For one weekend, Downey goes authentically Greek

Sasha Vithoulkas serves a hungry diner. Photos by Lorine Parks

Sasha Vithoulkas serves a hungry diner. Photos by Lorine Parks

“Spend a Day with the Greek Gods,” the ad said.

The crowds that gathered on Saturday for the eagerly awaited Downey Greek Food Festival, enjoyed themselves, even without the presence of Helios, god of the sun.

“In the part of Greece where I come from, near Olympia, I can’t ever remember gloomy weather like this,” said Harold Tseklenis, one of the guiding lights of Downey’s Greek community. “It’s always sunny there.” But even without the blue skies, the magic of Greece lifted everyone’s spirits.

Sounds of non-stop bouzouki music filled the air in the little Agora, a marketplace in the entry lined with vendors. Here you can buy raspberry honey, fresh pressed olive oil, and charms to ward off the evil eye. The god of good parking spaces was already smiling on me. I had lucked out, pulling in right across from the church as someone pulled out, a good beginning.

Delicious odors too: Greek coffee freshly brewing; the roast lamb with the fat sizzling under the gauzy smoke– what are the spices they rub it with?

Inside the festival area. a huge white tent covered an area where all were encouraged to “Get your Greek on” and join the line dancers.

Meat-master taking a rest: Pete Sarandakos. His father Michal was an invaluable asset to the work in building the first temporary chapel.

Meat-master taking a rest: Pete Sarandakos. His father Michal was an invaluable asset to the work in building the first temporary chapel.

Everyone in Downey comes to the Greek Food Festival, and lots of first-timers wander up from the Saturday Farmer’s Market, held just a few blocks down Downey Avenue. You might see someone you haven’t seen in years, or someone you had lunch with yesterday; the man you bought a good used car from, or the teller you bank with.

Jorge Lopez, a fellow Rotarian, of Harold’s, said, “I’m Cuban but my wife’s Greek.” Everybody loves a Greek panigiri.

How do the parishioners of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church manage to organize such an authentic - authentikós in Greek - weekend fete, for 35 years in a row?

Everyone is a volunteer here, from the baklava bakers to the spit masters who prepare and roast the lamb, 20 of them at a time, turning on 20 spits. There is also the man who cleaves the lamb into serving portions. These lambs are not carved, they’re split with an ax, and this is as close as we will ever get to the feasting that Homer wrote about.

“We’ll use one hundred lambs this weekend, said Greg Giannikopitas, one of the chairs of the event. “Probably 6,000 people will come.”

There are gyros too, a blend of beef and lamb sliced off a big spit, served on pita bread with tzatsiki, a yogurt, cucumber and spice sauce. And souvlaki platters, marinated pork on a sewer, and Greek fries with feta cheese.

Money raised from this festival provides things the church needs beyond the everyday running of the church. “Last year, it was a new roof,” said Greg.

“The thing that makes ours different from other Greek festivals you will find in Southern California,” said Gavril Gabriel, another of the three co-chairs of the event, “is that the others are part of some larger communities. But here we have a real Downey-centric Greek festival.”

Harold took me behind the curtains to see how the food is dished up and served. Specialty of the house is the lamb platter, with rice and Greek salad; a la carte classics dishes are moussaka, a dish made from eggplant, meat, potatoes and béchamel sauce; tiropita, a light and flaky Greek pie filled with feta cheese,; spanakopita, a spinach and cheese pastry; and dolmades, ground lamb with rice rolled in grape leaves. Everything has been made by the ladies of St. George Philoptochos Society of Downey.

Harold introduced me to Nicole Vardabasis, Professor of Biology at UC San Bernardino. Downey is her home parish and she is the second generation of valued stewards.

I had found Harold sitting with Anton Photis and his wife Anastasia, their children and grandchildren. Everyone had Greek fries or a souvlaki platter. Harold and his wife Anna were among the first Orthodox Greek settlers in Downey in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

Main lady among the beauties volunteering behind the scenes was the president of the parish and the chair of parishioner services, “the indefatigable worker Sasha Vithoulkas, who sees to the proper functioning of all non-sacramental aspects,” said Harold.

Dora Kotsis, Christina Karapanos, and Christina Sparangis.

Dora Kotsis, Christina Karapanos, and Christina Sparangis.

Arranging the boxes of food as fast as the orders came in were volunteers Christina Karapanos, Dora Kotsis, and Christina Sparangis. Christina is a middle school teacher with the DUSD, asecond generation active parishioner and daughter of one of the founders of the parish.

