As she has for many years, 91-year-old Pauline Christakos starts preparing for Columbia’s Greek Festival months in advance.
As the festival’s one and only pound cake baker, she has her work cut out for her.
She begins in her modest kitchen in Batesburg-Leesville where, once a week, she lays out the ingredients on her tan countertops and combines them in an old Sunbeam mixer.
The recipe, which exists in her head, calls for a few cups of this and a few “choúftas,” or handfuls, of that.
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Christakos bakes the sweet, un-iced cakes one pan at a time, carefully wrapping each loaf in tin foil. Then she takes the loaves with her to Sunday service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, which hosts the festival, and deposits them in the church freezer.
Week after week.
“That pound cake is something people come for. It sells out fast,” said friend Kiki Rothman of Columbia. Rothman attends church with Christakos and volunteers at the festival.
Christakos typically bakes around 20 loaves per festival. With about 20 pieces per loaf, that’s only 400 pieces to go around for the more than 100,000 attendees who visit the festival, set this year for Thursday through Sunday.
Now in its 29th year, Columbia’s Greek Festival is one of the city’s largest events, enticing crowds with Greek food, music and dancing, as well as church tours, cultural presentations and shopping.
Last year, the festival distributed $50,000 in proceeds to Midlands charities.
Christakos helps church volunteers make an array of savory dishes and pastries. The festival’s bakery is stocked with baklava (layers of pastry dough drenched in honey), koulourakia (twisted shortbread cookies) and finikia (cinnamon walnut cookies).
But the pound cake is her job.
“It’s not Greek,” friend and fellow festival volunteer Mary Belios said of the pound cake. “It’s just delicious.”
Belios and Rothman have known Christakos “all their lives” and said she has been baking pound cake for church fundraisers for as long as they can remember. Christakos herself isn’t sure how long she’s been doing it or why she chose to make pound cake in the first place.
“I just bake them,” she said.
And not just for the festival. Christakos usually has a pound cake ready and waiting in her refrigerator for friends and neighbors who stop by. She gives them to her doctors and brings them to funerals when someone passes away.
“I used to have a neighbor that said she was going to put a pipe from my kitchen to hers,” she said.
Christakos’ family emigrated from Greece to the United States in 1921. Her father built a house in Batesburg-Leesville, which Christakos still lives in, and opened a restaurant downtown.
Christakos worked at her father’s restaurant growing up, then had a 30-year career with SCE&G.
Now 91, Christakos is short and slightly stooped, with a halo of white hair. She lives alone and doesn’t have anyone in town to speak Greek with anymore. Her weekly trips to Holy Trinity in Columbia, about an hour’s drive, are important to her.
If she doesn’t see someone in church on Sunday, she’ll call them up and ask where they were, Belios said.
“She is the most precious little woman on earth.”
Christakos said her favorite part of the Greek Festival is working the bakery during the event. She can’t hear well enough to take customers’ orders, so she busies herself by refilling the trays of pastries. Until they’re gone, that is.
One year, an acquaintance came up to Christakos after the pound cakes had sold out, asking why Christakos hadn’t saved her one.
“I said, ‘You should have come sooner,” Christakos said.
“Next year, she was waiting at the door.”
If you go
WHAT: Columbia’s Greek Festival
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 1931 Sumter St.