Dance the syrto and the zembekiko with the Eliaktithes. Munch on dolmathes, souvlaki and spanakopita. Shop in the agora.
If it all sounds Greek to you, it is.
That will be joyously clearer when the annual Taste of Greece Festival returns Sept. 29−Oct. 1 to St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Chandler.
Combining ancient Greek culture with today’s, the weekend celebration includes foods, pastries, live music, costumed folk dancing, imports, arts and crafts and other merchandise in the “agora” or “marketplace,” a Kids Fun Zone and a $1,000 raffle.
The event hours are 5-10 p.m. Sept. 29, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sept. 30, and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Oct. 1.
In its 30th year serving the community, St. Katherine is at 2716 N. Dobson Road, just south of Elliott Road. Free parking and a shuttle bus will be at Seton High School, 1150 N. Dobson Road, just north of Ray Road. Limited handicapped parking is available on the church grounds.
“St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church views its annual ‘Taste of Greece’ as a unique opportunity to showcase the cuisine, culture and faith of the Greek people,” said Father Philip Armstrong, who leads a membership of 200 families.
“We take immense pride in showcasing our Greek heritage and hospitality,” said Vange Archuleta of Chandler.
Archuleta chairs the festival and is a board member at the church, where she’s been involved since its inception more than 30 years ago. Her son, Adam, is a former Arizona State University and NFL player and current CBS Sports analyst.
The first St. Katherine Festival was held at Evergreen Park in Mesa in the early 1980s, with food donated by Spiro Apergis, a restaurant owner and one of the church founding fathers who still assists fellow church member Bill Theros in the fry booth, Archuleta said.
Two later festivals were held at Queen of Peace Church, also in Mesa, and in 1985, the festival moved to the church’s current site.
“We boast excellent homemade Greek food and pastries,” she added “For the sports enthusiast, we offer a sports bar to watch their favorite team while enjoying a menu favorite. All in all, it’s an unforgettable experience that our guests look forward to attending each year.”
Weeks before the event, several dozen church volunteers prepare dishes such as dolmathes (grapevine leaves stuffed with ground beef, seasoned rice and herbs), spanakopita (thin filo dough filled with spinach and cheeses) and pastichio (Greek lasagna, baked macaroni and ground beef covered in béchamel sauce).
This year, the festival is re-introducing pork souvlaki, cubed pork marinated in oil, lemon juice and oregano and skewered, grilled and served on pita bread.
Among the church members helping out, all in their 70s and 80s, is Elaine Hatupis of Queen Creek, the hot food chairwoman who has worked in the festival kitchen since 1987.
“She and her team prepare approximately 5,000 dolmathes for baking during the festival,” Archuleta said.
Mena Bafaloukos and husband Gust, of Chandler, have volunteered their time for 25 years.
She is the festival pastry chairwoman, and estimates that her team has baked 500,000-plus pastries for the festivals. Gust and his volunteer chefs prepare and cook approximately 800 pounds of chicken each year, she added.
And Harry Kantarze of Gilbert, “King of Lamb Shanks,” has been preparing and cooking them for 20 years at the events. “It wasn’t until recently we discovered that Harry has been using his wife Tula’s marinate recipe all along,” she said.
Homemade pastries include baklava (filo dough filled with nuts and spices), kourabiedes (a rich, shortbread-like cookies covered with powdered sugar) and loukoumathes (pastry puffs sweetened with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon).
Kathy Bookas Connell helps prepare the pastries. Her husband, Daryl, is in charge of the tents and setup as well as the shuttle transportation. They have been members of the church for 30 years.
“Before and during the festival, our members are involved with food and pastry preparations and have even produced a cookbook that is sold at the festival,” said Connell, former president of the Philoptohos, the philanthropic arm of St. Katherine, the largest Christian women’s organization in the country. All cookbook proceeds go to charities.
A festival of dance, too
Dance has been an integral to Greek life for millennia.
Live music by the Grecian Express will be heard all weekend, and Greek dance groups will entertain and invite participants. Dance workshops also will be offered.
Niki Pallas and Carol Bafaloukos, both Chandler, are church members who direct, choreograph and prepare the groups for the festival and other events such as the annual Greek Folk Dance competition in California. As girls, the women represented the church when they were members of the Philinathes, “Girl Friends.”
Four dance groups will appear: Mikra Pedakia, preschool to second grade; Elios, third to fifth; Dynamiki, high school; and Eliaktithes, young adults.
“It is also exciting that some of our dancers have also become our musicians, learning to play the traditional songs with traditional instruments of Greece,” said Pallas.
Festival-goers will see dances from all regions of Greece, the islands to the mountains, as well as regional costumes such as Queen Amalea’s and the Evzone worn by the Greek soldiers.
“Each dance has unique styling and attitude on the stage,” said Bafaloukos, a Greek native who moved at 11 to Arizona in 1975.
The women have extensively researched the dances to ensure authenticity. Among these are the syrto, a traditional 12-step dance for celebrations and festivals; the ikartiotiko, from the island of Ikaria; the zembekiko, a men’s dance that showcases many tricks; and the malevisiotiko from Crete.
“Along with the dancing, comes the singing of many folk songs that tell the history of the area,” Pallas said, adding:
“Songs can describe the planting of the olive or lemon trees, hiding from the Turkish invaders and, of course, the love songs. The songs are Greek but because of the different dialects some words are often unrecognizable – even to those who speak Greek!”
Admission is $3, children under 12 free. Get one admission with the purchase of the first at ATasteofGreeceAZ.com, where a full schedule can be found. Church tours will be conducted daily approximately every hour on the hour from the entrance.