The occasion is billed as a food event, but this event is much, much more. The cultural side of Hellenic life was on display in the rooms in the mini-mall across from the church, where the sanctuary stood before the church with its mighty dome was built.

“Tomorrow we are featuring Cretan culture,” said Georgia Covell, the third co-chair of the festival, as she took me on a private tour. Mainland Greece has several distinctive regions plus island groups in the Aegean.

And then there is Crete, where the Bronze-Age Minoan civilization flourished before Egypt’s dynasties even began. A Cretan will not say, “I am a Greek from Crete. He will say, “I am Cretan.”

We stopped at a table with items for a Cretan wedding. A huge round bread, koulopoura gamou, its diameter easily two feet across, was decorated with symbolic bits of pastry expertly shaped like wheat and flowers, to bring luck. Two dagger-like knives, one for the bride and one for the groom were sheathed in silver and leather and laid beside it. Georgia unsheathed one, to show me. Docents can do that.

“This special bread would be baked by the bride’s mother,” said Georgia, “and this one just arrived yesterday. It was flown in from Greece. After the dances on Sunday, the cellophane wrap will be taken off, and we’ll break the bread and share it.” More than enough to feed a village I would say.

Cretan costumes added to the exhibit, including the high white boots that shepherds wear on the mountainside, to keep from getting stuck by the thorny bushes.

“We want to show the culture, history and customs of Greece,” Georgia said. Archeological sites in Greece are World Heritage treasures.

There was also a room for wine tasting, from the wine-producing areas of both Greek and Crete, accompanied by Greek cheeses, traditionally made from goats and sheep, as the rocky terrain is too steep for cows to navigate.

On the way out I stopped at the dessert table (they’ll be good at breakfast too): baklava, doples and katafi. Pasta flora filled with raspberry or apricot jam; and karidopita. There were other goodies too, but I could come back tomorrow and get them.

The baking pans from the ladies of the parish were inexhaustible. I did note a difference between some of the pasta flora, the fillings and the ways the lattice work was twined. Different recipe from different islands, I supposed.

As I was leaving, the door to the church was open so I went in. It’s a quiet and cool place to sit and contemplate, and it is light-filled. The church is the motivating spirit behind all that these parishioners do.

A docent was giving a talk in the original art work that has been done by a husband and wife team who come over from Greece whenever a new project comes along. So far they have painted the face of Christ Pantocrater on the inside of the dome, and the Annunciation scenes above the altar, and Mary, and the Last Supper. The faces of saints and patrons fill the iconostasis, and the Four Gospel writers adorn the apse corners.

I remember when the church was being built, in 2001, and how it took a giant construction crane to hoist up the steel skeleton of the huge dome with its 30 windows, and place it on its square foundation. Another Greek first, squaring the circle.

George and Thanasi Bakis.

George and Thanasi Bakis.

The white “sugar-cube” church is built in the form of a traditional Greek cross, the arms and the head and foot all being equal length.

The church has no mortgage: the Metropolitan Anthony saw to that when he conducted the door-opening ceremony in 2002, and everything inside the church is paid for. As money is raised, decorations are added: the art work, the carpet, the beautiful blond wood pews.

Now there is also a special project, the Yianni Memorial Fund, named for a young Downey man whose life was tragically taken away too soon. His name will be remembered in the next phase of development: a hall, a gymnasium, classrooms, kitchens and conference rooms.

I took out the bound volume of the Liturgy available in the pews, and it opened to the very first antiphon, that petitions for the peace of the whole world. The text continues, “For favorable weather, and abundance of the fruits of the earth, and temperate seasons, let us pray to the Lord.”

This mass, the most celebrated part in the Byzantine Rite, is attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century... A prescient St John could have been mindful of climate change.

As I turned the page, the Liturgy went on, “for travelers by land, sea, and air, the sick, the suffering, the captives and their salvation, let us pray unto the Lord.” As they say, the Greeks had a word for it.

If you’ve been to Greece or just visited it on TV with The Durrells in Corfu; if you have danced in your imagination with Zorba on Crete or remember Melina Mercouri’s wide-eyed innocence at seeing the classic play Medea, in Never on Sunday; if you fell in love with the Prince of the Lilies in the murals on the walls of the Mycenean Palace at Knossos on Crete; if you yearn for thyme-scented honey and the mysterious melodies of the oud; if you hunger to know more about the civilization that gave us the Golden Mean, “moderation in all things,” because they were a people who knew they were too passionate to be moderate;

Then hunger and thirst and yearn no more. Mark your calendar now for the first week in June in 2020, and join the community of St George’s Orthodox Greek Church in Downey for another glorious weekend, come sunny days or not.