Celia Casey, Cuisine Française 11:08 p.m. CDT October 5, 2015
Parishioners and volunteers work together to make 11,000 dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) for this weekend’s Pensacola Greek Festival.(Photo: Celia Casey/News Journal correspondent)
Growing up, my first whiff of Greek cuisine came from a neighbor’s kitchen. We lived a few blocks from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Garden Street, an area sprinkled with Greek families and businesses.
The drafts from the neighbor’s kitchen were mysterious and complicated, yet warm and inviting; a mix of oregano, garlic, onions, mint, nutmeg and cinnamon — not at all typical Southern cooking aromas.
Through the years, at Greek weddings, restaurants and festivals, those enticing smells were always a sign of delicious and zany things ahead.
Recently, as I walked into the church’s kitchen as the congregation was preparing for the upcoming Pensacola Greek Festival, not only were those nostalgic fragrances in the air, warm Greek hospitality and friendliness — which they call filoxenia — set the tone.
Parishioners and volunteers were making dolmathes — grape leaves stuffed with beef, onions, rice and fresh herbs to be simmered in a lemony chicken broth. They sat at long tables hand-filling and rolling the iconic appetizers.
Even with 11,000 dolmathes to make, smiles and easy greetings were just as abundant as the trays of green, cigar-shaped delicacies.
Conversations came easily. Everyone had a story to tell.
There were stories of their adventurous Greek ancestors, who first came to this area in search of a new and better way of life. They were immigrants, attracted here by the similarities to their homeland — the proximity to the sea, the warm climate, abundance of seafood, and a casual way of life. Not surprisingly, most of the early settlers were fishermen, grocers and restaurant owners.
Just as their cuisine became a vehicle for their success in the community, their Orthodox faith, rich culture, heritage and traditions, food, music and dancing set the stage for bazaars and festivals to raise money and share their love of life.
There were stories of grandmothers selling baskets of homemade pastries to downtown businesses in the 1940s, followed by luncheons and bazaars in the 1950s and on to today’s three-day festival, with more than 30,000 people attending.
Echoes of their mothers, fathers and grandparents enriched the story telling. I met the Greek language teacher whose in-laws were the first to be married in the original church on Reus and Wright Streets; the first baby, now 78 years old, baptized in the Garden Street church; the church historian who, at age 88, has worked at every festival; and the devoted parishioner who runs the kitchen, ordering all ingredients including 100 legs of lamb, 2,000 pounds of ground beef and countless cases of olive oil and tomatoes.
If everyone, young and old, had one thing in common, it was their ethnic and cultural pride.
The Pensacola Greek Festival, in its 56th year, showcases this pride through the food, dancing and music and by sharing their faith, traditions and hospitality. The festival is this weekend, Friday through Sunday.
Start with a tour of the church with a brief introduction to its history, elaborate architecture, iconography and Byzantine music.
Enjoy sumptuous classic Greek cuisine — dolmathes, spanakopita, moussaka, pastitsio, roast lamb, chicken and more — in the Hellenic Center. You’ll find gyros, fried calamari, souvlakia, loukaniko and Greek salad at the Taverna Grill. Save room for luscious, sweet Greek pastries — baklava, koulouria, kourambiethes, paximadia, just to name a few. Too full? Take a box home.
Sit back with a rich, dark Greek coffee, a glass of beer or wine, and enjoy live Greek music and dancers in native costumes. Want to learn Greek dancing? Hit the dance floor, join hands and work off a few calories.
Celia Casey is a graduate of the Paris Cordon Bleu and teaches classes in French cuisine. Cuisine Française, 934-7481, or visit www.celiacasey. com.
Want to go?
- WHAT: 2015 Greek Festival of Pensacola.
- WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
- WHERE: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 1720 W. Garden St.
- ADMISSION: Free,
- THEME: Skopelos, the lush, green island off the northern coast of Greece that many parishioners still call home.
- COMMUNITY OUTREACH: This year’s festival will support Gulf Coast Kid’s House, Guardian ad Litem and Manna Food Pantries.
- DETAILS AND RECIPES: Visit www.pensacolagreekfestival.com.