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In Praise of the Loukoumades-Makers

The Greek Food Festival season is upon us. Hundreds of Greek Orthodox parishes will be hosting weekend-long events centered around home-made Greek dishes as well as Greek music and dancing – as well as volunteer labor of thousands of parish members. It has become an annual fundraising event for each parish. Those not holding such a festival at around Memorial Day in late May will do so at around Labor Day in early September. These festivals began proliferating from the late 1960s onwards when there was an influx of Greek immigrants, the revival of ethnicity suddenly made ethnic foods more interesting and desirable. And it was a time when the parishes were being urged to raise funds by Archbishop Iakovos.

Since their appearance most festivals have changed only marginally – they now take credit cards and sell t-shirts. The Greek music and dancing was also a later addition. What has not changed is the offering of the main dishes of Greek cuisine, from gyro and souvlaki and Greek salad, to pastitsio and moussaka and finally baklava and loukoumades. But even those offerings are changing according to an article in this newspaper last week. In New Orleans’ Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral – despite being the oldest Greek Orthodox church in the United States – is apparently open to innovation. Its Greek food festival offers “something you won’t find at any others around the United States – including goat burgers, baklava sundaes and ouzo jello shots.”

I don’t want to know what exactly is an ouzo jello shot. I have spent some time recently on the island of Mytilene, Greece’s main ouzo producer. Naturally they take their ouzo very seriously. For example it is considered a major faux pas if one does not follow the proper sequence in filling once glass: first the ouzo, then the water and then the ice. Adding ice to straight ouzo is a no-no because it crystallizes and loses its perfect taste. And there is no bolting it down in ouzo drinking. The drink is consumed slowly, sip by sip while having conversation. Next time I visit I think I will not mention the existence of shots of ouzo jello on the other side of the Atlantic.

The popularity of the Greek food festivals and their offerings is epitomized by how one of their main attractions is a very traditional dish that dates back to the Ancient Olympic Games where it was offered as a reward to the winners: loukoumades. Fried dough may be one of the most ubiquitous foods in the world. In just about every country’s cuisine, one can find some variation of a pastry that uses flour, water, and hot oil. The Greeks soak the dough balls in honey or syrup and add cinnamon, and I am sure innovative food fairs such as the one in New Orleans are adding chocolate or ice cream. But this sounds very close to Italian zeppole, Mexican churros, or Pennsylvania’s funnel cake. And yet, America loves loukoumades, known as Greek fritters, Greek fried puffs, honey puffs, and Greek doughnuts. When local newspapers started reporting on upcoming Greek food festivals, loukoumades featured in their headlines. For example, in 1973 the Tampa Bay Times headlined a story about a food festival in Tarpon Springs with the words “If You haven’t Tried Loukoumades…” while the Standard Times of San Angelo, a town in western Texas, headlined a 1975 article with the phrase “Greek Food Fair Features Loukoumades and Souflakia” (sic). In 1989 a headline in the Sunday News in Lancaster, PA put it succinctly: “Greek Food Festival Means Loukoumades.”

But what about the loukoumades makers themselves? In sharp contrast to the delicious dough balls they ladle out of the hot oil and douse with honey and cinnamon, we hear very little of them. And we hear very little of the volunteer work required for the labor intensive making of baklava and the other baked goods, or, to include the male members of the parish, the back breaking job of grilling meats over an open fire. Year in year out these volunteers are there at the festival, and without their work there would be no festival and many Americans would not have heard of loukoumades and some of the other menu items. One hopes these women and men are recognized and thanked by their own parish. But they deserve much more credit.

The Greek food festival is an accessible and affordable gateway into the world of Greek cuisine. Americans are adventurous in their food tastes, but my sense is they will not visit an upscale white tablecloth Greek restaurant anywhere in the United States without having first sampled those foods in the less salubrious but also less intimidating surroundings of the parking lot a Greek Orthodox parish where the festivals take place. There cannot be a better introduction to an ethnic cuisine than sampling homemade food – made by the loving hands of the unsung heroes, women and men of the Greek food festival that is coming soon to a parish near you.

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