For 55 years St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights has been hosting a summer celebration of Hellenic heritage. This year’s Greek Festival runs, rain or shine, August 23-26. There’s music, dancers, and a flea market, but the biggest attraction for many is the food. What makes each portion of dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) and baklava special is that everything served and sold is made in the church kitchen by an army of dedicated volunteers.
They begin gathering weekly, every Monday morning at the end of June. Each session focuses on a particular dish and two big walk-in freezers gradually get filled from floor to ceiling with large foil pans. The diminutive woman in charge is named Aggie and she is undaunted by 50 pound bags of flour and 25 gallon containers of oil.. She’s been running things in the festival kitchen for 17 years and her mother did it before her. I was invited to join these hard-working women (and the few men who also show up to help) for a couple of cookie baking sessions and count myself very lucky to have been there.
I sat with ladies at long tables, shaping dough— one day it was the braided biscuits called koulourakia and the next time it was finikia, ovals dipped in honey syrup and dusted with walnuts. The goal was to produce around 5000 cookies. The money from the sale of all the food goes to charity
Some teenage girls participated but my companions were mostly middle aged and older. The ones who know taught those who don’t. “Make a ball like this, roll it out, then fold like so.” “Don’t handle it too much.” “The secret is a light touch.” “Watch, I’ll show you a better way.” “This is how my grandmother did it. She was a great baker.” Maria, beautiful white haired and impeccably dressed, demonstrated her method of pinching and folding to me— I watched, then imitated her movements and suddenly my cookies looked good enough to take their place on the big baking sheets along with the others.
The big social hall where we worked hummed with multiple conversations, in Greek and English, punctuated by laughter. I eavesdropped on exchanges about children and grandchildren, vacations and health. Some sought me out to be sure I got the story right.
“It’s not me, it’s not her or her. All this food happens because of everybody, the whole group. We could not do what we do here any other way. Each one, from the oldest to the youngest is important.”
“We ladies come in like gang busters, ready to work. “Where’s the dough, the spinach, the cheese? We rest up for these Mondays. Now some bring their husbands who are retired and we need them. Those full pans are getting heavier every year- and every year we make more of them- and we can’t lift them as easily as we did 20 years ago.”
Each gathering ended with lunch that a few prepared for all the rest. On this past Monday, someone put on some Greek music and a few women responded by lifting their hands up over their heads, snapping their fingers, and swaying their hips. It was wonderful to be among these women, to briefly be a part of their community and their effort. I felt a rare and special joy, a sense of connection that warm and enveloping. The room was filled with a beautiful energy and even though I had deadlines looming, articles to write, and interviews to schedule, I did not want to leave. For me the Festival had already begun.