul is that the origins and blueprints for this celebration date 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 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.
On the weekend that I stopped by to visit in mid-May, thirty people were gathered together in the basement kitchen at St. Demetrios to prepare the popular and sumptuous dessert known as Kataifi, a pastry that looks like it is wrapped in shredded wheat, but is actually comprised of shredded phyllo dough, walnuts, sugar, cinnamon, ground cloves, and syrup.
According to committee chair Bill Tarachas, his team will assemble, prepare, and bake 2500 pieces of kataifi, which is an art in itself. Over 140 pounds of shredded dough and 2000 cloves are involved, with the desert broken down by pans. “You have to wrap and work this stuff tight other wise it will break up,” he explains. “We obtain our ingredients from all over and some of the items come from Gordon's, other's from vendors in Chicago. But the key is with the syrup because you need to separate the butter and there are several ways to approach it.”
Adds festival chairman Art Tselepis; “You can either add cold syrup to hot kataifi or hot syrup to cold kataifi, but never the other way; because if you do it will end up not absorbing the syrup properly. It will be sweet on the outside, but not permeated throughout the dough.”
While most of the items on the menu average 2000-2500 pieces, on popular items such as baklava, the team will prepare up to 3000 pieces. And trust me, that's a lot of dough rolling and preparation. Indeed, as I'm watching one of the volunteers, Dave Ortega, hand-rolling his pan of kataifi, he jokingly comments: “I started volunteering my time for this back in 1982 and have been doing it for 29 years. I was supposed to have gotten my gold watch four years ago.”
Once these items are finished they are frozen, 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,” explains Art.
Does the Greek Festival committee ever consider adding new items 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 our approach 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. But to answer your question, yes, this year we are adding French Fries into the mix because a lot of the kids that attend don't like the 'fancy' stuff, so we'll have hot dogs and French fries for them.”
And another somewhat disconcerting development at this year's Greek Fest is that the ever popular 'flaming cheese' will now be grilled instead of flamed, as the Fire Marshall informed the committee that because it is prepared under a tent, flaming can no longer be involved.
After the preparatory work is completed, 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 phyllo 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.”
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 35 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 35 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!”