“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek proverb
Fifteen years ago, two men began discussing what they could do to help their struggling church, St. Spyridon, a Greek Orthodox church located in Summit Park area of Clarksburg, West Virginia. St Spyridon, like many traditional churches, was experiencing a drop in membership, and subsequently some financial challenges.
The church needed to find a way to reduce, if not eliminate, their projected financial deficit. Traditional fundraisers had failed. However, one day, two leaders of their church and community sat in the fellowship center trying to find an answer. Father Leonidas wanted to know what Angelo Koukoulis thought of the idea of a Greek food festival.
Koukoulis was all for the idea, “We could get the whole Greek community involved. Open our home to everyone. Share our centuries old culture. We could serve many of our traditional dishes and pastries. And, a successful festival could reduce our deficit.” Father Leo and Koukoulis combined their ideas and after much discussion, formed one vision and were ready to present to the community.
After several weeks of community discussion, all were in agreement: A Greek Food Festival it is! So, in 2002, St. Spyridon opened their doors for their first festival. As I have said before, “Visionaries see not what is. But what could be. And find a way.” And, Angelo Koukoulis and Father Leo found a way.
I have been attending the festival for the past 11 years, but this year I had the privilege of going behind the scenes to watch, listen and talk with many who make this marvelous event happen. I would especially like to thank Steve Sellas, Chuck Koukoulis, and Alex and Maria Alex, who took the time to sit with me and talk about the “Hows and Whys” of their Greek Food Festival.
Pictured above (L-R): Chuck Koukoulis, Maria Alex, Alex Alex, Steve Sellas
Now, let’s go “inside” St. Spyridon’s Greek Food Festival. From the first to the 10th festival, the activities were orchestrated by Angelo Koukoulis. However, the community came together to decide on the menu. The main dinners would consist of lamb, chicken, Greek lasagna (Pastichio), eggplant casserole (Moussaka), and baked cod (Plaki). A la carte items were: stuffed grape leaves (Dolmathes) and phyllo dough filled with spinach and feta (Spanakopita) and phyllo filled with feta and egg (Tiropita).
The elder ladies of the community narrowed the pastry selection to Baklava (my all-time personal favorite), three different types of butter cookies, and a Shredded Wheat Role laced with a walnut, sugar, and cinnamon mixture (Kataifi).
Once the menu was developed, then came the often ‘perilous’ task of picking which recipes to use. I asked Koukoulis about how they decided. He just rolled his eyes and said, “You have to understand, Greek women are very territorial about their recipes. Yes, we did have some ‘differences’ but we worked through them.” Sellas reinforced this by saying, “We stayed focused on what was best for the community. Selecting a Sellas recipe, a Koukoulis recipe or an Alex recipe became secondary.”
Funny thing. I kept noticing this “What’s best for the community” theme no matter what questions I asked. Keep this in mind.
According to Koukoulis the very first festival was, “A train wreck waiting to happen but somehow made it home. People in the kitchen were running into one another, the serving line was chaotic, yet there was one stable factor: The women were able to keep up table busing and selling pastries.” Koukoulis continued, “Dad (Angelo) was the maestro who told everyone what to do. He was like a drill sergeant. As we moved into the second and third festival, he softened a bit because everyone knew their responsibilities. Every year became easier and easier.”
After 10 years of Angelo Koukoulis waving the baton, he finally passed it to Steve Sellas. During the two days I talked with many volunteers and observed, I noticed a distinct division of labor: The women did the baking, selling, and attending the dining room, while the men cooked. One ‘unnamed’ man said, “We don’t allow women in the kitchen.” However, I did notice one woman – Ann Lambernedis. – Dr. Lambernedis. As she was chopping and preparing salads, it was obvious she knew how to handle a knife. The men gave her space. Conclusion: Every rule has an exception, especially when one is skilled with a blade.
The kitchen action reminded me of a “Culinary Ballet.” Smooth fluid movement. Everyone “hit their marks.” I attribute this to the three “Masters & Commanders” of the kitchen pictured below. Left to right: George Koutsobaris, Steve Sellas, Chuck Koukoulis. Sellas pointed to the different men preparing the food, “We have fathers, sons, and grandsons – all volunteers.” Koukoulis added, “We’re like an ant colony, Everyone’s moving, with a specific purpose. And we get the job done.”
I found the amount of food served during the two-day festival mind-boggling. My eyes widened when Sellas and Koukoulis said, “We cooked over 500 pounds of chicken, 400 pounds of lamb and served over 250 gyros – authentic Greek gyros. All-in-all, we served over 1,600 meals.”
