Over Labor Day weekend, hundreds of visitors flocked to Orange, Connecticut for a four-day celebration of Greek culture and food.
Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church hosted the annual Odyssey festival. Visitors consisted of members of the local community and people from across the state. Since its founding at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven 39 years ago, the festival has expanded into “the largest church festival in Connecticut,” according to festival chairman Evans Mountzouris. The festival included food and drink booths, cultural entertainment, carnival rides, an antique market and a bouncy castle for kids.
“This festival promotes Greek heritage through our culture, our food, our people but it’s also a fundraiser to pay off the mortgage [for church buildings],” Mountzouris said in a Saturday interview with the News. “Most of our vendors are parishioners, people we know, people we’ve dealt with before.”
Fifteen minutes before noon — the official time that the festival opened on Saturday — swarms of people had already flooded into the sun-drenched church grounds. Many of the people milling around — Mountzouris pointed to one man, Bruce Buzelle, as an example — were part of the church congregation.
Buzelle operates the fair’s loukoumades — or fried dough ball — stall with his family. Behind the counter is his wife, their two daughters and one daughter, Samantha’s, 3-month-old baby, who was napping in a stroller. Samantha said that the recipe behind the crispy, golden-brown dough balls has been used since the beginning of the festival and was passed down from another family to theirs.
Among its cultural entertainment, the festival featured daily cooking demonstrations. On Saturday afternoon, Alexandra Alexiades demonstrated how to make keftedes, Greek meatballs. The presentation began with a discussion of her heritage and childhood memories of the dish. She told the News that her grandmother used to make large batches of keftedes — around 5 pounds of it — for family gatherings, but even then, “they didn’t last very long.” Her grandmother’s recipe has evolved over the years, adapting to subsequent generations’ dietary restrictions: For her demonstration, Alexiades made the keftedes gluten-free.
Alexiades’s ties to the festival run deep. She was baptized at Saint Barbara, and her grandparents helped create the festival in 1980.
“[The church] is kind of where we’ve built and sustained our lives: taught each other how to cook, our culture and our history,” she said.
A sense of community was visible at the festival through vendors’ and patrons’ shirts. One vendor’s shirt read “Got ouzo?” referring to the Greek aperitif, while another read “Team Loukoumades”. Many of these slogan tees were sold in the festival marketplace, and were a common sight at the fair. Not all of the shirts were food-related, however. Other shirts included phrases such as “Yia yia [grandmother] loves me” and “I’m Not Yelling I’m Greek.”
The festival’s Saturday visitors included many longtime attendees. Maria Delucia from Hamden and her mother, Carol, from Cheshire have attended the festival many times before. Carol told the News that she has attended the festival for seven years now, while Maria’s two-year-old daughter, Grace, has already been there twice. The Delucias are not parishioners at Saint Barbara, and first found out about the festival through signs posted in the area.
Another family, who declined to provide their last names for privacy reasons — Ana, Aleda and their four-year-old, Teddy — moved to the area in 2014 and have since regularly attended Odyssey and “A Taste of Greece,” another food festival organized by Saint Barbara that occurs in March. Aleda’s favorite dish at the festival is the gyro, while Ana and Teddy are big fans of souvlaki, grilled skewers made of various meats and vegetables.
“We used to live in the Detroit area, where there’s a lot more Greek and Mediterranean food,” Aleda said. “We really missed that [here in Connecticut], so this is where we get our fix.”
The festival prominently featured presentations of Greek culture. In addition to cooking shows, there were presentations on Greek Orthodoxy, live Greek music and folk dances.
On Saturday, three groups of the ODYSSEY Dancers troupe — sporting colorful cultural clothing and headdresses — performed Greek folk dance by the grassy knoll behind the church. The dancers — most of whom were involved with the church — ranged in age from 7 to 18.
“If you are Greek, you gotta dance because it’s part of our heritage and culture,” said Demetra Ballas, the performance’s emcee. Vicky Vagenas, another festival organizer, added that “the kids were so motivated that they talked their instructor into teaching the zeibekiko,” a folk dance.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox parish.
Macrina Wang | email@example.com