Greek residents cook up take-home tastes of culture

Participants in the Fall Greek Fest, many of whom are members of Poughkeepsie’s 127 Greek families, help prepare authentic Greek cuisine for Poughkeepsie’s residents. The festival is entirely funded by donations and operated by volunteers, pictured above. Courtesy of Kimisis Greek Orthodox Church

It was a rainy Saturday, with a certain gravitas in the air. A hoodie-and-sweatpants kind of day, with a cup of mint green tea lifted from the Deece and a personal screening of “The Great British Bake Off.” On a scale from one to don’t-have-a-fall-festival, I would say it was closer to the don’t-have-a-fall-festival side. Fortunately, the patrons and volunteers of the Fall Greek Festival didn’t get the message.

On the afternoon of Sept. 4, I ascended the stairs to the Terrace Apartments and was happily surprised to see the white plastic sign with blue lettering advertising this year’s Fall Greek Festival. I immediately photographed the sign and sent it to the president of the Greek-Mediterranean Society with the text, “We should organize transportation to this.” A second later, two of my friends messaged me an image of the festival sign, saying, “Hey! Are we going to this?” 

Not gonna lie, I felt pure happiness, and that’s coming from a guy with an unsharpened set of emotions. I was thrilled that my friends wanted to take part in Greek culture and even more so that they reached out first. “Yes, of course—let’s all go!”

With a generous $15.60 allocation from VSA finance, the Greek-Mediterranean Society was able to easily secure the funding needed to retain a Safety and Security van. Great. I scratched that off the list, moving to the next step: advertising. With a little less than a week to go until the event, spreading the word was no small task, especially given the frequency with which Vassar students read their emails. In collaboration with the festival, we created signs to hang around campus. But we were really just banking on the fact that a historically respectable group of undergraduates momentarily abandoned their fastidious weekend homework grind for a gyro and maybe a baklava. 

With a final mass email from our VSA President, we began the gratifying task of taxiing folks to the festival grounds. The first shuttle at noon had slender attendance—actually no one showed up. An hour later, a handful of festival-goers materialized, so I rolled the sliding door shut and drove the 1.3 miles to the festival, a walkable distance indeed. Parking in the very first spot, in a quintessentially Vassarian style I said, “The shuttle leaves in an hour, but my schedule is pretty flexible so just let me know.” We then broke into a brisk walk through the lightly misting rain and headed in the direction of the large, white fair tent.

It’s fair to assume that for most, a Greek festival is about the food. Dutifully, we took our place in line for the register, toe-to-heel with Poughkeepsie’s biggest fans of Greek cuisine. In years past, I had been to the Kimisis Greek Orthodox Church and the Hellenic Community Center where the festival was held. The inside of the Church is as beautiful as I remembered, with a ceiling painted gold and adorned with gilded icons, but otherwise the Church and its community exude a humble reverence, a slower pace suited for reflection and prayer. This is why the electricity of their dining operation took me aback. In retrospect I feel silly, because diners occupy a significant role in the story of Greek immigration to America. 

An adjoining tent covered the outdoor kitchen, where chaos mixed with music and shouting. Centermost were 12 vertical broilers, where gyro meat spun on full display. Left of the register were six deep fryers, each cooking Greek fries, thickly cut potato wedges garnished with oregano, olive oil, lemon juice and feta cheese. In the back were three six-foot grills filled with hot coals, engaged in the searing of lamb chops. Finally, to the right of the register was the bar fully stocked with ouzo, Mythos, orange soda and lemonade all imported from Greece. At that moment my raison d’être was to enjoy a gyro. 

The majority of Vassar students that I spoke with had nothing but good words to share about the festival. But, for some Greek-Americans accustomed to big-city Greek festivals, Poughkeepsie’s version may have seemed a bit underwhelming. Here, “live music” didn’t actually mean live music— instead a husky Greek guy with stacks of CDs and a sweet sound system. 

But the Fall Greek Festival did not draw crowds for its glitz and glamor. The festival is entirely funded by donations and operated by volunteers. The smaller community of Poughkeepsie Greeks, 127 families strong, simply does not have resources on a Big Apple scale. Instead, festival-goers were embraced by neighborliness. For example, an elderly Greek woman, noticing my friend’s baffled expression, was elated to acquaint him with every dessert being offered. And when you mention studying at Vassar: “Oh, we love Vassar! We wish you luck. God bless!” It felt like I was back with my Yiayia and Papou.

A treasure trove of Greek pastries are enticingly displayed in aluminum trays. From left to right: galaktoboureko (custard pie), melopita (honey pie), braided bread, kourabiethes (shortbread cookies), koulourakia (butter cookies) and boxes of baklava.
Courtesy of Kimisis Greek Orthodox Church 

Before departing Saturday afternoon, I purchased a box of assorted pastries in a doggy bag for my housemates, brimming with baklava and melomakarono (which I nicknamed Greek Brownies when I was four). I wanted to share a part of me that they rarely experience, even though it’s a meaningful part of my identity. The baklava didn’t last until the next morning; apparently it was fantastic. I told them that I’ve had better—in fact, my Yiayia is an expert baklava baker—but regardless it warmed me to know that they enjoyed it. The Greek Brownies were not as well received. By no means was I upset, but surprised because the dessert remains my all-time favorite. Uncoincidentally, my Yiayia is also an expert at making Greek Brownies. If my friends are lucky, I’ll bring some from home and see if I can sway their thinking.  

As I write this, Monday looms ahead and homework is calling me back from my Greek escape. For a few hours this weekend I was in a different kind of home, where not everyone knows me but where everyone knows how to pronounce my name in Greek.

[Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that the Poughkeepsie Greek Festival does not have Greek dancers like the New York City Greek Festival; this sentence has been removed to reflect that the Poughkeepsie festival includes dancers.]

One Comment

  1. We do normally have the children/Greek Dancers but due to Back to School being so close to the festival they weren’t able to assemble a program schedule! They will be in Full effect in June!

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