The day before the festival I visited to observe the last minute preparations. The dining room was filled with pastries in the making. Like the kitchen, it was an ant colony getting the job done. Maria Alex told me everything is baked on-sight: 1,600 Koulourakia (sugar cookies), 930 Kourambiethwe (powdered almond flavored cookies) and 33 huge trays of Baklava, and I thought, “I must arrive early. Baklava is a must-buy.” Amidst all the activity were four ladies sitting together working and talking about their families and the up-coming festival. These were the true matriarchs of the festival. Seated left to right: Georgean Trahanis, Ann (Malliaroudakis) Williams age 94, as she proudly stated; Olga Alastanos, Ann Koukoulis (Angelo’s wife). These ladies represent only a fraction of the living history of St. Spyridon. Notice the small child in the picture to the right – everyone has a role.
When I was talking with Sellas, Koukoulis and the Alexes, I asked about volunteering next year. I said, “Can a non-Greek become ‘Greek for a Day.’ I would really like to wear an apron that said ‘Adopted Greek’ and one of those neat white hats.” Again, eyes rolled. Then Alex Alex laughed and said, “Woo, wait a minute. You have to work your way up to a white hat.”
Sellas interjected this story, “A few years ago. My daughter Lea brought her boyfriend to help. He asked what he could do. Koukoulis looked at the young man and said, ‘Go clean the bathrooms. All you need is in that closet.’ He turned around and headed toward the bathrooms. Thirty minutes later, he returned. I went to check. They were spotless. I turned to Lea and said, ‘Don’t mess it up with this guy!’ Everyone laughed, but Lea.” Koukoulis then looked at me and said, “Now you understand, new volunteers start with the bathrooms and work their way up to a white hat.” I am up for the challenge.
I was so impressed with the whole festival. You had generations coming from all over the country to help. Many had three generations present: Alastanos, Lambernides, and Trahanis families. The Lambernides family comes from near and far to honor their father Nick. The Alastanos family volunteering for parking lot duty, kitchen and dining room action. The Alex family working in the kitchen and selling pastries. The Sellas family had four generations working; Phillip (Steve’s father), Steve and his wife Irene, whose leadership has grown over the years; Steve’s three daughters and son, and his daughter’s two sons.
Steve’s father Phillip, pictured far left, is the church Cantor. This is Lea in the center. Lea’s son Steven and niece Betty on the far right – future leaders of St. Spyridon’s Greek Food Festival.
I asked Maria Alex, Koukoulis, Sellas, and others, “With preparations beginning in January, why do you do this? You have a small core group of volunteers who dedicate countless hours preparing for a two-day festival. Why?” Their answer goes back to the beginning, “We needed to find a way to if not eliminate our deficit, at least reduce it.”
Today, St. Spyridon has eliminated that deficit. And, they continue to follow a “must-rule’ established by Angelo Koukoulis for the very first festival, “No matter how much we make, 10% must be given to local charities.” And, to this day St. Spyridon continues to honor Koukoulis’ directive – 10% goes to charity.
Although the food was the center of attention for many, I wanted to learn about their church and culture. Historian Maria Alex and others, provided much insight into their faith – a faith established in 33 AD. Unlike many churches who have popularized their services, the Greek Orthodox church has not changed. They welcome Orthodoxies from all over the world: Russian, Albanian, Serbian, Bulgaria, Turkey and more. Koukoulis emphasized, “You don’t have to be Greek to be Orthodox.”
I felt privileged to receive a tour of St. Spyridon and learn more of their history. To hear about the 100 year-old stained glass windows, the ornate woodwork that was carved on sight. And specially to see a pair of cloth shoes which were worn by the patron saint of the parish St. Spyridon.
Maria Alex added, “Everyone is so enthusiastic about our church’s 100th birthday in 2018. This community has so much to be proud of.” And I thought, “So they do.” The excitement and commitment the congregation of St. Spyridon has for their faith and the togetherness I witnessed made me further understand what Sellas meant when he said, “We all work together. That’s the secret for our success. For our community. For this festival. The event itself is a recipe.”
The St. Spyridon Greek Food Festival. Yes, there is mouthwatering authentic Greek cuisine to savor and a gift shop full of one-of-a-kind oils, spices, teas and other wonderful gifts. But there is so much more, at least through my eyes. There is an opportunity to observe just what can be accomplished when a community has a common vision and develops a recipe for success.
I would like to thank Chuck Koukoulis, Steve Sellas, Alex and Maria Alex, the Alastanos family, Pete Kaites, George Koutsobaris, Father John Kostas, and the many others, too many to list, who contributed to this story.
Do not miss the photo gallery below – a pictorial account of community togetherness.
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