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Cultural Crossroads at St. Paul’s 41st Annual Greek Festival

As I parked my car and began to walk toward the shuttle taking people to the festival (the main parking lot was full), I began to think about how long it had been since I had a gyro. Too long, dear reader, far too long. 

From the moment I heard about A Taste of Greece, the Greek cultural festival at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, I felt an ancient hunger awaken within me. The desire for large quantities of meat and pastries rushed through my body like the deepest breath I had ever taken. In short, I knew I had to get in on the festivities. 

Besides the pleasant absence of drunk teenagers in ill-fitting suits, the shuttle felt like a party bus taking us to prom. I appreciated them taking care of their guests, and I had a feeling that theme would carry on throughout the festival itself. It was a short trip to the church, and my stomach was very much on my mind when I got out. 

However, I didn’t want to ignore some of the real rockstars of the festival, namely the many vendors that set up kiosks in the courtyard. They were selling everything from jewelry and home goods to Greek novelty T-shirts and hoodies. However, one vendor that particularly caught my eye hailed from Egypt, rather than the nation being celebrated over this weekend. His country is also the cultural root of many of the goods he had on sale. Traditional garments, papyrus scrolls, miniature backgammon boards and more covered the tables and walls in his tent. 

(Ryan Najjar)

“We import traditional items from Egypt, and we always get the best quality; we’ve never gone for the mass-produced, “touristy” things,” said the vendor. “We make our own work, and each piece is individual and unique. That’s why they love our work.” 

“The jewelry you see here came out of the sea. There’s coral, mother of pearl, abalone, even lava. I call those lava pieces ‘the beauty of destruction.’ ”

I wondered what drew him to sell traditional Egyptian decorations at the Greek festival, and figured his connection might be with the Church itself. “I’ve been with the Church since 1997. I’m here every year for my beautiful church and my beautiful people. I live in San Dimas, but I always come around here with my friends.”

As far as people who haven’t been to the festival, he has this way of explaining the appeal of this and similar cultural events. He compared it to returning to one’s homeland; “It’s [getting to see] the way that people dance, the way they eat, the way they enjoy life. When you see the culture come to life, it’s like seeing the country appear in front of your eyes.”

That thought was wonderful, but as I wrapped up my discussion with him, my next thought immediately went to what awaited me on the other side of the courtyard. I had already seen the sign for pastries, which included some enticing pictures of baklava, but I knew I had to go for something savory first. Specifically, a gyro was in order. 

It seems I had shown up right after everyone had gotten their first servings of food, so there was no line as I entered the clean white gyro tent. I ordered one for a cool $8, and right as I was about to ask them how their day had been going, a hot gyro was being presented to me with a warm smile.

I had a slight worry that the quickness with which it was done would affect the quality, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The meat was flavorful and tender, the bread was pillow soft while having plenty of integrity, and while I’m not a big tomato guy, the slices served well to freshen things up. The tzatziki sauce also helped in that regard, and the variety of textures made it a delight. 

Saganaki (Ryan Najjar)

I was satisfied, but I knew I had a duty to be a thorough journalist, so I pulled myself up from my chair and wandered back to the food court to see what else would be in store. I saw a giant sign that said “Saganaki (Flaming Cheese).” At this point, I blacked out and suddenly awoke standing in front of their booth. 

Reading that this would be “fried Greek cheese flamed in brandy” only made it more appealing, and watching the cheese crisp up and erupt in alcoholic flames was one of the most enticing things I’d seen in a while. 

It’s fried cheese on toasted bread and if you ask me, there’s little one can do to improve upon that formula. Somehow, though, they managed to do just that, and I found this simple dish to be abound with texture and nuance (especially upon adding some lemon juice).

Flaming Sagnaki (Ryan Najjar)

I also got to meet some wonderful people who sat down at my table shortly after me, and they were kind enough to give me the scoop on many of the other meal options. They had special praise for the pastitsio, which is a Greek lasagna-type dish, along with the grape leaves and lamb, the latter of which they described as tender and subtly seasoned. 

After we shared a cup of wine (their treat to me), I ventured off on my final mission: dessert. I made a beeline to the room where they had all the pastries on display, and I nearly panicked from the sheer amount of delicious choices in front of me. Theples, melomakarona, ravani and more graced my vision, but it was the famous baklava that won my heart in the end. 

This turned out to be a good decision. The flaky top layers complemented the chewier ones in a stunning dance, and I could tell that care was put into the creation. It turned out my intuition was correct; every pastry on display was handmade by church volunteers.

I found that to be a symbol of what was happening here. Members of this church, both Greek and non-Greek, came together to put all their care and love into an experience for their community to enjoy. Using their hands and hearts to full capacity, they invited people to see exactly what the desire to spread culture can allow for. Frankly, I’d be surprised if anyone thought they hadn’t pulled it off. They love their culture, they love their Church, and they love the community that’s welcomed them with open arms.

It’ll be too late to attend this year’s festival by the time this article comes out, but be sure to stay updated with St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church for details on next year’s festivities!