The 36th Annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival: Connecting Our Region to the Bounty of Culture & Community

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 791   By: Robert E Martin

29th May, 2014     0

For me what ushers in summer better than any other festival in our region is the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival, which during the weekend of June 13-14-15th will be celebrating its 36th year of serving up fellowship, music, dance, and the finest variety of authentic & sumptuous Greek cuisine to be found on the planet. 

You may think I’m going over the top with my enthusiasm, but 60,000 other attendees that make the trek to this long-standing celebration also agree: 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.

On the weekend that I recently stopped by to visit the trio of Festival Chair Chris Psetas and Festival Committee members William Tarachas and Andrew Skoutelas, their team was diligently boiling hundreds of lemons as they prepared to turn honey into a syrup that also consists of water, sugar, cinnamon and cloves that will be used in such popular items as Baklava, Loukoumades, Kataife, Bougatsa, and other popular desert items.

According to Psetas, who has chaired the festival several times over the years, the most important ingredient of all that contributes to the success of the Greek Festival is the profound amount of assistance from volunteers. “Apart from being an activity generated by our church community to gather together and show our wares, this festival really does bring the community closer together. We are very fortunate to be able to generate a several teams of volunteers that work together like a finely tuned clock.” 

Adds Bill Tarachas, another team that he works with 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.”

Another significant point noted by team member Art Tselpis; “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.”

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.

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.

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.”

This is a sentiment shared by Festival Chair Chris Psetas, encouraged by the number of young people coming into the fold to shepherd the festival forward for future generations. “I’m encouraged by the number of younger people helping with the baking this year,” he notes. “My daughter-in-law and others are learning how to make these cookies; and they aren’t Greek. We have a wide variation in our church, everything from Russian Orthodox to Midwesterners. It’s not like the old days where the church was comprised mainly of Greeks.”

New Tastes & Fresh Additions

According to Psetas there are also new food items and fresh additions that the Committee is making to this year’s 2014 festival. “We will be giving away a flat screen TV on Father’s Day with ticket entry, which was donated by ABC Warehouse. 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 we’ll have face painting for kids on all three days.” Additionally, Senior Citizens 55 and UP will receive free admission on Friday from Noon to 4:00 PM.

“One thing that I’m very excited about is the lamb that we will be roasting this year,” relays Chris. “When this Festival was first started by Lou Economou and others, his Dad was the Priest here at the church, and my father owned the old Highlife Inn restaurant. They would roast a lamb during the festival for more show than anything and did that for three or four years, only eventually got away from doing it for some reason.”

“Now we’re going to be bringing that back and doing it again this year, which for me is exciting. We tried it last year on a Friday and gave it away on Saturday; only it didn’t last very long. We just gave people a little taste in a small container; and this year we are going to be doing the lamb roast for all three days of the festival because it went over so well last year.  I’m assuming that the lamb should be ready around 6 PM on Friday & Saturday and then around 2-3 PM Sunday afternoon. I have this contraption that I bought out of New York and modified that will allow us to roast a whole lamb on it with wood charcoal.”

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.”

“I’m just praying for good weather,” cautions Psetas. “Weather is everything with this festival. We have had our share of bad weather. I remember one year that I chaired the festival and it rained all day Friday and Saturday and then we had a nice Sunday on the final day of the festival and I thought that year we might go bust. But we made just enough to turn a profit.  And then there was the year that the tents blew down. That was a long time ago, yet nobody ever forgets it!”

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 Chris, “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.”

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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