40th annual fest is Greek isle of dancing, food and fun

To be Greek for a day is to be welcomed into a large, expansive family that wants most to feed you, laugh with you and share stories of their culture.

At this year’s 40th anniversary Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Cathedral, revelers can expect just that.

Festival-goers are invited to be Greek for a day — or three — while helping to “Celebrate the Big 4-Opa!” Memorial Day weekend, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Festival chairwoman Ginny Zissis said that from its humble beginning in 1973, the festival has been a source of joy for the local Greek community.

“We were very excited about doing something for the community, showing our culture, and we had such a great support from our own community and then the outside community,” Zissis said. “The New Orleanians and everyone in the area just fell in love with the Greek food, the Greek culture, just everything about it.”

The festival, which drew only a few hundred people its first year, now attracts almost 25,000 visitors to the banks of Bayou St. John at Robert E. Lee Boulevard in Lakeview.

Sunday, revelers who wear a toga enter the festival for free and participate in the “Best Toga” contest in the evening.

Activities are scheduled to wow crowds throughout the weekend including a number of dance performances by the church’s own troupe.

Vivian Haik is director and choreographer of the New Orleans Hellenic Dancers and has been with the group since the mid-1980s. In fact, she took over for her parents, Eleftheria and Petros Demarinis, and has led the group on and off for 25 years.

The Hellenic dance group that performs at Greek Fest is composed of volunteers, who begin at age 14, from the local Greek community.

“They do a great job balancing school, home … and then they find the time to give me an hour or two and it’s amazing to see that,” Haik said of the young people in the troupe.

“We work as a team and they’re a fun bunch. It’s fun to watch them grow,” Haik said. “Some kids have been with me for 10 years, some for 15. I’ve reached the point now where I’m teaching the kids of people I danced with in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Hellenic dance performances will take place at 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday; 1:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 5 p.m., 8 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 6:30 Sunday.

The festival will also feature live Greek music by the Alpha Omega band from Atlanta.

There will also be tours of the historic cathedral throughout the weekend and a fun run and 5K at 7 p.m. Friday.

Local artist James Michalopoulos has lent his talents to creating a poster for this 40th anniversary festival. Michalopoulos, who has created images for past Greek fests, painted images of various Greek foods and drinks.

The food is a major star of the annual festival, all of it homemade according to traditional recipes.

Eleftheria and Petros Demarinis, active volunteers with the church for more than 40 years, are in charge of the Greek dinner section of the fest.

Top dishes this year will include pastichio (a baked pasta dish), meatballs in Greek sauce, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and tyropitta (savory cheese pie).

Eleftheria also noted the popular vegetarian plate — featuring spinach pie, tyropitta, green beans, salad and dolmades — will be available again this year.

Non-vegetarians might take note that there will be 3,000 pounds of gyro meat and 200 lambs prepared for the festival as well. Elie (Elias) Tsatalios, the “chief of calamari,” also noted there will be 2,600 pounds of the popular deep-fried squid for patrons to enjoy.

Pastries sold at the festival are made in the church kitchen following recipes that have been used for decades. The selection of sweets this year will include diples, karidopita, loukomades (“Greek beignets”), ouzo cake and kourabiedes (wedding cookies). There will also, of course, be baklava — 270 trays of 64 pieces each to be precise.

“Our pastries are fantastic because they’re homemade,” Zissis said. “They’re made from all the Greek ladies and the Greek gentlemen and even the non-Greeks that have come to be part of our volunteer staff.”

Pastry chairwomen Sandy Bouzon, Helen Malachias and Mary Kontos agreed their continued involvement over the years has been inspired by a love of tradition and community.

“It’s almost like when you come over here you kind of forget about everything that’s going on in your house and everywhere else because we’ve got a purpose. And the purpose is to make money for the church but also to continue the legacy of what our grandmothers and mothers taught us,” Malachias said.

Added Bouzon: “It’s a family affair.”