Opa, y’all! It’s time for Birmingham’s Greek Festival

It takes a village to put on Birmingham’s beloved Greek Festival.

For months before the event, now in its 47th year at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Birmingham, hundreds of people from this city’s thriving Greek community work together to prepare. They cook, they bake and they practice centuries-old dances. They are doing what they have always done – what people still do in villages all over Greece – creating a celebration and inviting people to join them.

Some 30,000 people will show up for this year’s three-day festival Oct. 3-5. Many are Greek. Most are not, and that’s just fine. “It’s a time,” says Sonthe Burge, “when everybody gets to be Greek for the weekend.”

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Burge is chair of a cookie committee that started working early in the summer with a series of cookie workshops to make a single kind of pastry – koulourakia, the twisted, buttery one.

“It’s a great cookie,” she says. “It’s just really nice … it’s more of a butter cookie that’s not super sweet. So it doesn’t go in the category with the baklava or the melos (melomakarona). They have a syrup and are so much sweeter. This is more like a biscotti. Like a Greek biscotti.”

By the time she and her teams are done, they will have made more than 1,600 dozen of these cookies. They will sell them for $10 a dozen, and they very likely will sell out of all 19,488 pieces by Saturday morning.

Burge’s crews of 50 or so volunteers for each two-day workshop include women (and some men) of all ages who work with a few church employees to measure, mix, roll, shape, butter and bake the sweets. Young mothers drop off their children at mothers’ day out and come to the church kitchen to work – and learn – alongside older women who could roll and twist these cookies in their sleep. In the banquet hall, yayas and papous, who no longer want to stand in the kitchen sit at tables and bag the baked koulourakia.

And this is just one variety of sweets that you’ll find at the Greek Festival.

“We have koulourakia, which we’re making today,” Burge says. “We have baklava; that’s what most people are familiar with, and we are really known for our baklava. (That committee will make nearly 25,000 pieces.) We have kourambethes, that’s a Greek wedding cookie (there are 9,034 of these), and then melomakarona, which is a honey spice cookie (more than 6,000 pieces of this labor-intensive pastry are made), and we have Greek donuts (these loukoumathes will be fried to order).”

There’s also chocolate baklava; almond crescents; and kataiffi, made with shredded filo, walnuts, honey and cinnamon.

Of course, there are lots more foods at this free, family-friendly festival.

Appetizers and entrees include pitas (filo triangles filled with feta cheese or spinach and feta); dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves); lamb souvlakia; Greek-style chicken; Greek salad; pastichio (a kind of Greek lasagna topped with béchamel); beef and lamb gyros; and a veggie plate with rice pilaf, Greek-style green beans, a Greek salad, spanakopita and tiropita. These savory dishes are individually priced. Everything is handmade.

All this is available to eat there or take away. You also can use the drive-through, which is available all three days from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No need to call ahead and place your order.

All-day entertainment includes the George Karras Band, DJ Disco Hristo and local dance troupes ranging in age from kindergartners to high schoolers.

“I always encourage people to go into the cathedral,” Burge says. “There are church tours that are guided, and also you can … just take one on your own.” This is the fourth oldest Greek Orthodox parish in the Southeast. The basilica features a stunning Byzantine interior with stained glass, and the iconography is beautiful.

The Greek Festival is lots of fun, but there’s a serious side to all this, too. The festival has donated more than $3 million to local and national charities, including The Bell Center, The Exceptional Foundation, Firehouse Ministries, The WellHouse and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The Birmingham church has an active Philoptochos Society, which is one of the largest women’s philanthropic organizations in the U.S. (although men also can be involved). Just recently, Burge says, the national organization sent $25,000 to the Bahamas for disaster relief.

“We’re all part of something bigger … all across the country … we all belong to this national organization, and we’re just a little microcosm of it here in Birmingham,” she says. “So in Birmingham, our mission is to help the needy, to help the poor. And we give money to different sorts of organizations. We’ve paid for equipment and different things at Children’s Hospital. We also have a scholarship fund for members of our church – for children who are graduating from high school going to college.”

The local chapter’s biggest fundraiser is the sale of frozen pans of pastichio during the Greek Festival.

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