Generations of culture and baklava in the thousands — what started as a simple church fundraiser has become one of Charlotte’s most popular fall festivals.
As a kid, John Tsumas remembers running around the grounds of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, trying to avoid being put to work.
It was the 1970s, and his mother was outside under the pastry tent at the church’s annual Greek Festival. From a young age, the tent filled with made-from-scratch delicacies was his favorite part. “When I was a kid, I would shadow my mom,” he recalls. “My mom lived at the Greek Festival.”
He’s not alone. Virtually every member of Charlotte’s Greek community — across every generation — plays a role at the Yiasou Greek Festival, held in September at the church on East Blvd. It’s part of the culture, from wine tastings and Hellenic cultural exhibits to the dancers and festival volunteers who place individual cloves atop each slice of baklava.
“It’s hard work,” Tsumas says. “The magic is that the families all share a long-term commitment to pulling it off.”
Born and raised in Charlotte, baptized and still a member at Holy Trinity, Tsumas has grown alongside Charlotte’s long-standing fall tradition, watching it move from a simpler Greek Night with a bake sale to the juggernaut festival it is today. In 1970, the event started as an annual fundraiser held in the church’s Hellenic Center: Parishioners brought families and friends to enjoy a taste of Greek culture. In 1978, the fundraiser expanded into a multiday festival that drew 3,000 guests. Today, about 50,000 people attend the four-day event.
In Greek, “yiasou” means “hello,” “goodbye,” or “cheers” — it’s the kind of word that not only greets but celebrates. “It’s our warm friendly hello to Charlotte,” Tsumas says.
All about the food
Carnival rides and face painting for kids, shopping for Greek olive oils and wines, Greek musicians and local dancers, and an art sale are just a few of the elements that draw thousands to this iconic festival. But the biggest attraction: the food.
Charlotte, NC – August 8th: The ladies of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral work on making Koulourakia in preparations for the next Greek Fest. Photo by Peter Taylor
Under the big top outside, savory gyros are topped with tzatziki, the cucumber-yogurt sauce often served as a condiment with Greek fare. Seasoned potatoes fill paper containers. Some festivalgoers opt for Greek salad, others, souvlaki on a stick. Inside, in the main dining room, baked chicken, lamb and fish are favorites, plus spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pie) and dolmada (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice).
The lines are long, but most guests would agree: They’re worth it.
Tsumas and the other men make 500 full-sized pans of pastichio, a Greek lasagna-type specialty made with pasta, ground beef and cheese in a Béchamel sauce. “The older gentlemen who’ve been doing this for years — we help them, and that’s how we learn,” he says. “We have no recipe card.”
But Tsumas has a sweet tooth, and once the festival begins, he gravitates toward another tent, one that’s familiar from his childhood.
“The sweet side of what we offer is unique, because you don’t see what we serve everywhere,” he says. “The sheer volume of what these women do is truly incredible. They’re the backbone of the festival.”
Georgia Andrews is fussing with her hair. She’s fresh from the salon, where her stylist left her with a little flip-curl — not her typical cut. She smooths down each side with her hands, “My hair never looks like this,” she says. “I always have my hair in a bob.”
She’s particular. And for a woman tasked with overseeing the detailed planning and baking of more than 100,000 pastry pieces, craved by thousands over one weekend in September, that’s understandable.
Andrews has lived in Charlotte for more than 40 years, but she’s been involved in pastry production at the Greek Festival since 2005. “Before that, I worked in the gift shop,” she says. “I inherited the pastries.” She’s a member — and three-time president — of the Philoptochos Society, a ladies’ philanthropic organization that oversees baking the festival sweets.
Producing pastries in bulk requires meticulous planning long before the festival begins. In January, the women review notes from past festivals to correct and perfect the process. For months, Andrews and her crew work to finalize the schedule for all 12 pastry varieties sold at the festival.
Greek Festival sweets range from kourambiethes, the white wedding cookies that are made closer to the festival, to koulourakia (also known as Easter cookies), buttery little twists with a hint-of-vanilla flavor. Loukoumades, or Greek doughnuts, are served warm, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Oval-shaped melomakarona cookies are dipped in honey with nuts on top.
