East County’s Linda Pape and Paree Gardner feel more like sisters than longtime friends.
Perhaps it’s because of their families’ Greek heritage or because they both have visited Greece dozens of times over the past three decades.
Or perhaps it’s their shared love of Greek cuisine and their passion for St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church’s annual Greek Festival, this year held Feb. 8-11.
“It’s a riot,” Gardner said of the 34th annual festival, which brings church members and their friends together for weeks of
preparation. “It’s a spirit of camaraderie.”
This year, the women will man the festival’s booths for “mezethes,” or appetizers. They will be selling $9 plates of keftethes (meatballs) paired with hunks of feta cheese and pita; vegetarian dolmades with hummus, pita and tomatoes; saganaki (fried cheese); and calamari.
Such snacks are a must in Greek culture.
“Greeks don’t just drink,” said Gardner, who lives in Lakewood Ranch. “They always have an appetizer along with it. If you go to Greece and order a glass of wine, they’ll bring a piece of cheese, a tomato, cucumber or olive.”
Pape, of Greenfield Plantation, will make the saganaki and calamari fresh to order in her fryer.
The dolmades are ordered directly from Greece. Other Greek food offerings include lamb shanks, moussaka, pastitsio and Greek pastries. Nearly every item is prepared by church members and volunteers, who have spent up to five days a week peeling potatoes and carrots, precooking meats and preparing foil pans full of food to reheat and sell at the festival.
Pape knows the preparations by heart. Her husband, Lakis, does all the ordering — enough for an estimated 15,000 guests over the four-day event. It’s enough to fill the church’s walk-in freezer and refrigerator, as well as two refrigerated trucks.
“This is a big operation,” Gardner said.
Pape pointed to the 20 volunteers working that day — men peeling carrots and women sorting pastries shipped in from Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs. It was so loud, it was hard to hear what she said.
“This is typical of Greeks,” she said with a grin. “They’re all talking at the same time.”
Pape and Gardner said they should have beds at the church because they’ve spent so much time there, but they would not trade the experience. The festival is something they look forward to each year and something they hope the community will enjoy as much as they do.
“It just evokes good memories for us,” Pape said of the event. “For our guests, we hope it evokes a sense of joy and fun.”