We romanticize the Greeks, drool over their beaches and their pastries, tell the ancient tales of their gods and goddesses, eat up those movies about their big fat weddings.
And man, oh man, do we love a Greek festival.
We love it so much that our masses attend Columbia’s annual Greek Festival more than almost any other event in town.
Some 120,000 people have been counted over four days at the festival in the past. This year’s party starts Thursday, Sept. 14, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 17.
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There’s something about the Greek culture that draws us in, that we all can’t get enough of – yes, it’s the food, but it’s much more.
“The thing about Greek people – we are always open-armed,” said Stacie Koutrakos, a manager of her family’s Grecian Gardens restaurant in West Columbia. “We welcome people with open arms, whether it’s here or in Greece in the tiniest village.”
In the Greek community, everyone is one big family, Koutrakos said.
The thing about Greek people – we are always open-armed. We welcome people with open arms, whether it’s here or in Greece in the tiniest village.
Stacie Koutrakos, manager of her family’s Grecian Gardens restaurant in West Columbia
And the Greek Festival is a chance for them to pull the rest of their Columbia community into that family, said Niki Stewart, one of the chairpersons of the Greek Festival, hosted each year by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
“The Greeks love to give back. We love to cook for everybody. We love to serve everybody,” Stewart said. “We’re just so proud of our heritage here, and we love to share that with everybody.”
They’ll be sharing some 1,200 pounds of cooked lamb, 12,000 dolmades (aka stuffed grape leaves), more than 67,500 pieces of spanakopita (spinach pie) and masses of other Greek delights at this year’s festival.
Even moreso than the food, Greek culture is heavy on celebrating two things, Koutrakos and Stewart say: faith and family.
“My father always said: fervent faith in God and family,” said Stewart, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Greece.
“Family is a really big thing,” Koutrakos said. “People know their family connections going back generations – where grandma came from, where grandpa came from, and before that and before that, and who married who. ... It’s very important to keep those connections to the Greek families. As they came here, it was the same thing. Even though they were thousands of miles away, they made a different family here with the community.”
And because their families are so tight-knit, they’re adamant about keeping traditions alive from generation to generation – from religious customs to music and dancing to holiday gatherings to, of course, the food.
“Breaking bread together is what brings people together,” Koutrakos said.
Sarah Ellis, firstname.lastname@example.org
Your chance to be Greek for a week
The annual Columbia Greek Festival is 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, through Saturday, Sept. 16, and noon-8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 1931 Sumter St.
Here’s some of what you can look forward to:
EAT: Lunch and dinner plate menus include broiled seasoned chicken, keftedes (Greek-style meatballs), pastichio (Greek lasagna), roasted lamb and peasant shrimp – all served, of course, with spanakopita and Greek salad. A la carte, you’ll find a variety of foods, including Greek burgers, souvlaki, Greek roasted potatoes, dolmades and pastries like baklava, loukoumades (those heavenly doughnuts!) and karidopita.
DRINK: Drink like the Greeks with imported Greek beer and wine and Greek coffee.
TAKE IT HOME WITH YOU: Shop the Greek “grocery store” for a variety of frozen meals – and trays of spanakopita! – so you can keep enjoying the tastes of the festival long after it’s over. And you can buy a Greek cookbook to bring the traditional recipes into your own kitchen.
DANCE: Gather ’round the “plaka” (town square) for Greek folk dancing throughout the weekend. Two bands will play indoors and outdoors. Get in the mood – and practice your moves ahead of time – by listening to songs like “Little Dark Lady” and “Which Olive Tree Has Water.”
HISTORY AND CULTURE: Visit the cultural exhibit for video presentations and discussions of Greek culture, history and heritage and modern Greece. Tour the church’s sanctuary to learn more about the Greek Orthodox religion and iconography. And at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, watch a battle re-enactment of the fifth-century Greco-Persian War. Costumed soldiers will portray Greek Spartans defending their homeland against the powerful Persian Empire.