Among the myriad islands located off Greece’s mainland in the Mediterranean Sea is a place called Ikaria. It’s been said that the tiny island is the place “where people forget to die.” Plagued by the hard Mediterranean sun and boasting a mountainous landscape wherein people must climb to get to their homes, Ikaria features a population living to be well into their hundreds. While numerous factors, such as exercise and cleaner, less-polluted air, play a role in the natives’ longevity, Greek cuisine certainly lays claim to some of the credit.
“You have to attribute that to the wine that they drink and the food that they eat,” Basile Katsikis, Wilmington’s Greek Festival promotional director proclaims.
Held at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, this year marks the festival’s 22nd year of brining the Mediterranean to the Cape Fear. Nick Saffo heads the festival as the chairmen. Anticipation mounts as local taste buds prepare to be tantalized by Greek fare, and eyes prepare to be dazzled by dancers and iconography. As well, the festival ensures it gives back to the community that supports it, picking an organziation annually to benefit. Past recipients of raised monies include Wilmington’s Domestic Violence Shelter and Services and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. This year they turn their attention toward the Good Shepherd Center, a homeless shelter and food collector of Wilmington.
Annually 20,000-plus people immerse themselves in the festival’s offerings. Upward of 80,000 pastries and Greek foods that can only be measured by the ton find their way to local palates. Flavors abound are doled out at the gyro tent, coming in the form of lamb and beef, chicken, or the vegetarian option. Cuspids can also sink into the a la carte menu with the dolmathes, spanakopita, tiropita, moussaka, pastitsio, and Greek salad. Loukoumades and ice cream will sate the sweet tooth and provide a nice end-cap. Greek beer and wine will be available at the taverna. Uneaten foods will be donated to the Good Shepherd Center upon the festival’s conclusion.
“About 500 pounds of beef for the kebobs, 500 pounds of roast lamb, and 1,400 pounds of gyro meat will be prepared, marinated and cooked this weekend,” sponsorship committee member Irene Sotiriou details. “A lot of our local restaurateurs are helping prepare these foods.”
Among locals in the kitchen this year will be Chris Tsingelis of Chris’s Restaurant and Bill Vogiatzis of Famous Subs and Pizza in Southport. There will also be a Greek marketplace for patrons to purchase Greek products.
Folks wishing to gather insights into preparing Greek cuisine can turn to Stella Alambis-Babson and the team of experts she’s gathered. She will be doing six demonstrations throughout the festival. With food, and more importantly the togetherness afforded by cooking, being such a significant part of Greek culture, the lessons impart the fun that can be had serving the dishes.
The festival began in 1992, and has since become a local staple with attendance increasing by a 10 percent margin annually. “We started this with one philosophy: We’re having this to share our culture, to share our history, to share our faith, and our traditions, and to make it fun,” Katsikis explains.
The Greek community, comprising members from all walks of life, come together displaying dedication as they undertake the festivities each year. “A lot of us don’t get home until 4 or 5 in the morning, and then we start again the next day,” Katsikis tells.
While food embodies much of the festival’s appeal, Greek culture through the arts also delights attendees. Wearing ornate, homemade, award-winning costumes crafted by Nota Dukas, dancers performing intricate traditional Greek dances are among the draws.
“I’m really proud of our dancers. They work very hard, and it’s one heck of a show,” Katsikis comments. “They’re one of the best in the entire nation.”
The dance troupes take their talents across the country, competing with others from major cities such as Denver and San Francisco. The Romiosini dancers made up of middle- and high-schoolers, as well as the Zoyra—elementary-school dancers will perform. The Zoyra dancers competed and won first place in the South Eastern Folk Dance Competition in January.
Church tours will also be hosted throughout the three-day festival. A tour through St. Nicholas is like stepping into heaven. Iconography plays a huge role in the Greek tradition, and beautiful murals depicting saints and biblical stories can be found throughout the sanctuary.
As well, Lazaros returns this year performing live music. Greek artist/painter Pantelis Zographos will also be in attendance this year, selling some of his water-color paintings. Visit www.stnicholasgreekfest.com for a full schedule of performances, demonstrations and tours.