Photos by Anthony Avegna & Dan Milham
The New Orleans Greek Festival is held on Memorial Day weekend, May 26 thru 28, and is presented by the Holy Trinity Cathedral located at 1200 Robert E. Lee Blvd. Those are the first things that you need to know. The next thing you should know is the word Efharisto (eff-kaar-EEs-toe!), and you need to be able to say it all in one breath. Repeat after me: Efharisto! The word is Greek and the meaning is "thank you," and you'll want to say it often and with vigor as you attend New Orleans's equivalent of a painting by Georges Seurat (e.g. "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"). It's a family thing, an eating, drinking, dancing, neo-impressionistic, milling about, lounging, laughing, smiling, music thing.
In case you're worried about vehicular congestion at Greek Fest, there is free off-site parking about a half a mile down the road, with shuttle buses to and from the event. Or, you can trust your parkma (parkma: transportive verb; that chance that there will magically be a parking place waiting just for you where and when you need it) for a spot on the roadway to get in closer. The hours of operation are Friday, 5:00-11:00 p.m.; Saturday, 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Be there or be tetrágono (square).
Greek, you say? All you of limited knowledge will be surprised to know that there were Greeks arriving here in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1760s, a wealthy Greek merchant married a local woman of mixed Acadian and Native American lineage; when their daughter married a Greek native in 1799, it became the first Big Fat Greek Wedding in North America. The Greek Orthodox Church here is the oldest one established in North and South America (1867). The areas where I work and live (the 6th and 7th wards) were, until 1971, predominantly Greek neighborhoods, and the original site of the Holy Trinity Church was at 1222 N. Dorgenois St. Also in this area were Syrians, Russians, and Lebanese, their culture now a distant memory to all but a few of my neighbors. It is fitting that we should have a festival commemorating that part of our background, culture, and language.
For the kids at the fest, there is an area called The Athenian Playground with a climbing wall, face painting, crafts, and one of those bouncy tent things where you allow the little darlings to work off all the extra steam that they seem to wake up with. Kids 12 years old and under have free admission (the rest of us kids pay $8.00). There are three-day passes available, and anyone arriving dressed in a toga on Sunday gets in gratis.
There is live (Greek) music and dancing in the Hellenic tradition; you can come and show off your stuff, learn the steps, or just watch and be amazed by what you see. You can also rent canoes for bayou cruising, and there are contests, raffles, and even a "Toga Sunday" pageant with prizes. Tours will also be given of the cathedral, allowing you to view artifacts of the faith.
And food? Food is everywhere, indoors and out, as well as wine, beer, ouzo, pomegranate iced tea, and the ever-popular Metaxas to fill your soul with Hellenic gladness. Greek yogurt and frothy iced Greek coffee at the Loukoumades Café will be served. There are food demonstrations and classes, or pick up a full meal of kieftethes (Greek meatballs), tiropita, spanakopita, pastitsio, and Greek salad with dolma from inside the hall or from the outside food stands. Booths also offer gyros served with tzatziki and grilled onions on warm pita bread, or calamari, lamb, feta fries, goat burgers, souvlaki, and beverages. And, not to worry, we know how kids are, so there will also be some non-ethnic foods available (hot dogs, etc.).
In addition to vegetarian plates, this year in the grocery section, a small, walk-around container featuring four appetizers (meze) will be offered in a limited number of servings. The first 300 lucky customers will have the opportunity to purchase it and then the rest of us latecomers will be out of luck. Also in the grocery section will be cheeses and herbs, oils, olives, homemade dips, t-shirts, posters, prints, and Hellenic imports. I always make sure that I pick up their lemon-pepper seasoning blend for my kitchen at home.
Indoors, you'll find a selection of 20 different pastries, cakes, and cookies lining tables. As you pass the length of the gamut with your "ticket of transit," picking one of these and two of those, your personalized selection will grow with baklava, kourmabiedes, galaktobourikos … Heck, I stop trying to find out all the names and just say yes to everything that looks good to me because I know it will be. Besides, my friends and neighbors will reap the benefit of my eyes being bigger than my stomach.
Here's another word for you: philihellenism. It means a lover of all things Greek. If you've been to the festival before, you can feel the meaning of that word in your heart. If this will be your first time to go to this celebration, be prepared to experience a kinder, gentler New Orleans experience. While you are there, consider that there is actually a Greek island where the citizens literally forget to die; they live on, healthy and active, to be centennials and even older. When I go to the Greek Festival, I wonder why anyone who could live the Hellenic lifestyle would ever want to take the chance that heaven would be a better place.