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Downey Greek Festival brings back the sun — The Downey Patriot

Dec 13, 2023

Whole lambs with salt rub (photo by Lorine Parks).

Sunshine and white tent peaks announced the Greek Food Festival at St. George's Greek Orthodox Church was back. Apollo saw to it that on Saturday the sun was shining after weeks of gloomy weather.

You enter through a little agora, a lane of vendor's booths that carry everything from t-shirts and Holy Honey (delicious), to olive wood carvings, charms to ward off the evil eye, and fine gold earrings.

Racks of lamb turning in spits, 20 of them at a time, and the smell of fat sizzling, greeted you as you enter the platia, or town square. There is one man who cleaves the lamb into serving portions. These whole 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.

The lambs roast while workers bring more white hot coals, and shovel new charcoal on the starter brazier. The spits are turned electrically, but the fire is good old Hephaestus at work.

This is a Food Festival, and so much more. Blue and white Greek flags and star-spangled American ones waved in the breeze, and, at the heart of it all was the music and the dance, under a big open white pavilion roof. Live musicians played the oud and the bouzouki, lute-type stringed instruments, and pan pipes carried the melody, while drums kept up the beat. Impromptu dancers were engaged in Greek circle dancing, kids and oldsters, families, young girls, joining in whenever they felt like it.

Signs said, Stop Worrying and Be Happy, with a picture of Greek worry beads; another showed a donkey with the words, Greek 4 Wheel Drive. Be Greek For a Day, and Dine With the Gods. There's a children's play area, and in the adjoining building there were authentic Greek costumes, cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and exhibits of historic sites, all celebrating the Greek Orthodox Community's Hellenic culture and traditions.

In the open area, half the space seemed taken up by the food stalls, the lamb pit, a beer garden, and refreshment booths with Loux, a fizzy cold fruit drink.

I learned that Panagiotis Marlafekas founded Loux as a family business in the 1950's in Patras, Greece. The naturally carbonated water comes from Kefalovrissos. an area of lush greenery. Loux comes in a variety of flavors, including sour cherry and lemon. The soft drink has a tangy taste, and a distinctively sweet flavor.

Lamb dinners were available, or one could buy souvlaki, chunks of marinated beef or lamb grilled on a skewer; and also gyro, meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, then sliced and served wrapped or stuffed in pita bread, with tomato, onion, fried potatoes, and homemade tzatsiki sauce: yogurt, cucumber and spices. I could get a la carte dishes like moussaka, spanakopites, gigande: dishes with eggplant or spinach or custard or thick baked beans in tomato sauce. I remembered the moussaka, an eggplant casserole with potatoes, in a rich, tomatoey beef sauce, that I had for lunch in Heraklion, Crete, where I fell in love with the Prince of the Lilies in the murals on the walls of the Mycenean Palace at Knossos. This time I got a lamb dinner to take home and eat later, with rice and Greek salad and dark briny Kalamata olives. Hard choices. Food can conjure up so many memories.

White tables with blue tops and white chairs and sun umbrellas covered the central area, where one could nibble at delicacies or watch the dancing. I closed my eyes and imagined a sunny afternoon in a village. You hear someone get up spontaneously and call out for some friends, and a circle would begin to form, to the music.

At 3 pm it was a village square. At night, because the Festival runs till 10:30 pm, the lights come on, an older crowd arrives, children go off to bed or quiet down, and the scene is a livelier taverna.

A special enclosure sold Greek sweets, like pasta flora and baklava, that honey and walnut treat in phyllo pastry.

Another line formed for the poached loukoumades, traditional Greek doughnuts, deep-fried honey balls that are golden on the outside, and light and fluffy on the inside, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Families strolled, kids darted back to the children's play area, and everywhere the music permeated the air.

Each triangle of baklava is pinned by a clove. (Photo by Lorine Parks)

St. George's Church is proud that its festival is not commercially produced. It's definitely Downey-centric. All the lambs are roasted by Downey meat masters who are church members, and the women of the St. George Philoptochos Society have baked the Greek sweets. Money raised from this festival provides things the church needs beyond the everyday running of the church. A few years ago, it was a new roof. Everyone is a volunteer here, and all those grape leaves are extremely nutritious.

On the way out from my visit to the Festival, I always like to stop in the church itself, an architectural gem in the classic shape of a Greek cross, white as a sugar cube on the outside with its magnificent copper dome. The church is the motivating spirit behind all that these parishioners do.

It has been 22 years since 2001, when I watched the church be built, and saw 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. To see that superstructure of the dome swing it into place was spectacular.

The church had been built while the Greek community in Downey was worshipping in one of the rooms now displaying the cultural exhibits. When they had enough money to build their own church, they built it. And they didn't open the door till the Metropolitan Antony, who came down from San Francisco to conduct the ceremony, saw that every last bill was paid.

The church interior was cool and quiet. I like to sit there and remember those Downey people who made the church possible, and for me, it is Harold Tseklenis who stands out. Harold led the way in fund raising and he also built the iconostasis for that early make--shift church in his work shop. Harold died two years ago, but he is commemorated in his church.

I remembered that first opening service. The floor was bare cement with the builder's chalk marks still on it and the seats were folding chairs borrowed from another Downey church. Now there are carved wooden pews, and carpeting. The white walls are covered with Bible-themed murals and stories of the saints in church history, and light is everywhere, thanks to the windows in the dome.

The new iconostasis is intricately carved blond sandalwood, bright with the gold-haloed saints, the chandeliers are glittering with hundreds of medallions beside each light. The first decoration to be made, twenty years ago, was in the center of the great dome overhead, a painting of Christ Pantocrator, Ruler of all. The Virgin and Child are painted below.

All the wall decorations have been done over the years by the same artists, a husband and wife team who live in Greece and come over when a new commission arises. Now the Gospel makers fill the corners, and the newest work is the paintings on the south and north transepts, bible stories about the Nativity, the shepherds and the Magi with Byzantine features.

Once home, I dove into the Greek dinner I purchased. I didn't expect a restaurant slice of pink and nearly rare meat: this is the village now. The lamb had been roasted till the meat really was falling off the bones, and I got all the bones too. So tender it shredded itself, the lamb meat came with crackling skin, rich with the salt rub. It was finger food time.

Mark your calendar now for the first weekend in June in 2024. 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: join the community of St George's Orthodox Greek Church in Downey for another glorious Food Festival and become Greek for the Day. Opa!

Whole lambs with salt rub (photo by Lorine Parks). Each triangle of baklava is pinned by a clove. (Photo by Lorine Parks)