The diples come last. To make these crispy pastries, dough is rolled into long, thin strips, fried in hot oil, and dipped in honey and sugar.
Then there’s the diamond-shaped darling of the festival: Baklava, which is not only the most popular of all the pastries, it’s also one of the more involved recipes. After orders are placed, preparations begin in early August and lead right up to the festival. In all, volunteers bake 450 pans of baklava, each holding 72 pieces. The final yield is 32,400 pieces, excluding what they bake to couple with cold vanilla ice cream for the coveted baklava sundaes.
It’s a perfected process. First comes the syrup — a mixture of water, sugar, cinnamon sticks and lemon that’s boiled until thickened, then set aside. Then, each volunteer, equipped with premixed bags of two pounds of walnuts, breadcrumbs, sugar, cinnamon and ground cloves, layers the mixture with phyllo until they run out. Another group brushes phyllo sheets with clarified butter.
After it’s assembled, the baklava is ready to be cut into its distinct diamond shape. “You have to cut it horizontally, and then diagonally,” Andrews says, noting that just a few ladies are trusted with this delicate task. “They can get it just right — they get it straight.”
Volunteers from teens to those in their 90s come together to “clove” each piece. Cut and cloved, each piece is buttered (again) and baked. To achieve baklava’s flaky exterior crust, the sheets are stored in an air-conditioned room before they’re topped with the syrup. And that’s the key, Andrews says. “You have to keep one part cold and the other warm, or it won’t work.” The sheets cool until Labor Day weekend, when they’re removed, recut, cupped in white baking cups and left to rest in boxes until showtime.
These days, pastry-making is a well-choreographed process, each with its own chairperson, an overseer who schedules, orders and communicates timelines to volunteers. But it hasn’t come without hitches.
One snag sticks out for Andrews. It was 2010, and she was knee-deep in koulourakia — the twist cookies — when she went to move one of the completed racks to cool. One of the cart’s wheels snagged on a sloped drain in the kitchen floor. “All of the pans just [went] flying in the kitchen,” she says. They lost 12 pans of cookies. “We had to throw them all away and start all over again.”
After 14 years of experience, Andrews is more comfortable. “That first year, I was in tears,” she says, “but it’s second nature to me now.”
During the festival, she stays put in pastry headquarters, overseeing the four locations where the sweets are sold. Pastries are so popular, they’re for sale in assorted boxes at the drive-through, in the main dining room, under the big tent and at the takeout counter. With an operation that size, teamwork is essential.
“It’s not one person, but the whole community — everyone working together. I love sharing my culture and the fellowship it brings,” Andrews says. “We have it down to a science.”
“A living part of our culture”
Color and energy fill the festival stages, as the youngest members of the Greek community don intricate cultural costumes, join hands and step to traditional Greek music. The sounds of the bouzouki, a mandolin-like Greek instrument, permeate the grounds.
In Charlotte, like elsewhere, Greek kids go to Greek school, where they learn music and dance. It’s an important way of handing down not only the language but also the cultural customs through the generations.
Stacie Peroulas was born and raised in Virginia, a dancer her whole life. Peroulas has been the chair of the Holy Trinity dance program since she moved to Charlotte in 2001.
Every year, Peroulas spends countless hours preparing 400 students, ages 5 to 25, for an annual January dance competition in Atlanta. They learn specific dances — like those from Crete, with fast footwork, among others — but she leaves room for interpretation. “It’s not about perfection,” Peroulas says. “It’s a way for the kids to express themselves.”
Dance infuses all facets of Greek culture. From ancient wartime dances used to communicate without words to the joining of families at weddings, songs are important. “Each dance tells a story,” Peroulas says. “It’s a living part of our culture.”
And the Greek Festival is a way for the Greek community to share its culture with Charlotte.
At the festival, Peroulas says, it’s like hiding vegetables in dessert. She understands the draw of the gyros and pastries, but she’s optimistic that people will leave with a new takeaway. “We want to inspire people to learn more about our culture and connect with these traditions.” SP
The 2019 Yiasou Greek Festival will be held Sept. 5-8 at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 600 East Blvd. Admission is $3, free for children under 12 who are accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Originally Published by SouthPark: The Art & Soul of Charlotte on August 29, 2019